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You’ll have the boys a-lining up single file
If you just wear your smile.
Cass Elliot, “When I Just Wear My Smile” (1969)
As mask mandates eased across the United States, many women bemoaned the inevitable return of one of the more insidious banalities of misogyny: men telling them to smile. COVID-19 masking had offered a kind of consciousness-raising for many women, the absence of the requirement to smile in public making stark their habitual, constant emotional labor. One woman told a reporter for the Daily Beast, “Best thing about the masks is that men can’t tell me to smile when I’m out in public.” Another said she planned to continue wearing masks despite changes to the rules in her community, because “it’s just so nice and freeing to be able to decide whether to smile or not, just based on how I feel personally.”
These women’s comments were reminiscent of remarks made by Women’s Liberation activist Shulamith Firestone, who explained in her foundational 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex: “My ‘dream’ action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.” Firestone’s use of the term “pleasing” remains machete-sharp, slicing through both sides of the compulsory smile interaction. A woman is “pleasing” to look at because she is smiling, and she is “pleasing” the man because he expects her to. At base, Firestone argues, the woman’s smile “indicates acquiescence of the victim to her own oppression.” And, if a man doesn’t get it—on the subway, at work, in the cereal aisle at the grocery, in class, at a club, walking down the street—he demands it. “You should smile more.” “Come on, lady, smile!” “Lighten up!” “You have Resting Bitch Face.” “Why are you so angry?” “Your clients/coworkers/boss would find you more approachable if you smiled more.” “Smile, bitch!”
Fortunately, our popular culture is finally starting to rally behind the position that men must stop telling women to smile. At the same time, however, a prominent subfield of psychology known as Positive Psychology, which purports to be the science of the good life, continues to insist that people—and especially women—should smile.
In 2001 psychologists LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner published the findings of their study on smiling in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The question the study sought to answer was simple: Was it possible to look at women’s college yearbook photos and from them make predictions about their future happiness? Yes, the Berkeley psychologists concluded, it was. Their predictions hinged on whether the women were smiling. But not just smiling; they had to be giving the camera (and the photographer behind it) an authentic smile—what supermodel Tyra Banks would call a “smize,” a smile that reaches the eyes. This “true” smile, the researchers contended, indicated that the subject was experiencing positive emotions like happiness or joy. And what proved that these smiling women went on to experience lives of true happiness and well-being? In addition to their self-reports, the women hadn’t stayed single beyond the age of twenty-seven and had divorce-free marriages.
This all may seem self-evidently ridiculous, or at least very far down on a list of the world’s current problems, but this study—and the research movement it emerged from—have serious repercussions. Positive Psychology remains a leading school of thought in academic psychology, clinical therapy, management and organizational consulting, and coaching. With its interdisciplinary bedfellow Happiness Studies, Positive Psychology represents a large share of self-help books released every year, a publishing market worth about $10.5 billion in the United States in 2020, which itself represents only a small sliver of the billions generated annually by the global mental wellness industry. Since November 2008, luminaries of Positive Psychology, including its founder Martin E.P. Seligman, have worked with the U.S. Army to implement service-wide resilience training, despite a lack of evidence that the program offers soldiers any benefit. Other initiatives run by the field’s disciples stretch into health care, education, law, policing, human resources, international relief, and design. In short, tens of millions of people around the world are impacted directly by Positive Psychology. It matters, then, that we ask how it gave birth to such a seemingly unscientific idea as a “true” smile, and through that inquiry consider how its patriarchal assumptions of what constitutes “happiness” came to be enshrined in the science of psychology.
Fair warning: like so many stories of misogyny, the tale involves a hot tub.
Positive Psychology’s official history is a Great Man story. It begins in 1998 when University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman gave his inaugural address as the new president of the American Psychological Association, “Building Human Strength: Psychology’s Forgotten Mission.” He argued that since World War II, the field had become too narrowly focused on mental illness and suffering; as well, it had been “sidetracked” by the priorities of research funders, including the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. As president of the APA, he was announcing a new set of priorities “to reorient psychology to its two neglected missions, making normal people stronger and more productive as well as making high human potential actual.” Seligman called the new field to be guided by these concerns “Positive Psychology.”
