I’m a feminist. Lately I have had to ask myself what that means when it comes to financial responsibility between couples. You see, I was brought up to believe that I had to be financially responsible for myself. I never expected anyone to be responsible for me, not even my husband when I was married although I did expect that because we were married our independent finances were our mutual concern if only by virtue of the fact that we had committed to building a life and a family together.
What has been less clear to me was my financial duty to my partner. Somehow being a feminist came to mean I had to reject all my gender roles, and that it was okay for me to be financially responsible for my man. Being financially responsible for a man even seemed to prove my feminist credentials. After all, I was assuming male responsibility; I was paying the bills for my lover/partner/spouse as well as myself and my children. I was wearing the pants, bringing home the bacon. Isn’t that what women’s lib meant?
I have never been attracted to a man simply because of his money and I never made his financial capacity a criteria for a relationship. I could earn my own money (okay maybe I was naïve, but I did not and do not judge the women that do set it as a criteria). I always picked the guy that I had chemistry with, the guy who I had a spark for when I looked at him across the room. And while I admit I did find myself attracted to power it had more to do with me exercising my power, the power of having a powerful man lusting after me. It was never about the money.
Sometimes I found myself in a better financial position than the man I was with and even when I wasn’t I was willing to share whatever little I had. Yet it seemed that during the course of the relationship I would take on more and more of the financial responsibility and begin to resent the burden it was becoming. I also came to resent what I saw as a disrespectful attitude to my money; it was spent with all the entitlement of ‘our’ money without any reciprocity when it ‘his’ money.
I dated a guy once who went on and on the first time I bought groceries about how he had never met a woman that was willing to spend her money to meet household expenses. According to him the ones he knew always left the responsibility to him even if they had money of their own. I wonder now whether that included his mother and sisters who I met. When he finally made some money he didn’t think to spend it on me or us. Anyway, he’s married to someone else now and tells me he doesn’t even know how much she earns or what she spends it on and claims he doesn’t care.
So if I was a feminist why did I end up being resentful of spending money on my man? Why did I become bitter when I had to carry the financial burden alone for both of us? Men have been doing it for ages; surely what men could do women could do too (and better) It seemed to be what we had been fighting for as feminists; the right to be like men. Isn’t that what gender equality was all about? It took a while for me to realize I was reacting to the added financial responsibility for another adult.
In an article in the New York Mag- “Alpha Female, Beta Male” -Ralph Gardner claims a growing number women in the urban liberal west are earning more than and supporting their stay at home or low paid husbands. And apparently they are not always adjusting well to that role reversal either. The men felt emasculated or the women felt a loss of desire for their not so powerful freeloading spouses. Even the marriages that survive experienced conflict and needed counselling or mediation to overcome the resentment.
I really don’t think there is anything ‘feminist’ or ‘liberated’ about financially supporting your partner, male or female. It is patronizing and infantilizing. It is a patriarchal paradigm that has merely been flipped, a role reversal that has nothing to do with equality. Both parties in a healthy relationship should be able to pay their share of the bills, and buy each other gifts, dinner or theatre tickets or a vacation. I tend to agree with Christina Vuleta who asked in Can A Woman Be Happily Dependent? Her answer is No. The men in Gardner’s article obviously weren’t happy.
So why do we think women should be? It seems popular for some feminists and their critics to say it’s okay for a woman to choose to be a mom first and foremost and to be dependent on dad to subsidize her lifestyle. It’s not my intention to judge but it is not a choice that would work for me. The mostly negative comments and reactions to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s article 1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible seem to suggest woman associate feminism with choice not equality. Yet studies like this one here show financial dependence overall reduces women’s choices. In many less developed cultures choice does not exist.
I think financial dependence is corrosive to the self-esteem, no self-respecting adult should willingly be financially dependent on another person unless there are physical or mental challenges that necessitate it. Motherhood, parenting and marriage do not count; women and men do raise families successfully AND build financial independence. We hear more about the failures than the successes as part of the scare tactics constantly used to keep women in domestic servitude by the patriarchy. While Slaughter’s article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All resonated it’s not absolute truth.
In my family law practice a lot of the women enquiring about divorce were financial responsibility for their family and told me they were unappreciated, abused and exploited by the men they married. They are strong, capable, opinionated women that knew what they wanted and for all intents and purposes feminists even though they may not identify themselves as such. They are happy not to be at the financial mercy of a man but dissatisfied and resentful at being the primary breadwinners. I also know quite a few women both socially and professionally in similar situations.
I wonder if men ever feel resentment as primary breadwinners, how they handle it or if they are even allowed to express it. A lot of them of are still socialized to accept financial responsibility for their wives and have numerous socially accepted ways within a patriarchy to release tension such as domestic violence, rape, prostitution, pornography, promiscuity, violent sports, misogyny and sexism. Of course not all men are violent chauvinists and I’m sure some would consider themselves lucky to have a wife that earns more than they can (and hopefully they would show appropriate appreciation).
As with all things in life, what works for me, doesn’t have to work for you or anyone else. I will not go so far as to say “real feminists don’t depend on men, real feminists earn a living” like Wurtzel, but it’s certainly an integral part of my feminism. I’ve realized that personal financial capacity and independence is important to me. I don’t want to be dependent on anyone financially and I don’t want anyone financially dependent on me either. I want each of us to be financially secure and independent and I want us to be able to make choices and decisions about our future together as equally contributing partners.
I can’t help but wonder whether this new realization will preclude me from further dalliances with impossibly handsome young men with tight bodies and low net worth? Indeed that maybe for the best, I must admit that even I expect to exercise the power in a relationship and have it acknowledged when I hold the purse strings, just like any man does too. Money is after all about power and I will admit I’m not always very nice about it myself, maybe counselling will help. It’s just human nature, isn’t it? Good to know I’m only human after all.