Women and Money: a Few Thoughts on How We Give It, Ask for It, Earn It, Spend It

by Susan Weidman Schneider

In the touristy areas of the French Quarter, which was relatively unscathed by Katrina, New Orleans streets are full of buskers. By the dozens, these street performers enact all kinds of feats: lumber balancing, group singing, break dancing, rapping; at least this was the assortment I took in when I was there a few months ago. One act was particularly stunning. Two men in eye-catching silver costumes, their bodies sprayed silver to match, stood on a makeshift platform miming to music and moving in perfect synchronicity, human simulacra of robots.

Mesmerized and appreciative, I watched them, but realized that in my wallet I had nothing smaller than a $20 bill. I reached into my pocket for a generous handful of coins and approached their silvered bucket. One of the robo-guys shook his head at me, and without breaking the rhythm of the act said clearly: “No change. Only bills.” Whaaaaat! I was totally taken aback. They should be grateful for anything they get, right?

And then I realized: These guys knew the quality of their work, and they were perfectly comfortable telling the crowd that they weren’t going to undersell their product. Terrific! And a fascinating lesson.

For many women, attitudes about money often reflect what we think about our work and the value we place on our time. Our money – the ways we give it and how we ask for it and how we earn it – send a message to the world. I stood on the street in New Orleans and thought a lot about money that afternoon. I watched tourists happily buying bling (sometimes known as tchotchkes) while transferring no cash to the performers whose antics make the NOLA experience so special. I thought about a friend of mine – a person pretty impecunious – who makes no impulse purchases under $100. She says that setting this limit imposes a discipline. You have to think several times before spending $100, whereas it’s easy to leak out many smaller purchases without noticing the flow.

Cash flow is not a new concern, of course. It’s a large category, which includes what we earn, what we inherit, what we give, and the money that we manage in our homes and communities. While I was doing informal fieldwork observing street performers and their audiences, I was really in New Orleans to meet with student journalists and to report on the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. At the G.A., which with its 3,000 or so attendees is one of the largest annual gatherings of Jews on the planet, it was clear that a serious examination of women’s finances was not front and center. Not even at the concurrent Lion of Judah women’s philanthropy meetings that followed the G.A.

There was energetic and illuminating talk about boys, and the need to keep males connected to Jewish life (who’d have thought…?), but hardly any public discussion about the economy’s effects on women, nor about the grotesque gender gap (it’s the 21st century, for heaven’s sake) in wages in Jewish organizations, reported by Sarah Blustain in the section “Labor Pains” in the winter issue of Lilith. The shocking $20,000 disparity in annual pay between women and men doing comparable work in Jewish organizations is a shande that sociologist Steven M. Cohen calls “the net cost of being a woman in Jewish communal life.” (For some recent history on these issues, check out Lilith’s Reader’s Guide to Labor Pains.) But the G.A., with its excellent sessions on disabilities rights, diversity, social action, Israel policies and more, dimmed the light that could have been cast on the issue of paycheck fairness – or, rather, unfairness – under our own roof.

But it’s not all bad news. Against the backdrop of chronic money worries afflicting every nonprofit, and the anxieties every individual feels about the present state of the economy, and the discouraging dispatches from people (Jewish and non) who monitor gender issues in the workplace, we see a glimmer of hope. Where? In the collective power of freelancers. Freelancers (your yoga instructor, the graphic designer down the block, a bat mitzvah tutor, the taxi driver you rode with last week) are our generation’s equivalent of the pieceworkers with needle and thread who were exploited a hundred years ago and who managed, along with sweatshop workers, to press for protective labor laws. In 2011, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Waist Company fire, Lilith buoyantly spotlights a 21st-century labor hero. Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union, values workers and their work in the same way that New Orleans street mime does, asking for real bills (including in the legislature) and not just short change.

Susan Weidman Schneider is one of the founding mothers of Lilith, which will celebrate its 35th anniversary in Fall 2011. She is the magazine’s editor in chief, author of an oft-quoted Lilith series on Jewish women’s philanthropy and author of three books, among them the landmark Jewish and Female.

This piece appears in slightly different form as the editorial in the Winter 2011 issue of Lilith magazine – “Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist.”