Now just two decades in, Positive Psychology has claimed significant conceptual and research space in the wider disciplinary worlds of psychology and academic social science generally, especially economics. Psychologists in the field have become the go-to consultants for governmental health care agencies, militaries, police, NGOs, and corporations. But Positive Psychology has also garnered substantial criticism, and not only for its imperious claims to novelty (Albert Maslow, of “hierarchy of needs” fame, had called for “a Positive Psychology” in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality). Critics of Positive Psychology note how it embraces a neoliberal logic that shifts the onus of unhappiness and inequality away from larger systems onto individual behavior, making sadness a matter of “mindset,” personal responsibility, and choice. Positive Psychology lends the language and authority of “science”—“data,” “evidence-based,” “universal,” “fact”—to a highly subjective and ideologically driven version of what constitutes common values, individual strengths, and a good life. In the end, critics charge, its ultimate aim is to assimilate people at their deepest levels to the inequities, oppression, stress, and thwarted aspirations of neoliberal capitalism, privatization, austerity, and the gig economy.
Less well-explored have been the field’s insidious assumptions that happiness and well-being are fundamentally tied to normative gender roles, heterosexual monogamy, family values, Christian ethics, white supremacy, American exceptionalism, and militarism. With the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the legalization of same-sex marriage, this has been expanded to include homonormative marriage and some gays’ and lesbians’ military service.
None of this is surprising if one considers who joined Seligman in the Caymans in 1998 for Positive Psychology’s grand strategy launch meeting. In his recent memoir, The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism (2018), Seligman paints a remarkable picture of the new subfield’s founding moments. He describes two different private funders reaching out to him with offers of financial support to develop positive psychology after his inaugural APA speech. The first was the chairman of opinion poll company Gallup, Inc., Donald Clifton. Clifton had been a professor of educational psychology before leaving academia in the late 1960s to start a personnel selection firm that pioneered the use of personality testing in hiring. The second was John Templeton, Jr., on behalf of the John Templeton Foundation and his father, a billionaire investor-turned-philanthropist looking to support work probing the “big questions” arising at the intersections of science and religion.
Clifton offered Seligman the use of his vacation home (and its hot tub) on Grand Cayman Island for a working group meeting of “the best people in the world to steer positive psychology.” This group would include Clifton and Seligman, as well as a number of academic psychologists. These included Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of “flow” fame; Edward Diener, originator of the concept of “subjective well-being”; Dan Robertson, author of Aristotle’s Psychology (1999); George Valliant, long-time director of Harvard’s longitudinal Study of Adult Development; and a graduate student of Seligman’s, Derek Isaacowitz, who was invited to serve as secretary. The group was joined by two scholars from other fields: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor specializing in civility and politics and the founding director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center; and libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick, best known for his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). As Seligman puts it, “In the huge hot tub outside Don’s condo, the cast of characters soaked.” Notably, everyone in the hot tub except for the younger Isaacowitz was a white American professor over the age of fifty, and all save Jamieson were men.
The working group agreed upon three research areas falling under Positive Psychology’s mission of increasing well-being by “making normal people stronger and more productive.” These were “positive experience,” “civic fulfillment,” and “positive traits.” Seligman’s elaboration of these resonates with idealized notions of the American Dream and its pursuit of happiness. Positive experiences are “denoted [by] what free people who are not suffering choose” to do and seek. This is supported—civically fulfilled—by “positive institutions that allow for well-being,” including “democracy, free press, strong families, and volunteering.” Finally, “positive traits” names the personal qualities that make positive experience possible. While there was debate on the matter, Seligman claims that all agreed eventually to the existence of common traits or ways “to think and behave that transcend time and situation” and that Positive Psychology should encourage research on the “universality of goodness.”
Over time, this version of universal traits and goodness has incorporated an express argument against cultural relativism, marshalling “evidence-based science” to claim that much of human psychology is universal, only changing at an evolutionary pace. Consequently, Positive Psychology’s luminaries insist, there must then also exist universal values, social formations, institutions, and ethics that define what constitutes the good life—and that one can identify with scientific precision what is true, good, and timeless.
