A very old friend of mine from high school commented to me a while ago that I have always been the “least materialistic” person she had ever met. I laughed but I realized to a certain extent that she is correct. I would be perfectly content to live for the decades the way my husband and I did in the early years of our marriage -- in a little apartment eating a lot of Ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese. I like fashionable clothes, but I don’t mind getting my shoes at Payless. And I don’t have any burning desire to accumulate stuff.
This indifference to building up a fat bank account or a household full of luxuries is not a mark of moral superiority, but a mark of privilege. My family was never rich but I grew up secure in the knowledge that I would never be in want and that I would in fact have plenty of opportunities for travel and education. In adulthood, I have never once fretted about money even when things were really tight when my husband and I both worked in low-paying government jobs that made our educational loan payments seem incredibly burdensome. I have always felt confident that I could be fired or walk away from my fancy-shmancy law jobs and still support myself (although that might not be true if I suddenly found myself with a severe mental or physical disability). My confidence in my ability to support myself is a function of privilege. I am privileged to live in an economy where jobs are available. I am privileged to be the kind of person whom people want to hire -- that is I am white, able-bodied, educated, and a native English speaker. Indeed, when I was unemployed for eight weeks after leaving my first prosecutor job, it was no problem to register with a temp agency and start bringing in a paycheck right away as a temp secretary.
My lack of any particular appreciation for or worry about money is also a function of my family background. Both of my parents grew up relatively comfortable and none of my relatives have ever striven for money but have instead all contented themselves with respectable but non-money oriented careers as teachers, ministers, and civil servants. I don’t think I have a single business person in even my extended family, except for my father’s cousin’s husband who was some sort of executive for a large food company. I remember being told as a kid that his job had to do with making sure the right amount of inventory was stocked on the supermarket shelves in order to maximize the company’s profits -- and wondering why on earth someone would want such a boring-sounding job just to make money. As an adult, however, I have come to realize that his job actually involves a lot of complex business questions and that his company provides a valuable service in making certain foodstuffs easily available to the public.
You see, despite an utter lack of any natural orientation towards the profit motive, I have, rather late in life, developed a real appreciation for entrepreneurship. A lot of this came about when I first entered the private sector to work for a dynamic private law firm that is less than two decades old but has experienced incredible growth from the time the founding partners first hung up their shingle. I used to go to firm outings and look around at the 100 employees and their spouses and their children and think, “Wow. The founding partners did this. They created this exciting firm where all these people could develop professionally and also do things like pair up and have babies and build houses and build a life. What a wonderful feeling that must be for them to see their risk and hard work bear such fruit not only in terms of very healthy profits for themselves but also in terms of the impact on their employees.” While I don’t lack my fair share of cynicism about the business world (after all, at its best, we’re talking about “enlightened SELF-interest”), I have found myself invigorated and excited by the positive aspects of ethical entrepreneurship.
And somehow in my 30s, I have also learned that taking care of one’s own self-interest is a great thing. I have in the past viewed hard work as an end, something valuable for its own sake, rather than a means to an end. And suddenly I find myself saying, “Why not concentrate some of my energy and time into building up my family’s financial health? Eating Ramen in the teeny apartment is fine, but why not enjoy a few acres of land and our own place? Why not look forward to some travel and some luxury for our old age? Why not reap some personal rewards for all of our hard work? Why not possibly build a home that could be suitable for a child at some point in the next 15 years?”
Maybe this kind of thinking is obvious to everyone else, but to me it has been something of a revelation over the last few years. I love the win/win efficiency inherent in the idea of both providing a valuable service AND building up one’s family’s wealth at the same time. And as I view the political situation in the U.S., it appears that personal wealth is sadly becoming more and more necessary in order to enjoy personal autonomy. To give just one example, I want to have the means to go out-of-state or overseas for an abortion should I ever need one. And more than ever, it seems especially important to have the means to contribute to philanthropic organizations that reflect one’s values.
And finally, I think it is crucial for women as individuals to start paying more attention to money because as a class, we don’t fight hard enough for the bucks. Our relative poverty is surely also a product of overt and subtle discrimination, including the pressure and the expectation that we will engage in far far more than our fair share of unpaid labor on the home and family front, and the pressure and expectation of selflessness. I’d love to see more women going after money-making opportunities and aggressively negotiating their compensation. Money is important in multiple ways -- affecting such things as the perceptions of women’s power as individuals and as a class, or funding organizations and causes that serve women (for example the far lesser fund raising ability of women’s colleges compared to colleges with male alumni).
I guess my conclusion from all this rambling thought is that we - and by “we” I especially mean women -- cannot afford to turn up our noses at money and entrepreneurship as I did for so long. We need to look out for ourselves far more than we do. But in doing so, we are not just looking out for ourselves but elevating the power and respectability of our sex.