Depression is Not a Feminist Issue

by Mary Jackson (April 2008)

I bought a new mattress last month. Too much information, I know, but there is a point to it. With it came one of those “Care of your new …” leaflets. The leaflet advised me to turn the mattress over regularly, otherwise it would “develop depressions”. Well, we can’t have that, can we? I promise to keep my mattress happy, even if this turns me into one of those “women who juggle their lives”. And “women who juggle their lives” come to no good.


Dennis Prager writes in on the subject of women’s depression. When I started reading his piece, I wondered how long it would be before he mentioned the F-word. Four short paragraphs in, there it was:

Assuming that any new phenomenon — in this case, much higher rates of depression among women — suggests a new cause, the major new cause can only be the consequences of feminism.  

There you have it. If only we women had stayed in the kitchen, unable to vote, get the same education as men, earn as much as men, buy a property, or control our fertility we’d all be as happy as Larry.


“I’ll just die if I don’t get that recipe. I’ll just die if I don’t get that recipe.” Gosh, I feel better already. Perhaps I would feel even happier if I lived in a country untouched by the ravages of feminism: Saudi Arabia, for example.


Dennis Prager has a valid point, which is that rising expectations make for unhappiness. But doesn’t this apply to men as well as women? Low expectations may keep us content, but they can also make us complacent and, worse still, fatalistic. Feminism has not been an unalloyed good; few changes are solely for the better. But I do not believe it is the main cause of “rising depression” among women. Feminism aside, I would take issue with the very wording of the piece, and of the women themselves, that is with the word “depressed”.

Women generally talk about their feelings more than men do. In the past they might have described themselves as “sad” or “fed up” or said things like “mustn’t grumble”. Now, when unhappy or disappointed – and nobody can avoid unhappiness or disappointment – they are more likely to say they are “depressed” and, as Theodore Dalrymple knows only too well, to demand a pill for it. In his article, written for the March 2008 edition of the New English Review, Dalrymple praises a book by sociology professors A. V. Horwitz and J. C. Wakefield with an eloquent title: The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder.      

They point out what should have been obvious to any person with the most minimal knowledge of human nature, that the definition of depression in [the American Psychiatric Association] manual is complete disassociated human mood from the actual lived circumstances in which it was experienced. It was sufficient to be diagnosed from depression to have a certain number of symptoms for a certain length of time: two whole weeks!


Of course some people, male and female, suffer from clinical depression. But the word is overused, when “unhappiness” would be better. I have been unhappy many times, but fortunately I have not suffered from depression. Those who have tell me that they couldn’t feel unhappiness, any more than they could feel happiness. They felt listless, empty and numb.


Why should we wish to be happy all the time? I like Peter Ustinov’s urbane response to the stereotypically American and increasingly British exhortation: “Have a nice day!” “No thanks,” said Ustinov, “I have other plans.” What sometimes grates about “Have a nice day” is that somebody is instructing you to be happy. Perhaps you don’t want to be. Perhaps you shouldn’t be.


In some schools in the UK, children have “happiness lessons”. Carol Sarler, writing in The Sunday Times, was sceptical:

We may preach an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. It is far from the same as a right to attain it.

The […] truth, disturbingly denied in the vogue to kill off bleak thoughts, is that it is proper, sane and sensible to respond to bad things by feeling bad. […] Sometimes nothing ever hurts again quite like the moment when the best friend is unfaithful and elopes with another, during the lunch hour, down to the illicit chip shop; lessons, again, in rejection and loneliness.

Wretched? Of course. Wrong to be? No. Normal, rational, healthy. But why should we interfere with it? If it is not a sickness and if there is no pathology, then by definition it needs neither treatment nor cure.  

Feminism has given women more choices, and perhaps those choices have made us discontented. But that is not a clinical matter. Neither women nor men should call themselves “depressed” when they are in fact sad, lonely, frightened, restless, dissatisfied or angry. Depression is not a feminist issue.

This article was first published in Pajamas Media in March 2008.

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