Dacher Keltner and LeeAnne Harker began their study of smiling women in 1999, the year that Gallup, Inc., hosted the inaugural Positive Psychology summit at the corporation’s headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska. Harker was a doctoral student; the yearbook smiles study was her dissertation research. Keltner was a newly promoted associate professor of social psychology. He studied positive emotions as evolutionary adaptations that enabled sociality and flourishing in a way similar to the more familiar argument that tendencies toward negative emotionality and cognitions—“negativity bias”—were inherited from early humans who needed constant vigilance to survive. Negativity kept people alive, while positivity made that life worth living. Today, Keltner is a full professor and the founding director of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. He is author of several popular books, has appeared in a number of films, hosts the award-winning podcast The Science of Happiness, and has served in high-profile consulting positions, including for Google’s Empathy Research Lab and the design team at Facebook that created its Reactions feature that replaced the single “Like” button. He also advised Pixar’s 2015 blockbuster Inside Out.
Since the start of his career in 1989, Keltner has been part of the effort within psychology to shift focus to how positive cognitions and emotionality could counter the effects of negative ones. These efforts, like Positive Psychology, are legacies of North American psychology’s disciplinary shift from strict adherence to B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism to theories of cognitive behavior positing that negative cognitions fuel negative emotions leading to depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. In this view, overcoming mental illness hinges on disrupting habitual negative thinking (“cognitive distortions”). The extremely popular treatment modality called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is perhaps the best-known member of this family tree.
These shifts in psychology accompanied a growing consensus in the field that there exist six primary universal human emotions, identical across cultures and time: Happiness, Surprise, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear. Alongside these emotions came the identification of the “Big Five” universal dimensions of personality: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism. These claims to fundamental commonalities among humans developed in tandem with simultaneous efforts within and outside of the field to diversify and dismantle the sexism, racism, homophobia, and various cultural ethnocentrisms endemic to experimental and clinical psychology—highlighting the complex entwining of reactionary and liberal impulses to shore up presumptive equations of white, Western, straight, and male with the general category Human, on the one hand, while tethering diversity to assertions that underneath it all everyone is essentially the same.
The positive emotions work of fellow social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson was key to Keltner’s own research interests, including his study on yearbook smiles. If Seligman is the “Father of Positive Psychology,” as his celebrants claim, Fredrickson is its undisputed mother and a dominant force in the field today. She published her foundational “broaden and build” theory shortly before Seligman’s appeal to members of the APA, identifying positive emotions as key to human flourishing. Positive emotions, she contends, expand or broaden people’s senses of their options, leading to more creative actions and solutions. In the deep past, “this served to build our ancestors’ resources, spurring on their development of assets, abilities, and useful traits,” explains Fredrickson in her popular book Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive (2009). The book’s subtitle states plainly the meaning of this for people today. Positive emotional expressions are dynamic; they accumulate and propel individuals in an “upward spiral” of growth, happiness, and fulfillment and make them better able to manage and learn from hard times (“post-traumatic growth”). Fredrickson was the only woman invited to present her own research at the Nebraska summit in 1999 and was awarded the inaugural John Templeton Positive Psychology Prize in 2000.
Smiles aren’t just indicative or predictive of positive life outcomes, claims Fredrickson, but actually generate them. She has applied this theory to everything from faster recovery from the physical manifestations of anger, fear, and sadness to reductions in heart disease, greater cancer survival rates, and living longer with HIV/AIDS. Barbara Ehrenreich, one of Positive Psychology’s most trenchant critics, has challenged positive psychology’s influence on health care in the United States in Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (2009). In the UK, her book was published under the more pointed title: Smile or Die.
Although the yearbook smiles study would be celebrated as an early part of the Positive Psychology vanguard, it actually drew upon the very old and contested concept of the “Duchenne Smile.” The moniker was coined in the early 1970s by Paul Ekman, who supervised a young Keltner’s postdoc and is credited by many with confirming the existence of basic human emotions signaled by facial expressions common to all—meaning, Ekman claims, they are biological and evolutionary rather than historically contingent cultural forms. This marked a return of sorts to the theories outlined by Charles Darwin in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), and even more to the earlier work of Darwin’s contemporary, French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne who published The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression in 1862. Duchenne’s book uses photographs to illustrate how individual muscles of the face move to create different expressions, and classifies what those expressions mean. He innovated the use of what he termed électrisation localisée—attaching electrodes to the muscles of the face to manipulate them artificially—a forerunner of today’s electrophysiology. It was a painful process for Duchenne’s subjects; his book is literally a catalog of tortured expressions.
