But as I got older, things changed. For one thing, I started writing, and writing seemed to be something you were supposed to feel grateful simply for the opportunity to do. I felt I was supposed to see the paycheck as besides the point—I was supposed to make art because it was my passion, because I couldn’t conceive of a world where I didn’t create. Never mind that the adage is Very Much True: Money is time, and time money, and art takes time. Never mind that I (and all artists) need money to make art in any substantive fashion throughout a life, and to buy groceries, and to pay my rent.
Perhaps even more oppressive, though, were all the unspoken societal rules and expectations regarding women and money that I was starting to see a lot more clearly. Growing up in the South, I learned that a woman isn’t supposed to behave in an “unladylike” way (whatever that means), and talking about money—wanting it, needing it, working your ass off for it, spending it with joy, wanting some more—was just not very “ladylike” to a lot of people. Rationally, I knew this to be bullshit; but still…
Part of the way you get by, or do better than that, as a woman is to keep your head down and go along with these rules, to find ways to flourish within the patriarchal system, rather than smashing it. (Smile, be charming, quietly white-knuckle your way up the ladder.) Or at least, that’s how it seemed. So, as an adult, while inwardly I wanted more money, both for security and time and also because I really coveted those beautiful $600 shoes, I hid the truth about it. I tended to cavalierly spend while acting totally blasé—sure, a round for everyone!—and then freak out at home, analyzing my spiraling credit card debt.
This was all my fault, I knew. My parents had long told me I was bad with money (and maybe I was). But how was I supposed to get good at it when I never seemed to have enough? Plus, “being bad with money” appeared to be as “feminine” a trait as “being bad at math”: While being good at both of those things would actually take you much further than the opposite, the fact that they weren’t all that emphasized in the world I lived in—and that women were often looked down on for being particularly money-driven and successful—didn’t help matters any.
Constrained by the system
It’s not just the South, though, and it’s not just my story. There’s a long-held, sprawling double standard regarding how women are supposed to behave when it comes to finances. In Ancient Egypt, women and men held equal financial rights, but flash forward to England in the 1100s, where “coverture,” or the belief that married men and women were one financial entity, became part of common law. This meant that women couldn’t own property, run businesses, or sue in court, unless they were widows or spinsters; this basically put forth the idea that women were the property of their husbands, a view that still lingers in malevolent, structural ways.
Think of the women in the early 1900s who faced the “marriage bar” and had to give up teaching or clerical jobs when they got married, or the ‘50s housewife who relies entirely on her husband’s salary because working outside the home is unacceptable. The negation of the power of one’s own checkbook created a world in which women were essentially wards of the men they married. As recently as the '70s, women had a hard time getting credit cards in their own names. As recently as right now, women “willingly” give up jobs to take care of kids due to the lack of a suitable infrastructure for working moms in this country—and the cycle, with different trappings, happens again.
The negation of the power of one’s own checkbook created a world in which women were essentially wards of the men they married.
That’s not to say women of today can’t have money—at least, kind of—but they’re still definitely looked down on for talking about it, stating clearly that they want it, and displaying their wealth. When The Luckiest Girl author Jessica Knoll published the op-ed “I Want to Be Rich and I’m Not Sorry” in the New York Times, and then, more recently, was interviewed for The Cut’s piece “How to Be a Writer and Still Get Really, Really Rich,” she faced a wave of judgment. Sure, there were some people congratulating her for her bravery and her drive, but others condemned her for missing the point about art, along with being grossly avaricious. Personally, I felt conflicted about this unabashed statement of wanting to make money and then just going ahead and doing it. Was it “tacky” to buy a Porsche, something she wrote of doing gleefully? What was success, anyway—in art, in a career—and did it have to be measured in dollar signs? And if someone else could say they wanted to become rich by writing books and then just went ahead and did it, well, why couldn’t I? Were my complicated feelings about what Knoll said simply because I was jealous?
It’s hard to separate these burbling emotions from the gender bias of it all, even when you know it’s there. Somewhere in the back of my brain, the “be ladylike” refrain kept reaching back up to pull me down. Public reactions truly do matter for women, who tend to have to say they want money so that they can use it for the greater good, like to support their families or for charitable causes, while your typical (male) Wall Street fat cat (or, say, our current president) won't think twice about broadcasting their intentions for their wealth; they’re rich enough, they’d say, to do whatever they feel like.
Kristin Wong, author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford, says, “We’re constantly policing the way women talk, what they should and shouldn’t do.” When Wong’s book came out, she tells me, she spent thousands of dollars on a personal stylist. It gave her one less thing to worry about, and made her feel powerful. But she also felt guilty, afraid that if people found out, they’d think she was obsessed with clothes or with herself. A man who spends money on a stylist, she says wryly, well, that would just be chalked up to a strategic business decision.
As Wong illustrates, not only do women face harsh judgments for wanting to be wealthy, we’re judged for how we spend (or don’t spend) money. “There’s such a puritanical view of money and what you’re supposed to do with it,” says Wong. “But there’s research [to support] that spending money even on frivolous things brings us joy.” Instead of shaming people, she suggests, “Let’s shame this crazy wealth disparity that exists!”
The author Min Jin Lee addresses the complex strands of wealth, culture, class, and power in her writing, including in two acclaimed novels: Free Food for Millionaires, an indictment of capitalism in 1990s New York City, and Pachinko, an epic historical novel about four generations of a Korean family living in Japan. “What I find ironic and hypocritical about any culture that says a woman shouldn’t have money is that women are expected to do things that require money,” she says. “We’re expected to behave a certain way, and you can’t do that if you don’t have money. I’m willing to say that it is a conspiracy. And until women understand how to deal with the pushback and shaming and naming when it occurs, I don’t think we’ll actually have more money.”
