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The Ongoing Joke About Women And Money Isn’t Funny Anymore

By Monica Drake

My husband has a habit of saying in public that I am “bad with money.” He’ll toss this out in conversation as though it’s common knowledge, expecting to be met with general agreement, not debate. If he were to write this in an essay in one of the college writing courses I teach, I’d scrawl, “unsupported assertion” in the margin, and send him back to collect research or delete the line. In the passing moments of daily life though, nobody asks for evidence.

I’ve stood at his side at children’s birthday parties and literary events when he’s said this out loud to my friends and family. I don’t think he means to be unkind. When he says it, either directly or through implication, it’s like he’s talking about somebody I don’t know. I almost feel sorry for him because he’s married to such a bumbling, financially inept woman.

But the beauty of that woman? She makes him feel extremely competent.

It’s a disembodied narrative embedded into the details of our life, an unoriginal story that isn’t actually about us as particular individuals with accomplishments, financial philosophies, values, and concerns. It’s a script. There’s a role at the heart of it: the wife, pretty and accomplished, but bad with money! She needs her husband to keep her head on straight. Somebody needs to take on the role, once you buy into the narrative, the way a tent pole holds up a tent, and I’ve been cast. I am that tent pole, holding up my side of things. I get it. Cue the laugh track.

What does this wife-character buy? Probably shoes, designer jeans, and hair products. (In the real world wife role, I fight back my waist-long hippie hair by fastening it under a simple, black, dime-store elastic band, cheap as they come. My favorite jeans cost $6 on a Target clearance rack.) She, this character, definitely buys organic groceries for their little one, because she’s afraid of toxic sprays on the child’s strawberries and carcinogens and hormones in milk — at least that part is true in both of these parallel realities.

What does the husband-character buy? Serious things. Stocks, insurance, booze, gasoline, and sandwiches. Most of all, I’d say, he buys into thin stereotypes.

Have you heard the joke about success and marriage? It goes like this: A successful man is one who makes more money than his wife can spend. A successful woman is one who can find such a man. Ba-da-boom.

For years, I’ve been earning more than my husband. I’m also the primary provider of childcare, there for our baby-turned-toddler-preschooler-preteen. I’ve been juggling a day job, creative work, housework, and parenting for over a decade and still going strong.

He reads money magazines. Month after month, these magazines cycle through headlines in a repetitive drama of financial anxiety and aging. It’s the manly equivalent of women’s magazines and their endless weight loss articles, hairstyles, and celebrity baby bumps. He is studying up on a culturally conditioned, never-ending gender play called Finances.

When he talks about money, I’d guess he’s thinking about characters from his magazines conflated with his own childhood. The larger sweep of the narrative arc through generations runs like this: Women are bad with money. This includes his mother, who, according to him, is the star of her own financial flop. It includes his sister, too. He’s written at least one essay about the financial turmoil of his mother’s existence and how his sister couldn’t see clearly enough to be of help. In this essay called “La-la Land,” published in an anthology called Citadel of the Spirit, he quotes his mother about her own finances, exploiting her private email to him in which she wrote, “I seem to be in a very tenuous situation and am having trouble getting myself to do what I need to do to get out of it.”

His mother plays the role of a damsel in distress threatened by the serious math of income.

I’d estimate she was about 20 years old, give or take a few, when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed back in 1974. That was the first time women in the United States, as a population, were federally ensured a chance to apply for their own line of credit regardless of marital status. As long as they qualified on financial terms, they were legally entitled to be considered for credit cards and home and car loans. With that act, female-humans were recognized as not inherently a bad credit risk simply based on being a woman. Yay, victory! Any young woman now who claims she’s not a feminist needs to give up her access to credit, including car loans, and see how alienated from modern life she becomes. If she prefers to have a credit card, even a Victoria’s Secret credit line, she’s a feminist. There’s no way around it. That’s how it works.

There’s money to be made in lending. It’s based on banks taking risk and collecting interest — a lot of interest. Being more egalitarian expanded the customer base of the lending industry. It was a win-win, boosting the lending business and (somewhat) leveling the financial market.

But before that? I would imagine it made certain men feel pretty important, pretty powerful, if they alone could access money they hadn’t yet earned, technically. That’s the definition of entitlement. They, these men, could be more than the breadwinners for a family; they could open doors to lines of credit for the ladies in their lives by marrying the women, the way their black counterparts might be denied. It wasn’t until 1976, two years after it was passed, that the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was amended to make sure banks were loaning to African-American and other minority consumers as well as women. What an era that must have been, for the privileged few!

We live on a street in Portland where women have been, and for the most part still are, the primary breadwinners of most of the households. Sometimes the financial anchor is a grandmother, though more often it’s a mother of a young child or children. Ours is a street of professionals, artists, and musicians carving out careers. We’ve been here since before gentrification moved in, and there’s something telling in the collective financial picture: This is the street a family could once afford, when a mother’s salary drove the household income. It was a street of African-American families, Latino families, and white and other families, but most often raising a family with the compromised wages of women’s earnings. Now the street has flipped. It’s hot property, featured in the New York Times. None of us could move in if we were starting again.

I bought my first house before I was married. During the five years I was an undergraduate, I borrowed a total of about $800, and I only borrowed that money the year I studied in Europe, because I needed a little extra to get by. In graduate school I was granted a full-ride scholarship, then paid to teach. I took on no loans, and came out ahead, with money in savings. Overall, I’m financially cautious. After grad school, I worked as a mortgage underwriter and analyzed the credit history of a steady stream of consumers. I calculated income and approved (or denied) loans for hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time. I made careful decisions for countless people regarding risk. I adored my amortization calculator, the tools and technology, and held that position until I went back to being a college professor.

