On the current New York Times bestseller list is a book by Tori Dunlap titled Financial Feminist: Get Over the Patriarchy Bullshit to Master Your Money and Build a Life You Love. It’s been written from an American point of view, but it’s still amazing, even in the 21st century, to find that so many women feel uncomfortable, if not completely ignorant, about money matters.
Ms Dunlap, who is a personal finance coach and social media influencer behind the ‘Her First $100K’ podcast and website, writes lucidly on the subject of women and money, and many of her observations seem certain.
A hazy memory floated through my mind, of watching the women haggle with the fruit and vegetable vendors in the market, even though some of them had gotten out of chauffeured cars. In addition to the sheer enjoyment of the verbal exchange, when one woman was asked she explained that the money they saved belonged to them. When women were mostly housewives, they were given a budget for household expenses and some extras, but they had no money of their own. For small gifts for themselves (cosmetics or fancy lingerie) or for the children, they didn’t want to ask their husbands for money and then have to explain why they needed that item or why they were spending so much. Every middle-class woman would have a little secret stash in a kitchen bin. Even today, when so many women work outside the home, not many have control over their income. Their salaries go only for household items, and they are given an allowance for transportation and food.
In the old days, women—at least middle-class North Indian women like my mother—didn’t do ‘outside’ work. The men did the vegetable shopping on their way home from work, and once a month grain and other essentials were ordered from the neighborhood kiranawala. Some money was set aside for entertainment and medical expenses. The rest went to a bank, the account usually in the husband’s name. (Although some enlightened men, like my father, made sure his wife and daughter had their own bank accounts.) It was believed that it was rude or rude to talk about money with people outside of the family.
The way money rules have been set up, many women are still uncomfortable spending on themselves and have no idea about investing. Considering that we live in a full-fledged materialistic society, there is also a strange reluctance to talk about money casually. Ms Dunlap writes: “The hook of humility is the reason why people (and especially women) avoid saying anything that implies that we would want to be rich: Who am I to admit that money is a priority for me? , instead of something more noble? A recent study indicated that women are also more prone to experience shame, ‘in part due to social and cultural standards imposed on women that create negative self-evaluations in women when those standards are not met.'”
There is also the reality of the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap, which means that a vast majority of women simply have less money to spend, let alone save or invest. They still do not have the power to negotiate better terms and the situation is much worse in the unorganized sector. In the US, until 1974, women couldn’t even have a credit card in their name without a male cosigner, and until 1988, they couldn’t get a business loan, again without a male cosigner.
There is also the social conditioning by which women are always portrayed as motherly and self-sacrificing. Ms Dunlap cites a 2017 study in the journal Nature, which found that women’s brains showed a greater response when they shared money, while in men, the same part of the brain showed more activity when they kept the money. . “This default nature of giving and selflessness is an expectation of our gender,” she writes.
This also means, she points out, that women are then overrepresented in care jobs such as teaching, nursing and domestic work, which are overwhelmingly underpaid, or do unpaid domestic work. In countries where the son is valued more, parents tend to spend more on their son’s higher education and girls are expected to learn housework. Psychology professor Judith Elaine Blakemore, quoted in the book, found that “girls’ toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing and domestic skills, while boys’ toys were rated as violent, competitive, exciting and somewhat dangerous.
Popular culture, which reflects societal attitudes, continues to present wealth-seeking or ambitious women in a negative light. In India, men are the ones who demand the dowry, however the term gold digger is always used for the woman who marries for money.
If girls are conditioned from childhood that men are better at handling financial matters, they grow up to be nervous about investing or running big businesses, and then they are also teased for not being financially savvy. Patriarchy is threatened by women’s financial independence, because if women learn to manage money well, men lose control over them.
A lot of advertising is directed at women—fashion, cosmetics, children’s stuff—and when they splurge, they are made to feel guilty for frivolous spending. But, if they are not groomed and made up for the job, they are detained for looking unprofessional. There was a recent uproar about many companies insisting that women wear high heels!
Ms Dunlap writes: “Recent research analyzed 300 financial “how to” articles and found that 90% of the articles aimed at women focused on saving money. Two-thirds of the articles reviewed labeled women as excessive spenders. Men’s Tip: “Here Are Five Hot Stocks Right Now”, Women’s Tip: “Here Are Five Dinners You Can Make For Less Than $5.”
In a society where wealth breeds more wealth, women often start out at a disadvantage. If they make less money, they obviously can’t invest more or spend on themselves without feeling guilty.
Victoria Woodhull, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the 1860s, also became America’s first female stockbroker, along with her sister, Tennessee Claflin. Ms Woodhull also decided to run for president, when women were still fighting for the right to vote. She said: “Women’s ability to earn money is a better protection against male tyranny than their ability to vote.” Back then, the male-dominated stock market excluded female stockbrokers, and when a woman named Mary Gage opened a women’s stock market, she was arrested for insanity. Women like Woodhull and Gage, Dunlap writes, were labeled “mermaids” or “witches” to discredit and silence them. Even today in the US only 15% of Wall Street traders are women.
Change is taking place, but it is slow. Perhaps to speed things up, books on finance for women are being published, such as Financial Feminism by Jessica Robinson The feminist financial handbook by Brynne Conroy and the delightfully titled Girls just want to have funds by Molly Benjamin. Fun with funds, why not?
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author.