Demystifying the Power of Moolah

"Women, emotions and cash." This is the subtitle Liz Perle chose for her new book, Money: A Memoir, a brutally honest look at how women's conflicted relationship to money holds them back in love and life. We know more about our friends' sex lives, she says, than we do about their pocketbooks, and women are still caught in a push-pull of desire for cash and shame over that desire. Perle doesn't offer any easy answers, but she forces us to ask hard questions about one of our deepest taboos. And asking the questions is the first step.

AlterNet met with Perle in her San Francisco office and asked her all about sex, love, divorce court, double-ovens, and how to decide who should pick up the check.

In this book, you argue that money is always a fraught symbol.

Yes, it always carries the weight of something else. Money for men is power, it translates into sexual power. And for women, it's an aphrodisiac, because for centuries, women could only survive by attaching themselves to people who had money.

So I'm reducing here, but it seems that in the first half of the book you say that for men, money means power, and for women, money means love and security. But then at the end, you reinterpret that formula and say actually that for women too, money means power, which is why our relationship to it is so problematic. But when you say "power," what exactly do you mean?

Power: independence, freedom, the ability to make your own decisions.

Why wouldn't we want that? Why would women have a hard time embracing it? Isn't that exactly what women have been fighting for?

OK, you've got to look at how fast this has all happened. This is where the women's movement to me, is alive and well.

Move back a few generations: My grandmother's relationship to money was indirect. She didn't work. My mother, she went to college and she worked, but then she met my father and stopped working. Now, she died, so I don't know what would have happened, she might have gone back to work. That was a shift, but the money was still expected to come from the husband. The image of nirvana that was being broadcast was still the idea that the husband brought home the money.

Remember that the media creates norms. The Cleavers never existed, but how many people do we describe as Eddie Haskell? The media images are archetypes for us, so my mother felt perfectly secure depending on my father.

Now, today society will judge me on two different scales when they weigh my worth: 1) the amount of money I make and the prestige of my position, and 2) my ability to attain the womanly arts: to marry, to reproduce, to keep a nice home.

What about attractiveness?

Oh, that's part of the womanly arts. Implicit in that is that you've got to look good enough to get there in the first place -- and then keep yourself there.

So here I am: I have both those values systems inside me, I'd have to be the girl in the bubble not to. Each of those value systems contains a specific relationship to money. ... One is direct, the other is indirect. And I've spent my life ping-ponging back and forth between the two.

So you are in this constant state of turmoil between two ideals, two archetypes, and when you have two ideals that are discordant, it makes for a lot of conflict and ambivalence. It's these two different value systems that operate in our society, whether or not we accept them, and they pull us apart.

In your book, you say that the younger generation is different from your generation. What's the difference? Are the conflicts resolved? You found the younger women to be less conflicted.

Yes, I think younger women are more comfortable with their material sides And I'm not sure that's all to the good. The person who reflected the healthiest relationship to money was this one woman, Anna. She knows that cash is just cash. I admire her, because she's got a very clear sense of what cash can and can't do. What they don't have is a sense of fiscal responsibility, they've been raised in a society of credit card debt. That will be their challenge.

It's also more expensive to be middle class than it used to be.

[Laughs] Ah yes, the poor middle class. First of all, what constitutes the range of what we call middle class these days is huge. And I call it an emotional state more than just a financial one. It's an emotional middle class because it's about belonging to a group of people that has enough money to satisfy their material needs and yet feel secure.

Now most of this has been financed by debt, which is not a good development. When I first started writing this book, the average debt of an average family was $8,000. A year later, when I finished, it was $9,000. People save less than 1 percent of their earnings. Look at our country! The fish stinks from the head down.

Liz Perle
Photo credit: Steven Pressman

So we may be more comfortable with our material expression, but we sure haven't figured out how to live within our means. And part of that is because we still get confused between what we need and what we want.

Can you give me an example of something you think you need, when really you just want it?

Oh my god. A double oven. All I want is a double oven. And to get that double oven I would need a new house! I have this tiny kitchen, I'd have to get rid of a bathroom to make room for the oven. So I know I just want it, but I tell myself I need it. How am I gonna cook this pot roast, and dessert!