The smile that would come to bear Duchenne’s name a century later is characterized by the motions of two pairs of muscles: the zygomatic majors lifting the cheeks and turning up the corners of the mouth—the motion of an iconic smile—and the orbicularis oculi that squeeze the eyes creating “crow’s feet” at their edges. Without the latter movement, in the French neurologist’s taxonomy, one is left with a “fake,” unfelt, or merely polite smile. Another element distinguishing the true smile is spontaneity: a fake smile “obeys the will” while an authentic one is “only put into play by the sweet emotions of the soul,” Duchenne writes. Ekman, Keltner, and Fredrickson concur, arguing that the Duchenne smile is a reliable indicator of authentic positive emotion because it cannot be faked.
The central hypothesis of the yearbook smiles study was that “positive emotional expression” indicated by the presence of a Duchenne smile would “predict higher levels of well-being across adulthood.” This was premised on the idea that differences in emotional expression relate to stable aspects of personality, traits that remain constant across time and situation. It should follow, the scholars contended, that one instance of positive emotional expression signaled a lifetime of them.
Unlike with many psychology experiments, Keltner and Harker never directly interacted with the subjects of their yearbook smiles study. Rather, all had been participants in the Mills College Longitudinal Study. Run by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality and Assessment Research (IPAR), it followed graduates of Mills College to track what happened to them throughout adulthood. For their own study, Keltner and Harker examined the Mills women’s 1958–60 yearbook photos and compared conclusions about the smiles contained therein with information from the longitudinal study about how their lives had, in their estimation, turned out. Using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) created by Ekman and a colleague in 1978, Harker and Keltner mapped the expressions of each woman pictured. Of the 114 images they were able to code, all but three of the subjects were smiling. Fifty of the women—just shy of half—were coded as expressing Duchenne smiles.
At no point in their 2001 article do Keltner and Harker offer demographic information for their subjects, beyond sex and average age, despite having this information at hand. Instead, the uniform whiteness and socioeconomic status of the “women” goes unmarked as they are treated as a singular, representative category: the universal Woman. This absence of intersectional understandings gains more meaning when placed in its context: at the same time that Keltner and Harker were writing, the University of California system, and Berkeley in particular, was at the center of national struggles over multicultural education, identity politics, and the dismantling of affirmative action. In short, the psychologists’ failure to even remark upon the limitations of their sample is clearly a choice.
The implications of this silence on the part of Keltner and Harker are compounded by the fact that the Mills Longitudinal Study had its own complex relationship to race, gender, and midcentury misogyny. Mills was a small women’s college in Oakland, just a few miles away from Berkeley’s campus. In the late 1950s, its students were mostly white, well-off if not wealthy, and tended to hail from the new suburban communities sprouting up across California and surrounding states in the mid-century. Betty Friedan would single out Mills as an example of how “women’s education” at all but the most elite institutions had been warped into training for housewives.
The Mills Longitudinal Study launched in 1959 with a day-long trip to Berkeley’s campus, where—as even Keltner and Harker note—every assessor save for the study’s director, Ravenna Helson, was a man. The women spent the entire day with these men and Helson, being interviewed by them and scrutinized as they interacted with their peers and completed personality inventories. From this, the assessors compiled personality profiles of each of the women. Qualities noted in the women’s dossiers included whether they “appreciate[d] humor,” which Keltner and Harker use as an indicator of positive emotionality in the subjects’ day-to-day lives. But the women’s files make no note of whether the humor was funny—or, for that matter, how an attempt at humor by a male assessor might have landed in the context of a day that must have felt like the weirdest group blind date ever, complete with an older female chaperone. In a later description of the atmosphere of the day, Keltner could just as well have been describing a school dance when he notes, “Women with warm smiles made much more favorable impressions upon the scientists.” This casts Q-sort items like response to humor in a different light. Were the women experiencing positive emotions, or were they performing normative femininity by letting a man think he was funny? The scenario recalls how, in A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf ruefully remarks that a man’s “power to believe in himself” is reliant upon the affirmation of women. “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” This, Woolf’s metaphor suggests, is why men expect women to smile at them, and lash out if they don’t.