Bridging the gap
I reached out to Jennifer Barrett, the chief education officer at the investing app Acorns, to get some recent stats about women and money. It’s as depressing as you expected: Women have more credit card debt, but also have higher interest rates; women still earn less and have more student loan debt than men. The workplace is a pyramid for women; while we graduate from college in greater numbers and enter the workforce in nearly equal numbers, women are 30 percent less likely to be promoted into management roles, and even female CEOs are paid less. Women are 80 percent more likely to die in poverty. “You can put all the pressure on women to negotiate harder and practice that power pose,” Barrett says, but there’s something else going on here, structural and endemic. She believes that “women are brought up to be contributors, men are brought up to be earners, and that informs every single financial decision we make as adults.”
It’s scary to say that you’re ambitious, and for good reason. According to a Harvard study, “When women ask for a raise, the manager will walk away with a more negative opinion of that person,” says Farnoosh Torabi, host of the So Money podcast, author of When She Makes More, and co-founder of feminist money popup Stacks House. “What that’s really telling us is that we haven’t normalized this [behavior]. We have to do it as a collective. And it’s not just women who need to fight for this, men need to get in on this parade. When women make more, everybody benefits.” But often, “women have these false scripts in our heads, like ‘I’m not good at money; it’s a man’s domain; if I want it, my priorities are screwed up; I should be focused on family and domestic concerns,’” Torabi says.
There is a lot of pain around this issue, says Lee, “and I think the pain could go away if we start talking about it, making art about it, and admitting our desires. We have so many hungers, and I’m not saying all of them are good, but these are my hungers. We should be able to talk about them.”
"Wanting more money is not selfish or greedy or evil, it’s what will allow us to do and be and have what we want. I want that for every woman." —Jennifer Barrett, chief education officer at Acorns
To further the movement in that direction, Barrett is working on a book called Think Like a Breadwinner. She wants women to own the term, which doesn’t necessarily mean making the most in your household, although it can. Most importantly, it’s the idea that you can provide the life you want for yourself. “We have allowed ourselves to be roped in by these cultural beliefs that are engrained in this country, and it is based on a belief system that no longer holds true,” she tells me. “It’s this sole male breadwinner model. It goes deeper than we even realize—down to the fact that we have to give up paychecks to spend time with newborns. Wanting more money is not selfish or greedy or evil, it’s what will allow us to do and be and have what we want,” she says. “I want that for every woman.”
There are, of course, plenty of women for whom the openness to announce “I want to be rich” is hardly a blip on the radar of financial concerns, women who are left out of this conversation completely—and who we need to stop and pay attention to. Alex Pittman, a term assistant professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, notes, “I think the ongoing debates, which I feel have gotten a lot of play in recent years, about whether it’s okay for upwardly mobile women to desire money have pushed another, linked story out of view. That other story is that for the vast majority of women, it has become that much more difficult to even get by, much less pursue the desire to make lots of money.” Too many are held back by a broken system, complete with endemic racism and classism, that makes it nearly impossible to break the poverty cycle. Astronomical college debt makes climbing out of a financial hole even harder for younger generations. “People work longer and harder than ever, and they have less to show for it,” says Pittman.
Show us the money
Okay, so what do we do about it? As usual, you have to ask yourself who benefits when women are kept quiet. When we can’t talk about our desire for wealth with each other, or say it out loud, we’re never going to get very far in actually accruing our fair share of it—and helping to bring others up, too. But, when it comes to something as massive and impenetrable as, say, years of entrenched patriarchal systems, can one woman saying she wants to be rich—or even writing an op-ed about it for the Times—make a difference? I think the answer is yes, if it gets the rest of us to stop and battle our own complicated ideologies on a subject that occupies far more space in our brains than we want to admit.
Ashley Louise is the co-founder and CEO of Ladies Get Paid, an organization that helps women strategically navigate their workplaces. The company started out focused on salary negotiation; over time, they realized that seeking money and power “are one and the same,” she tells me. “The thing we want to do is really be having these conversations and saying you can wield power and should not feel ashamed about seeking money,” Louise says. “And here are all the things you can do with that. You can invest, donate to a political campaign, invest in other women’s businesses, purchase things from female founders.” Pushing the bounds of what you think you can do in your personal and professional life “can range from the women’s soccer team suing their employer on the world’s largest sports stage to having a conversation at your company to ask if they’ve done a gender pay audit to sharing your salary with a friend.” All this has a ripple effect, she tells me. It’s how we change the world, one woman at a time, but all together.
And while change happens slowly, it does happen. When Big Little Lies’ Renata Klein, played by the excellent Laura Dern, screams at her incarcerated husband, who’s lost the family everything, “I will not not be rich!” it became a viral meme. The general reaction? Applause. Okay, sure, a world of Renata Kleins and salary seminars aren’t going to magically fix the huge, systemic issues in this country. But they can be a step. As is the step of saying what you want, maybe even shouting it from the rooftops, en route to finding your inner Renata Klein.
I tell myself to ask for a little bit more with each and every freelance assignment; I’m trying to focus on the projects that provide bigger payoffs, instead of frittering my energies away on small things that require me to keep hustling on small things (and never have time for the big ones); I share what I make with people who ask, in hopes of bringing everyone up with this information. Do I want to be rich? I definitely want the money to live as I want to, without relying on men—or anyone else—to take care of me. And, yeah, I also want nice things, things that cost a lot more nowadays than that Twirly Curls Barbie did way back when. So I guess the answer is yes.
“Hell yeah!” says Louise. “Get fucking rich! I wanna be rich. Do it. Women live longer, we need more money anyway.”
Did you know the gender pay gap starts in childhood? And when you're ready to get that paper, here's exactly what to say in a salary negotiation.
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