But you know, people have managed this crisis for thousands of years.

OK, so to take the bigger issues of how money plays out in a marriage to something smaller, like a date. What would be the ideal way to handle the dinner check?

I think the healthiest thing is if people don't even make it an issue. Look what it's doing, it's carrying all this emotional freight. What is it, for real? It's a dinner check, it's not anything else. There is a whole industry that has built itself around the idea the fact that we are all too happy to let gifts do the talking when it comes to love. Or sex. Or lust. The ideal thing for a dating situation is to see that dinner is dinner and it costs something, but that's it. There's nothing else to say.

You wrote this book for women. If you were to write a version of Money: A Memoir for men, what would you have to say?

You are more than your wallet. Start valuing yourself by contributions that have nothing to do with what you earn.

You know if I were a man, I'd have an answer for that: "Easy for you to say -- every woman I meet wants to know how much I make."

Sure, and you'd be right, but this is where social change comes in, with the awareness that there is a social prism. Gloria Steinem said, "No social change without men, too." And money is definitely a man's issue as well.

I think men's ambivalence comes from the fact that on the one hand they want to be evaluated by the money they make, because it creates a very clear hierarchical goal which is comfortable and easy to tell where you stand in the pecking order. And also they are very aware of being short-changed because they don't get honored for other things, things that they don't get compensated for. You need a lot of inner strength to make a lot less than your wife. You've got to think well of yourself.

So men are split in two different directions as well, but the conflict plays out differently?

The point is that we all need money to survive. We all want money to be comfortable and secure. And we all desire money because it creates social mobility, power. I would like to see that desire go gender-blind.

How relevant do you feel arguments like this are to women who are not members of the middle class? In lower-income, inner-city communities, for example, where the woman is usually the primary breadwinner?

Well here's the thing, when you're writing about money, there is not one truth, except that we all need it. But you're right, and that almost stopped me from writing the book. I called my agent and I said, "You know, I can't do this. I'm giving the advance money back, I'm writing this middle-class book "

And my agent said, "AND? These people don't need to wrestle with these issues?" He was right. The middle class are the people going into debt. They're not planning for their old age, they're raising children on credit. Basically, just because you're middle class doesn't mean you're not fucked up.

And if you're working class, you don't have a lot of these problems, you have other problems, which trump them. There's a food chain of issues. If you're working for survival, you're not going to be dealing with guilt. You're going to be dealing with sustenance. So there is a hierarchy to these demands. And maybe it was self-justification, but finally I realized that my feeling so guilty about writing a book about self and women, was just another form of guilt about money.

Sure -- the first thing you were going to do was give the publisher his money back.

There you go, and what was it? Guilt over being a member of the class of disposable income.

You write a good deal about how questions of what you were entitled to played out in your own divorce. And of course this goes directly to the way we do or don't value child-rearing and taking care of a home as work. Not on the level of feelings or self-respect, but literally on the legal level, when you start talking about divorce settlements.

It really varies state by state. We live in a country that has a very uneven playing field regarding divorce. If I had gotten divorced in California, I'd be a very wealthy woman. California, and the other equal property states come closest to recognizing that you don't need a pay stub to work, that the assets which accumulate in a marriage are the product of everyone in that marriage.

I know many wealthy women -- there's one woman I interview in my book -- who got divorced a couple of times, who will be paying huge amounts of alimony to her ex-husbands. It cuts both ways: Very fair, gender-blind makes sense. Not always fairly meted out, but in principle it makes sense.

But then you go to a place like Connecticut, or New York, or other states which are not equal property states, and you have to prove that what you do is work. Because we're still on the gold standard. We only accord the appellation "work" to something we pay taxes on.

But look, I work as hard at home as I do in the office. I'm not paid for it, but in a divorce I'd better look at what I'm doing as work, and not be ashamed of saying so and asking for it.

Where does that shame come from?

Well, as I said, it's this very schizophrenic feeling about money, where they feel ashamed to ask for it, where they feel that it's a handout in some way -- because someone else has the pay stub. But the fact of the matter is that frequently the person wouldn't have that pay stub without your hard work. And until you can look at that without guilt or embarrassment, you're not gonna be paid for what you do.

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