By Amy Medvick
“Ugh, money,” I thought when it was proposed that this be our Blasfemmer theme for June. “Boooor-ing!”
Oh, money. I don’t have very much of it: just enough, really. Part of that is because I am a woman. Statistically, we don’t earn as much as men. But the thing is, I don’t really care that much about money either. Again, that’s likely in part because I am a woman. Women generally pursue lower-paying careers and work fewer hours than men1. I have done both.
Of course, many women are financially ambitious, successful, and know perfectly well how to manage their bank accounts. They show that we are capable of doing so. Still, a few 1000 years of social conditioning and a gal might find herself not so keen on pursuing a lucrative profession as her male peers.
But to say that women just aren’t interested would be an oversimplification. Men and women are working different jobs due to discrimination both in the hiring process and in the workplace itself, promotion bias, lack of flexibility for and discrimination against working mothers, as well as that pesky social conditioning that discourages women from positions of power or “unfeminine roles”. And though more women are now pursuing higher education than are men by a small margin, all those same discriminations still apply when they finish school and start looking for a job2.
Compounding this, popular wisdom now tells women to empower themselves by avoiding the “man’s world” and the discrimination that comes with it altogether, and instead emphasise home-life, personal relationships, and self-development (read: dieting), joyfully slaving over the proverbial hot stove while leaving their careers permanently on the back burner. (Thus the popular advice on how to cope with workplace discrimination is to “opt-out” and not work. That kinda sounds like a cultural cop-out to me, but hey, what do I know.) Find a hubby that can bring home the bacon (and spend some quality time frying it), or just eke it out somehow! After all, pursuing a lucrative career isn’t what really matters in life—what matters is being able to spend time with your family / partner / friends / pet, etc. Never minding that very little fuss seems to be made about how men negotiate their “work/life balance”, as if work weren’t inherently a part of life but instead it’s opposite.
The Globe and Mail recently published an article about money and happiness. According to certain research, one’s happiness does increase proportionately with one’s income. Some claim that it increases up to a salary of about $75,000 a year, at which point it levels off; however, many “happiness experts” believe that one’s happiness can keep climbing well into the hundred thousands. Of course, the happiness factor depends on how one’s money is spent—buying time and experiences is more cheering than buying objects. It would seem that the so-called feminine wisdom of valuing quality time spent with the family has some truth to it, but only if that time is purchased back from the economical system that annexed it, quality-assured with a big fat pay-check.I am a feminist, and I believe that women should have equal opportunity in the working world, free from discrimination and bullshit Mars/Venus rhetorics shovelling them into low-paying “feminine” jobs. I believe the only way we can achieve that is by collectively pulling a Rosa Parks and refusing to go. Yet, because the whole thing gives me the fucking icks, I am not yet even on this metaphorical bus.
So, in order to be a better feminist I should become a big CEO, or more realistically— let’s face it, ladies—a teacher, right? All those dollar signs will open the door to all the happiness the patriarchy has deprived me of. I could be a big, $$$HAPPY$$$ feminist CEO (teacher). That’ll show ‘em!
Know what though? I don’t buy it (pun intended!).
Certainly, how I spend my time—the experiences I should be buying— is important to my happiness. But I manage to have them on less than a third of the ideal $75,000. In fact, I have the time for them precisely because I work fewer hours, making less money, yes, but having lots of time to myself. Cha-ching! It’s like I bought time off, but without ever seeing the cash.
It’s true, more money could allow a person to do more with their free time. But wouldn’t that just offer a greater variety of happiness-experiences, not more happiness in absolute numbers? Hmmm, the mathematics of quantifying happiness are getting fuzzy…
Of course, some of the time I am unhappy, such is life. Lately, the main reasons are A) I miss my ex-lover, who lives far away, and B) The patriarchy and similar systems of oppression REALLY suck. Can money help me here?
Well, in the case of reason A, a wad of cash could buy me a plane ticket to visit him, but it couldn’t fix our failed love once I got there. As for reason B, I could set up some sort of initiative or program to address our social problems. That would require funds, right? Of course, I might not see any significant return in my lifetime—those old inequalities would probably still persist, not that the venture couldn’t be in itself rewarding. Or wait—I could just keep doing this Blasfemmer thing for the cost of a domain name and a parachute.
Yeah, I’m still not sold (intended!). The results are at best inconclusive: though money could perhaps give me greater freedom in how I spend my time, which might result in increased happiness, it certainly can’t magic away my personal sadnesses.