Indeed, the entire context of the original information gathering was peculiar. Berkeley’s IPAR had been founded ten years earlier in 1949 by a psychologist who had spent the war working for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, identifying men who would make good spies. He was renowned for his use of unconventional methods of personality assessment, including administering an early iteration of the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. IPAR was established to develop a better understanding of the traits that make successful, creative people tick, and in turn how those traits could be leveraged to bolster the “American way of life” and postwar national security. IPAR’s mission was soon folded into serving the imperatives of the emergent Cold War—into identifying the character traits of American exceptionalism in order to defeat the Red Threat. The similarities to Positive Psychology’s goals fifty years later are striking.
Striking as well is that IPAR’s headquarters had a gendered history not unlike Positive Psychology’s founding hot tub party: IPAR’s building had previously been a fraternity house, which became a kind of extended joke at the institute. Their unique process of personality assessment involved conducting what were known internally as “house parties,” during which groups of ten to twelve subjects would spent three days together under twenty-four-hour scrutiny by staff—almost a kind of hazing. Helson, who would go on to direct the Mills Longitudinal Study, was, for decades, the only woman at these “parties.” As Merve Emre notes in The Personality Brokers (2018), many of the internal reports prepared by IPAR staff list by name every faculty member, researcher, and grad student involved—all of the men—but often call Helson simply “the woman,” despite her professional standing. And it was many of these same men and “the woman” who participated in the day-long, compressed version of the assessment for the participants in the Mills Study, producing the reports that Keltner and Harker used in their own study forty years later.
Keltner and Harker sought to generate contemporaneous observational assessments of the Mills women’s photographs. To do so, they hired undergraduates from their intro classes to participate for extra credit. Some of the questions put to these students may as well have asked them to swipe left or right: they were told to draw conclusions about the women’s personalities and “interpersonal impact” based solely on what they thought of their photos. This included instructing them to score on a scale from 1 to 5 whether they agreed or disagreed with these four statements: “I would be interested in getting to know her,” “I would avoid interacting with her,” “I think I would like her,” and “I feel I could trust her.”
Despite its many obvious design flaws, Keltner and Harker’s study is still commonly cited by researchers and taught in classrooms. What is often singled out about the study is the connecting line it draws between happiness and success in heterosexual marriage. Shortly after the publication of Harker’s and Keltner’s findings, the APA featured it as not-to-be-missed research in a piece titled “College Photos Indicate Later Personality Development and Marital Success.” In his first popular book for the self-help market, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (2002), Seligman describes the study this way: Harker and Keltner “wondered if they could predict from the senior-year smile alone what these women’s married lives would turn out to be like. Astonishingly, Duchenne women, on average, were more likely to be married, to stay married, and to experience more personal well-being over the next thirty years.” The elision to “Duchenne women” as a type is telling, as is Seligman’s narrowing of focus to the women’s marriages. Seligman continues to point to the yearbook smiles study as an early success of Positive Psychology, as does Barbara Fredrickson, who cited it as recently as this year to support arguments about the relationship impacts of a positive partner.
One of the most disconcerting examples of the study’s reach is Marianne LaFrance’s use of it in her popular science book Why Smile? The Science Behind Facial Expressions (2011). Professor emerita of psychology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale, Lafrance has been a leading feminist voice in social psychology for decades. Much of her work has focused on the coercive power of patriarchy that makes women’s positive emotionality obligatory. Indeed, her criticism of the kind of work they do no doubt explains Keltner and Harker’s failure to cite her in their own study. Nonetheless LaFrance’s Why Smile? appeals to their study as persuasive evidence, suggesting the extent to which its findings have been thoroughly loosed from the specious quality of the research and its misogynist foundations.
At least the Duchenne smile itself has recently been challenged by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, who say they have proven that the “smize” indicates nothing more than intensity, including when one is forcing a smile. The Duchenne smile, they argue, can always be—and often is—“fake.” It remains to be seen whether the luminaries of Positive Psychology will respond to this challenge to a core doctrine of their field.
