March 2006

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

Women, Emotions and Cash, Oh My!

Even more than usual, the media has lately been flooded with reports about women struggling to balance work and family. Whether doting on ivy-educated women who choose motherhood over a career, or revealing how difficult life is for successful women who “opt in,” this coverage obviously all leads back to money (even if the articles never mention it). While it’s satisfying to see this dilemma getting so much high-profile attention, I’m really tired of reading about how professional success is ruining women’s lives. Mostly what I see is hysteria, even if delivered in a neutral tone and through decent writing. It’s rare to see any kind of thoughtful solution offered up amid the headlines. I’m sick of the idea that feminism has somehow betrayed women, that gains have become losses, that women didn’t know what we were getting into when we demanded equality.

Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions and Cash is not quite so panicked, and its author identifies as a feminist. But Liz Perle’s genuinely good intentions are one of only a few things that differentiate it from the rest of the fever pitch. Having willingly handed financial responsibilities to her husband only to see her dreams of “being taken care of” dashed by a divorce, Perle wants to help her readers avoid the same fate. Part memoir, part sociology, part self-help book, Money is meant to be a wake-up call. In it, Perle manages to confront some uncomfortable truths about the way women manage their finances (or, more to the point, how they don’t), but the book is ultimately reducible to a couple of bullet points.

Here’s the gist: women relate to money in terms of romance and love, while men equate money with power. Sound familiar? As Perle puts it, succinctly and several times, “where men use money as a shorthand to determine who has the power in a relationship, women will let it be a surrogate for love and attention.” She argues that unlike men, women’s identities aren’t directly tied to financial status, so it’s easier for us to disconnect from it. And we do this at our peril. Money, after all, is never just money. It’s a stand-in for other -- often deeply emotional -- needs and desires, while also providing for more immediate material assets. To illustrate this, Perle weaves her own rather disastrous story of financial ruin with the tales of other women ranging from age twenty to eighty. She quickly discovers -- much like Eve Ensler did when she asked about vaginas -- that women are eager to talk about the very personal details of their supposedly secret lives.

The same points are repeated tediously throughout the book, with one result being the inadvertent babying of the very women whose consciousnesses Perle claims to be trying to raise. Another side effect is the reduction of complicated issues to a set of chick lit clichés that always equate women with emotion. Still, it is not entirely fair to be so cynical about what Perle is offering. There are times when her descriptions of gendered power dynamics are absorbing and astute. It just might be enough to put the book down after the tidy prologue.

In calling her book a memoir, Perle manages to dodge critics who might fault her for focusing almost exclusively on women’s relationship with money as connected to their relationships with men. Her insistence on this connection between romantic relationships and money may be valid, but it doesn’t make the book’s narrow focus any less problematic. There is little to no acknowledgement that financial issues can affect women in ways other than as they relate to their marital status. Married, divorced and widowed women are all given plenty of consideration, but women who navigate their finances without a male partner as a constant reference point are practically invisible here. Though she’s often critical as she looks back on her life and choices, lines like “I was thirty-five by the time someone finally proposed to me” weaken her better points (and make me want to scream). Throughout, she shares lots of scary statistics (i.e., more than half of all retired women live in poverty; having a child is the single biggest predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse) designed to get women to pay attention to their finances and by extension, take full control of their lives.

Will it work? Maybe for some readers. My reluctance to accept some of what Perle suggests doesn’t mean she doesn’t raise some good questions. The problem is, she seems to think that her book will appeal and apply to all women, when it only recognizes a very particular kind of life. Sure, Money, a Memoir, is in part just what the title suggests. In aiming to be much more than that, it falls short, with Perle seemingly unaware of just how much her experiences have informed her advice. It’s okay to counsel based on what you know. But there’s a lot more out there. Knowing that, I’m not convinced men and women’s behavior is necessarily gendered when it comes to money. Though there’s definitely more than enough dysfunction to go around.

Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash by Liz Perle
Henry Holt
ISBN: 080507712X
288 Pages