This summer session in my women’s history course, I’ve been more conscientious than usual about suggesting proactive solutions for young feminists to use as they navigate their way through a difficult and misogynistic world. I’ve got a compendium of tips, all of which ought to be collected into a single blog post at some point. But one suggestion I’ve made repeatedly, and which I’ve seen proven useful again and again, is that young people of both sexes (but especially young women) set aside money for themselves.
It comes from something I heard years ago from a feminist colleague of mine. She remarked, apropos of nothing that I can remember, “You know what freedom is? Freedom is having first, last, and a security deposit.” (Most landlords require a first month’s payment and a last month’s payment in advance before renting an apartment; most require a security deposit, often equal to another month’s rent.) For young people living in unhappy home situations with repressive parents, or for women in abusive relationships, the ability to leave and begin a different life is tied to access to money. Feminists rightly celebrate the importance of “choice” and “autonomy”, but we must always acknowledge that it is far easier to exercise these two fundamental goods when one has resources over which one has direct control.
This is not a new point, of course; Virginia Woolf said as much in her indispensable “A Room of One’s Own.” Some years, I’ve given my students excerpts from Woolf to read; many identify all too well with the famous point about Shakespeare’s sister. But whether they read it in Woolf or hear it from a professor or pick it up from their friends, it’s vital — particularly for those from families with few resources — that women start putting aside money that will be theirs and theirs alone. Perhaps, yes, money with which to rent a room of one’s own; perhaps money with which to buy a car. Perhaps money with which to take a life-changing trip abroad. The freedom to become who one was called to be is considerably easier with money of one’s own.
This all sounds obvious, of course. But for many of my students, setting aside even small bits of money is very difficult. The “pleasing woman discourse” is pervasive, and it makes it all too easy for whatever amounts of spare cash are accumulated to be offered to the invariably needy and demanding multitudes that surround far too many young women. In some families, young women are expected to contribute to their parents’ rent and to the grocery money; for many of my working-class students, particularly in the current Great Recession, living at home is as much about helping their family survive as it is about remaining under the control of overly-watchful parents.
But hard-earned money (most of my students work) doesn’t just go for rent and gas and food. Friends and relatives always seem to need an extra $20 here, an extra $50 there. Cousins need bailing out of jail; brothers need help paying the deductible to repair a car. Grandma’s birthday is coming up, and the family wants to get her something special — and yet when the time comes to cough up cash to buy the gift, brother Billy has spent his and Dad decided it was more important to upgrade the big-screen TV in the family room. And so the dutiful daughter pays a disproportionate share. Little sister needs a quinceanera dress. A friend is getting married (too young, you think, but hey, she’s in love) and has asked you to be in the wedding; you’ll buy a dress you’ll only wear once along with a host of other related expenses. The dreams of what one might do with money of one’s own run right into the incessant, unwearying expectations of a culture that demands that women share everything that they have.
So part of the trick isn’t learning to save money, it’s learning to say “no” to the never-ending demands that others place on it. Women, far more so than men, are expected to “share” whatever they have with those around them in need. A man who saves and resists the temptation to share every last penny with those around him is virtuous, thrifty, and ambitious; a woman who displays the same qualities is selfish, ungrateful, and materialistic. The money carefully laid away for an apartment or a trip is sometimes stolen outright from shoeboxes and underwear drawers; it is also systematically “stolen” through the relentlessness of the pleasing woman discourse, a discourse that declares “No” is a word a good woman ought never utter to those whom she loves. For many of my students, learning to say “No” to friends and family is the first great hurdle to clear in Feminism 101.
Of course, there are times and instances when it is appropriate to help. Contributing to a fund to help grandpa get his eye surgery in Mexico is, perhaps, a worthwhile use of one’s private resources (presuming that one is not the only one shouldering the financial burden). Bailing out one’s brother because he got picked up on another DUI is perhaps not wise; many women have spent whatever small amounts of private capital they have accumulated to make up for the recklessness of male family members. What is needed is discernment, the ability to distinguish between the worthy request for assistance that ought to be considered and the tiresomely obligatory demand that a daughter and a sister have nothing for herself that cannot be shared. Learning to discern takes friends and role models and a determination not to give up on one’s private and most fervent aspirations.
I often suggest that my students tell no one, not even parents or boyfriends/girlfriends, about their private savings. Whether held in a bank or in a shoebox somewhere, it ought to be somewhere safe and well-hidden; nosy fathers should not be in a position to find correspondence from Wells Fargo, broke brothers scrounging for change should not be able to find the cash tucked away in an obvious place. Secrecy and security are key here. The goal is not to teach deceptiveness; the goal is to drive home the point that safety and happiness (two of the great promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Independence) are made easier when one has a room of one’s own, a car of one’s own, a way out of one’s own.
Feminists are often accused of advocating for a white, middle-class version of liberation, one that emphasizes personal sovereignty at the expense of the uplifting of an entire community. That charge is sometimes made in good faith, but it is also made by those who recognize that without women acting out of a sense of guilt and hyper-responsibility, the community’s chances for prosperity and greater inclusion are limited. Women are told, over and over again, to subordinate their personal hopes and wishes to those of the family, the culture, the race; women’s bodies and women’s bank accounts bear the burden of maintaining solidarity. Families matter. Culture matters. But so too does private happiness; not all joy comes from the selfless serving of one’s kith and kin. And while some private happinesses are blessedly free, some aren’t. And for those that aren’t, cold hard cash in one’s own hands is indispensable.