For her part, Helson, who died in 2020, was acutely aware of the gendered limitations of her Mills Longitudinal Study. She described her own experience at IPAR and Berkeley as one of daily confrontation with systemic patriarchy and its attendant frustrations, humiliations, and career roadblocks. By the 1980s, she availed herself of the fact that the longitudinal nature of her study permitted a course correction. When she reached out to the Mills research subjects in 1980 to collect the third round of assessments, Helson solicited more nuanced qualitative data, providing opportunities for subjects to address the dramatic society-level changes that had taken place within their lifetimes. She noted that in 1959 the study’s subjects had “internalized the narrow margins of a woman’s acceptable life—to be married to a promising young man, start a family, and find fulfillment in the homemaker role,” adding that, as college students, “ALL of the Mills women wrote that they expected to marry, and nearly all expected children. Those seeking careers were in the minority, and felt their marginality.” Thereafter, Helson’s research publications began to address these issues and the impacts of the radical movements of the late 1960s and ’70s on the Mills women in midlife and later.
In this way, Helson can perhaps best be contextualized as a colleague of Betty Friedan’s. The landmark works of both women share a similar methodology. Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique, credited with jumpstarting the “second wave” of American feminism, was based on data not dissimilar from that collected by Helson: Friedan had spent the late 1950s gathering information about the marriages, families, work, and social lives of the 1942 graduates of another women’s college, Smith, a class to which Friedan herself belonged. Compared to the early decades of the Mills study, Friedan, of course, draws a very different set of conclusions about women’s happiness, life outcomes, and well-being. Friedan’s “happy housewife heroines” were isolated in lives of quiet, suburban misery, trapped in a gender role that stifled them, overeducated, bored, unfulfilled, and certain there must be something wrong with them because being wives and mothers wasn’t enough.
This comparison to Friedan’s second-wave feminism throws light on the not-so-carefully disguised conservative qualities of Positive Psychology, as does its resonance with the work of conservative women in the 1970s emergent New Right. These are the women who in large part set the parameters of the ongoing culture wars, and who proved their political potency with the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. They were led by Phyllis Schlafly, a savvy, hard-right Republican political operative who stretched the confines of traditional womanhood while mobilizing them as the root of her power and authority. To counter liberal feminists like Friedan and women’s liberationists like Shulamith Firestone, she appealed to The Power of the Positive Woman (1977). In the book, she describes women’s and men’s roles as naturally distinct and grounded in biology. Against feminists, she argues—as Positive Psychology would later—that women’s discontent is all about their own mindsets, not systems:
The Positive Woman in America today has a near infinite ability to control her own destiny, to reach new heights of achievement, and to motivate and influence others. Her potential is limited only by the artificial barriers erected by a negative view of herself or by the stultifying myths of the women’s liberation movement.
Schlafly offers marital advice that in decades to come will be echoed by Seligman, Fredrickson, and Keltner. “With the high divorce rates today, is a happy, lifetime marriage a realistically attainable goal?” queries Schlafly rhetorically. “Of course it is—if you have a positive mental attitude.” This extends to her two pillars of a long, happy marriage: the second “is cheerfulness. No other quality can do so much to ensure a happy marriage as a happy disposition.” And the first? “A wife must appreciate and admire her husband,” in a way that he can see and feel. Surely this includes responding favorably to his humor.
Schlafly didn’t invent the caricature of the angry feminist—ugly, unable to get a man, and deeply unhappy, leading her to lash out at normal, joyful women—but she gave it steroids. In her own work, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed recuperates this figure as the “feminist killjoy,” a righteously pissed-off, critical woman who refuses patriarchy’s inducements to cheerfulness and congeniality. For Ahmed, she is a courageous freedom fighter willing to pay the not-insignificant price for refusing to shut up and just smile. I can’t stop thinking about the three Mills women in Harker and Keltner’s study who had failed to smile at all for their yearbook pictures. I hope they were the cranky feminist killjoys of Mills College who refused to smile when they were told to.
Micki McElya is Professor of History at the University of Connecticut specializing in the histories of women, gender, sexuality, and racial formation in the United States from the Civil War to the present, with an emphasis on political culture and memory. She is author of Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America (2007) and The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery (2016), which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. McElya is currently at work on her next book, No More Miss America! How Protesting the 1968 Pageant Changed a Nation, to be published by Avid Reader Press (Simon & Schuster). This work is supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar grant.
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