Samtaben’s post has led to a massive comment discssion about financial independence for women. Oddly enough, I had recently been reflecting on financial independence and financial awareness among the women characters of late 1700s to early 1900s literature (English, that is). They are personal finance ninjas!
These women couldn’t inherit much property, and they couldn’t work either. This lack of financial independence led to acute financial awareness. They know how much their net worth is (and also how much the net worth of an eligible bachelor is). In Pride and Prejudice, we’re told Bingley’s annual income a mere fourteen paragraphs into the book. By contrast, The Diary of Bridget Jones doesn’t mention income or net worth at all in hard figures – it’s only alluded to in descriptions of where Bridget’s parents live, Mark Darcy’s job, and so forth. And then the rest of Pride and Prejudice goes on to talk about various quirks of inheritance, the income of various men, and so on and so forth. (And yes, there will be a blogpost or column at some point about how the book is about Goldman Sachs). In Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp knows exactly how indebted she is and how long she can keep her creditors at bay.And so on up to Saki in the early twentieth century, where there are so many female characters who talk about the interest rates on various bonds.
Then the Edwardian era starts, and we get PG Wodehouse and people start marrying for love instead of money. Money problems are now resolved by unleashing entrepreneurship – health farms, onion soup bars, buying rubber estates in Malaya – with the seed capital arranged through stealing diamond necklaces, holding pigs to ransom or simple blackmail. But there’s a sudden crashing of financial awareness – none of the characters is bothered about how much something yields. There’s a blissful unconcern for the mechanics of finance. Then again, there’s blissful unconcern for pretty much everything in Wodehouse, so perhaps I should go and reread Somerset Maugham and make sure this is the case throughout the era.
The Gift of the Magi (to be fair, it’s American) is written in 1906 and is a sort of turning point of financial awareness. Della knows that she’s broke, but has no idea of how much her hair is worth until she goes to get it appraised. On the other hand, she’s sort of financially independent – she doesn’t work, but she does run the household accounts herself. (Incidentally, I can’t read that story without rolling my eyes at that couple and the poor communication in their relationship. Here is xkcd’s much funnier take on the story.)
The odd thing is that while the women in Victorian literature is hyper-aware of what investments yield, my own relatives are not quite as keyed in. My (alive) grandma is paranoid about her cashflow and how she handles her accounts, but is clueless about investments. My aunts are better off in that they know about investments, but stick to fixed deposits and (sigh!) property. Actually, I now recall that this is not strictly true. In my childhood, my bua would not give me presents for my birthday as she didn’t know what I wanted, and she didn’t give me cash as she was afraid I would blow it all on riotous living. So she gave me US-64 units, and the Unit Trust of India blew it all on riotous living. But that is a separate matter. She was aware of mutual funds, is the point. However, she was the exception – my mum and other aunts usually stay away from financial securities, and park their money in the nearest available fixed deposit. Any shares were bought by the menfolk on behalf of the ladies, with the ladies usually not even aware of what they owned or what they were getting.
I was discussing this with Nilanjana Roy back when I was in Delhi last month, and she said that the financial ninjitsu was pretty common in Real Life India as well, because women would come into a marriage with nothing but their dowry. (I was a couple of beers down at this point, and they were the first beers of 2010, so I may not be repeating her words with great accuracy.) So this is weird. Is my family atypical in not having women who monitor their net worth madly, or is this an artifact of being Arya Samajis and so not putting dowry?
Beloved readers, put fundaes in the comments! What is your experience of financial awareness, and that of the women around you? Does it match Samtaben’s worries that women without financial independence have no financial awareness either? Does it match the Bronte sister’s characterisation of financially dependent women being acutely financially aware? Or are you in the happy position of being a financially aware and independent lady?