Women & Money

“Everyone has to make up their mind if money is money or money isn’t money and sooner or later they always do decide that money is money.” —Gertrude Stein

My Legal Tender project was inspired in part by the Great Recession. Each day, I listened to NPR and almost never heard the female pronoun. All the money stories were male! So in the late spring of 2009, I began to interview women about their relationships with money. There was great joy and satisfaction in doing this, immeasurable delight in the specifics of the (all-too-human) stories. At the same time, a certain measure of courage was needed, a willingness to transgress because, as most of us learned as tiny children, money is a subject “we are not supposed to mention.” In fact, that is how my play begins:

Nobody talks about it, of course. Isn’t that what everyone says? It wasn’t polite is what we were told.

I learned early on that I was not alone in my bewilderment; almost no one I spoke to had an uncomplicated relationship with money. There was awkwardness, there was embarrassment, there was shame: both the shame of “too little” and the shame of “too much.” Despite this, most women went to great lengths to appear “the same” (which is to say, middle class) even while concealing their true circumstances.

Much of what I heard could be labeled “lies, secrets, and silence,” a phrase I borrow from the poet Adrienne Rich. There were half-truths, obscurations, deliberate diversions. There were gambling stories; stories of investment and betrayal; and the high-octane risk of calculated marriage, followed swiftly by divorce.

There were happier stories, too, of course, stories of ease and self-sufficiency, of hard-won financial independence. Some women had been the recipients of great generosity; others knew what it was to live amidst abundance. But even these women tended to keep such matters private. Few felt free to talk about their windfalls or to exult in their good fortune, except, on rare occasions, with others like themselves.

Such things can change over the course of a lifetime. A good marriage or partnership, a steady job, a wise financial advisor, kind friends: all encourage greater openness and ease. Meanwhile, a project like mine can act as a catalyst. Stories give rise to stories; courage and authenticity inspire more of the same. Hence my emphasis on the act of listening, the sheer joy and liberation of eliciting stories that have never been told before, or that are new even to the teller.

It is also worth remembering that beyond a modest point, abundance is an inside job. Money is not and should not be the bottom line. If it is a story that has, for so many of us, devoured all the other stories, it is a story that can also be transformed.

And, maybe, just maybe, if we all join in together, it might just be possible to change the plot.

Below is an excerpt from Money Stories entitled “The Family Pot.” The speaker is a Portuguese-American woman, now in her mid-fifties.

My dad worked really hard in the leather tanneries. And then somehow—we all went to Portugal for three months every summer. I don’t know how he did that. I truly don’t.

I have almost no money. But there’s this poverty mentality I don’t think I’ve ever had.

We had a “family pot,” and all the money went into that pot. For example, I bought a brand-new car when I was very young, and paid for it in cash. When I was nineteen? Maybe eighteen, actually. But by then I had been working for years and years. So when I needed a car, the money was there to pay for it. I had earned it. But it came out of that family pot.

It was this little orange car. Bright orange. This little Cinderella coach.

And when I got married, my parents, who were of very small means, gave me ten thousand dollars to put down on a house. How the hell did they get that money? I mean, that was cash. And at a time when nine thousand dollars was a yearly salary if you were lucky. So that was pretty remarkable.

But it doesn’t feel like generosity. It just feels like that’s the way this family is.

Read more by Christian McEwen at legaltenderplay.com

Christian has been exploring the issue of women and money for most of the last decade, resulting in a play called Legal Tender: Women & the Secret Life of Money, and its linked project, Money Stories.

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