When my first novel, Clown Girl, was optioned in Hollywood, I started having a different set of conversations. I talked to people in the film industry. One thing I learned? That for a woman of my age, a woman over 40, even the biggest movie stars grow less “bankable” by the year. Banks are less willing to lend money toward making films when the movie leans on the star power of older women. As a mortgage underwriter, I looked at appraised value of homes, based on size, location, and condition. The film industry was doing the same, but without the official appraisal. It’s a literal calculation of a woman’s talent and value.

One way to work around this age and gender bias? Apparently the industry will fit a number of older women in a script, making it an ensemble, to increase the “bankability” of the project. This, I was told, is why there are movies about packs of older women, traveling together, throwing weddings for their children, bunching up; it takes several aging female stars to get a loan to fund production.

It’s a financial devaluation of accomplished women as they age, like a good car driven off the lot.

I’ve been working steadily at one job or another since Carter lost to Reagan, when I was under legal working age and still scored a spot as a phone solicitor. I have a savings account, a checking account, a retirement account, a strong credit history, and steady income. My car is paid for, which I count as a win because I’m not paying excessive interest.

I was in London in the ’80s, when the first ATM linked to my U.S. bank account was newly installed in that city. I wrote airmail letters home, saying, “It comes out in pounds!” I could withdraw my American dollars, and the machine made the international exchange. It was awesome. Now it’s common. In other words, I’ve been using money since the dark ages. I’m so comfortable with making financial decisions, and so competent, that I forget entirely about the personae my husband is crafting for me, between mentions.

He’ll add, “She’s an impulsive spender,” and give a nod, inviting anyone listening to nod along in social convention. My heart grows heavy when I hear myself labeled and packaged in the wrong packaging. I’ll sip my drink, try to look at ease, and hope we can sort out his misconceptions later.

It’s unnervingly easy for a false narrative to sink into ordinary life without a hitch or question when it aligns with standard assumptions — in this case assumptions about women and finances, women and math, women and shopping, and women as irrational. Hello, nexus of sexism!

Have you heard the joke about the woman economist? Of course not! Who talks about women economists?

I try to imagine myself declaring my husband “bad with money” in public, and simply can’t.

Money is power. When people tell you you’re not good with money, what they mean is they don’t want you to be comfortable with the ordinary exchange of power in capitalism, in large bills or small. They don’t want you to trust your instincts in accessing one of the few routes to an approximate personal freedom: finances.

There’s a strange, endless series of loops for the ladies involving access to funding, the power of cash and credit. Women are still generally paid on the whole less than men for comparable labor. Earning less has the potential to reduce their lines of credit, because income is weighed against debt in calculating risk.

In 1978, Joyce Carol Oates published a collection of poetry with the remarkable title, Women Whose Lives are Food, Men Whose Lives are Money. Oates’ collection was published four years after the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The title illuminates a persistent cultural flaw. I’m glad I saw the spine of that book back when I was a child. It’s made my life better. Those words have kept me from buying into a shoddy paradigm.

Over the years, when I’ve asked my husband what he’d like to do about dinner, he invariably answers, “I haven’t thought about it.”

He’s been eating dinner for almost 50 years. Who will think about his dinner, if not him? His mother, his sister, his wife?

I could sink into this model, becoming a woman whose life is food, married to a man whose life is money, but I hold Oates’ title in mind. I love food. I’m good with finances. Life is bigger and richer than either of those two driving concerns.

When my husband is financially anxious, I let him manage our accounts. Money is always in the guise of practicality but really it’s laden with emotion. It’s all about feelings.

He wants to feel in control. I let him. Money is control. When I grant him jurisdiction over our spending, I’m doing the emotional work of recognizing his needs. There are ways to be generous with money, and ways to emit a steady wave of anxiety. He was raised in a financially insecure household, I get it, and he’s assuaging his childhood insecurities and helplessness by crunching the numbers. I understand. But then again, who among us, the former middle class, wasn’t raised in such a household? This isn’t unique. It’s common as dirt.

I don’t mind when he balances the checkbook. He keeps a tight budget though, and that often involves shifting daily expenses for our household and our child to my side of the table, but he’s investing our money for our future, so it’s okay. I appreciate it. I appreciate all of it — except the packaged narrative.

To be good with money doesn’t mean another person is necessarily bad with it, as though to underscore and define the parameters by creating a dichotomy. Real power isn’t about putting another demographic down. It’s about freedom and being able to see the world without false constructs. It’s about letting go of sexism, racism, bias.

But marriage is a negotiation of narrative, and like employment, it tells at best half of the long, complex story of who you are, who you’ve been.

There’s nothing remarkably bad or distinguishing about my credit history, my use of money, or my financial decisions. I know that truth very well. I’m not the cliché of boobs and a vagina in stilettos buying into empty materialism, chasing brands, out to impress the neighbors. Not at all. My husband is leveraging cultural assumptions for his own reasons, and maybe he really believes the stories he spins, locked in some childhood nightmare. Women’s lives are always circumscribed by false narratives — maybe all lives are, but in this case, it’s my life. I don’t take it personally. The story and idea of me as bad with money is an abstraction. But the larger picture is important: Women are capable of being in charge of their own investments, by the minute and by the dollar.

I’m not the only woman trapped under the weight of this ongoing cultural joke.