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RBG, Independence and Women's Financial Wisdom

Note from Emily: I originally wrote this piece in September, 2020, but after the devastating June 24, 2022 Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, it feels more important than ever.

This past Friday evening, despite the fact that it was Erev Rosh Hashanah and I really should have put my phone away, I was devastated when I jumped on Twitter and learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away. I gasped so loudly that I frightened the children, who asked me never to make a noise like that again.

There are a number of reasons why RBG’s death leaves me heartbroken. She was an icon, a brilliant legal mind, and a role model. But she is also instrumental in ensuring that I enjoy independence and always have throughout my life.

The honorable Justice Bader Ginsburg worked to make sure that modern women can have the financial independence that our foremothers all taught us was important. Her work meant that it was much easier for women to follow their mothers’ and grandmothers’ financial wisdom.

The Reality of Women’s Finances

As a devotee of historical romance novels, I spend quite a bit of time with fictional women in dire financial circumstances. The characters I read about are often searching for a rich husband because it is the only way they and their loved ones can survive. In these books, nabbing a duke doesn’t just mean getting a happily ever after with a brooding hero; it also means financial security.

Marriage as a financial decision was the reality of women’s lives for a very long time—and it continues to be something many women have to deal with.

· Women are still paid less than men.

· Women are more likely to work as unpaid caregivers for children or elder family members.

· And women do all this while also carrying the mental load, which can take a financial toll if it steals one’s focus.

Because the books I read are escapist, the women get to enjoy independence and freedom once they marry their tall, dark, and titled gentlemen. But that was not the case for most women at the time, nor even the case for women as recently as 50 years ago. Women were (and sometimes still are) dependent on the men in their lives. And that reality is where a number of traditions started—traditions that may feel sexist in the 21st century.

Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend

For a long time, I considered engagement rings to be a kind of frivolous scam. Between my distress over the horrible ethics of the diamond industry, my distaste for the idea that the decision to get married is entirely the man’s prerogative in heterosexual relationships, and my discomfort with the stereotype of women as gold diggers, I very much wanted to be “not like other girls” in my attitude toward engagement rings.

Then I read a little more about the very practical reasons for the tradition of an engagement ring. A woman in possession of such a jewel has some money of her own. If her fiancé were to jilt her, or if her husband were to become abusive, or if she were widowed, she would always have access to the money she could generate from selling the engagement ring. It is her property, free and clear, to do with as she wishes.

Far from a silly bauble that is only valuable because it’s shiny and shows off a prospective husband’s financial assets, having a portable and high-value item that belonged solely to a woman was a way of ensuring some level of financial independence. Engagement rings provide women with a much-needed escape route or ability to survive.

The Go to Hell Fund

Engagement rings are just one of many strategies that offer some financial security—and the freedom that comes with it. That kind of financial security and freedom is exactly what our mothers and mother figures have taught us to create for ourselves.

Angie Klink, author of The Dean’s Bible: Five Purdue Women and Their Quest for Equality, reports that, “Helen B. Schleman, Purdue Dean of Women from 1947-1968, asked every female student and/or faculty member she knew if they had a ‘Go to Hell’ fund.” Schleman wanted to make sure the women under her stewardship could escape a bad marriage or job—that they had the money available to tell a partner or boss to go to hell (or something a little more emphatic).

This was the theme running through all the advice I received from the matriarchs of my own family. My grandmother Betta taught me to not to rely on a man for money. My grandmother Ruthie made it clear that I should always keep a separate account of my own once I was married. My mother counseled me to always keep some cash on me, so I would have the ability to pay for a cab out of a bad situation.

When the world can be a treacherous place, and particularly when it can be a treacherous place in gendered ways, the Go to Hell fund—whether it is a hefty savings account solely in your name, a $20 stuffed down your bra, or a saleable engagement ring—offers the kind of freedom that our foremothers didn’t necessarily enjoy.

Appreciating Our Independence

It shocked me when I first learned that women could not open a credit card without a male cosigner until 1974, a mere 5 years before I was born.

It’s overwhelming to realize that my mother couldn’t have her own credit card without my father’s signature when they got married; that my grandmother had to share a credit card with my grandfather until she was widowed in 1968; and that my great-grandmother, who was a financial genius by all accounts, would have been locked out of this part of financial life until two years before she died.

But my own ability to navigate the world as an independent adult has always felt like a given. I can open my own credit. I can take out a business loan. I can apply for any job for which I am qualified. I cannot be fired for getting pregnant. I have the same civic responsibility for jury duty as any man. My husband is entitled to Social Security benefits based on my work record.

I am a fully independent citizen who does not have to rely on jewelry, or on pin money, or on a male co-signer, to take care of myself and my family. I don’t want to take this independence—independence that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a hand in providing—for granted.

But I also want to honor the practical wisdom from our foremothers. Though we have the right to open a credit card in our own names, continue working while pregnant, take out business loans, and apply for any job, women can still learn a great deal from the wisdom passed down by the women who couldn’t do those things.

Even though the world may be more fair than it was, even in recent memory, our mothers and grandmothers were right to remind us that we should always be prepared to rely our ourselves.

Thank You, RBG

Knowing we are free and independent, even if the shit hits the fan, is what Ruth would want for us. We can honor her contributions to our financial independence by continuing to fight for equality, passing along our financial wisdom to others, and sending a nice contribution to our Go to Hell funds.

Baruch dayan ha'emet.

May her memory always be a blessing.


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