Then again, I say this from the privileged position of having enough money to meet my physical needs, not to mention finance the occasional dinner out, shopping trip, bottle of wine, ice-cream cone, amazon.com order, a couple of trips to Brazil, etc, etc. For so many of the world’s poor, the majority of which are women and girls, some money—not $75, 000 but simply a few hundred dollars—could make a huge difference. And my modest riches have undoubtedly come to me at their expense, resting on the systematic creation and exploitation of the poor by the governments and major corporations that furnish a cushy life for middle-class North America.
In fact, I myself haven’t always had this much wealth. There was a time when I often made as little as $600 a month, working for less than minimum wage at a little gourmet grocery. And yes, it was nearly impossible to be happy. I was trapped at this job because it left me with no time and energy to look for a new one, and no financial safety net to allow me to quit. I had to face workplace sexual harassment—one of my bosses had a penchant for stroking my hair—and I lived with the constant fear that one day I would be followed by one of them down to the dark and isolated bathroom in the basement. I became horribly depressed. Nevertheless, I proudly avoided relying on the financial help of family and friends, feeling that the independence was worth it.
I also tutored on the side and this helped. The first family I worked with was that of a Somalian woman. She lived with her 7 children (ages 3 to 14), in a tiny 2-bedroom apartment. One bedroom was lined with bunk beds like a hostel, for the oldest 6. The youngest and his mother shared the other room. Their father was working out of province and sending money.
Many of us would be miserable in such circumstances. However, while this likely wasn’t their ideal arrangement, to all appearances they were happy. These children would arrive home from school full of energy, clambering over each other to ask me questions, smiling and laughing as they got down to their homework, the youngest impishly hiding my shoes while I wasn’t looking. The second youngest would sweetly and trustingly climb into my lap as I taught her to read, and the eldest told me she dreamed of being a doctor one day.
They were generous too—the children would unquestioningly offer to make me Kraft grilled-cheese sandwiches while we worked. When she had to end our sessions because she could no longer afford them, the mother—with whom I mostly communicated in facial expressions and gestures since she spoke little English—wordlessly gave me a pashmina shawl, a parting gift that I treasure to this day because I know just how generous a gesture it was.
Teaching these children made me happy—not because of the payment, which was negligible, or because I had any illusions I was helping them. An hour and a half a week split between 7 is hardly enough to make a difference. It made me happy because their happiness was infectious, and it reminded me that I was lucky, grocery store illegal-wages notwithstanding. Certainly, I wanted to see their situation improve, as I wanted my own to improve. Yet, though I have seen many families since then, better off than they, never have I seen one any happier.
Eventually, my own financial situation collapsed. I became completely dependant on my family and friends, an arrangement that was incredibly emotionally uncomfortable. But soon I got back on my own two feet, and I was fine. Pride was swallowed, but I more than survived.
As a feminist contemplating raising my career ambitions, I have to ask myself where the money I make will come from. Will we close the pay gap through lowering the income of higher-earning men? Or will it come at the expense of families like the one I described? The second seems more likely. As a feminist, I cannot claim more for myself without considering those below me. To do so would be to buy into the very patriarchal ethic I defy, that whole take-for-yourself-and-fuck-whoever-you-took-it-from thing, that never-you-mind-your-pretty-head-about-my-unearned-privilege thing.
While I would love to see the gender pay gap closed by taking from the richer to give to the poorer, it’s definitely not going to happen that way. Too many of the folks with wealth in droves will tend to hold on to it, this I know. And though my instinct is to be as uninvolved as I can by shunning the race for riches, I don’t kid myself. My nice little liberal lifestyle changes don’t mean fuck-all to giant exploitative infrastructures. If anything is going to change, work must be done. Some of it will cost money.
This is why I am re-evaluating my distaste for financial ambition. Though I don’t think ascribing the dollar with quantifiable happiness-inducing powers is exactly a big feminist step forward, neither is remaining powerless in a world where money walks. Knowing at whose expense it comes, it might feel like dirty money, but in my hands it could be put towards more than my own comfort and happiness. I could do that work that must be done, for families like the ones I described, for girls and women with dreams but few opportunities. There is a lot I could do with that extra $60,000 or so worth of happiness, but it couldn’t make me happy unless it increased the happiness of others too. Seeing some change in the world—not loose change (!) but a serious difference in people’s lives—that, indeed, would make me very happy.
- Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism. New York: Time Books. 2010. Pages 20 and 50.
- Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism. New York: Time Books. 2010. Page 3.