I was born in 1958, when television was still in its infancy. As a child, I spent my summers mesmerized by the re-runs of those classic early shows that were shown during the daytime hours. I especially loved “I Love Lucy.”
In the shows of that era, father’s came home every night, mothers were always well-dressed and perfectly groomed, and the children were always receptive to the moral lessons that were taught. These shows were clever, funny, and they showed a world where all the problems and issues were worked out when the show ended 30 minutes after it started.
What the shows also gave us was a perfect time capsule of the societal roles of men and women during that era. In these shows, the man was the wage earner who worked all day and came home expecting a clean home and dinner on the table. The woman stayed home and dealt with the minor problems that might pop up in the course of the show. However, anything of any consequence was dealt with by the man when he got home from work. It was inconceivable that a woman could solve a problem on her own.
If the woman made a mistake on these shows, the norm was for the man to reprimand or punish the woman, using the same behaviors one would use to discipline a child. I can remember multiple episodes of “I Love Lucy,” when the husband, Ricky Ricardo, would throw the wife, Lucy, on his lap to administer a firm spanking. No one raised an eyebrow at the time and the canned laugh track assured us this was high comedy at its best.
Another area that women were forbidden from having any say in was finances. The man was the wage earner and he kindly gave the woman an allowance that she was to then pay for all the household expenses out of. It was clear that he was the one who decided what the allowance was to be, with little if any input from the woman. There were lots of shows during this era where the plots centered on the woman wickedly manipulating the man to try and buy things for herself that were above and beyond what her allowance would cover.
These shows are interesting anachronisms that seem antiquated today. No woman my age or younger would tolerate being treated like an overgrown child. Or so I thought.
I have recently heard a sad story from a friend, whose tale I never thought I would hear about in this day and age. The woman is in her early 40’s, and she has been enduring some pretty severe marital problems. When she confided in me, I tried to coach her on how to prepare herself if, what was for her, the worst case scenario came to pass. As we talked, it became clearer and clearer that she has been living a life that I thought had been safely left behind in the ‘50’s.
She has no idea how much money he makes; the only account they share is the one he puts her grocery allowance into; their taxes have not been done for a few years; and she has never had any say in how their money is managed. This lack of financial communication absolutely amazes me.
I got married in 1977, 25 days after my 19th birthday. From the first day of our marriage we both deposited all of our earnings into a joint account and I paid the bills. I have never had anyone else ever pay my bills since. Yes, my husband was the only one who worked when my children were little and I was a stay at home mom, but I was the one who wrote the checks and balanced the budget. Years later when I lived with another man, we kept separate accounts. I paid all of the household bills, he paid for miscellaneous other items. At this point in my life, I can’t even conceive of anyone else paying my bills.
Since I came of age in the 70’s, I wondered if I was so adamant about paying all the bills because when I was growing up it was inconceivable a woman would do so. After all, women were not allowed to get credit cards in their own name until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. Before that, if a woman applied for a credit card, the decision whether or not the bank would issue her a card was up to the bank.
So, I asked around. Most of the women in my VERY informal poll either were in charge of their family’s finances or worked with their husbands on maintaining their budget. To my surprise, there were a couple of exceptions; women who had no idea what the details of their family finances were. Coincidentally, one woman and her husband had just had a friend die unexpectedly and were already talking about making her more informed about their finances.
All of the women I spoke to, including my friend with the marital crisis, are intelligent, informed women. They have, or had, interesting careers that stimulated and fulfilled them. For whatever reason, it just worked better in their relationship to let their husband handle all of their money.
The older I get the less interested I am in telling other people how to live their lives. Every couple has to establish what works in their relationship and each person has to decide where their comfort level lies. I also hate to give unsolicited advice. However, I also want women to be able to fend for themselves if they ever find themselves suddenly on their own.
If you have no idea what your financial situation is, and if you can approach the issue with your partner, please have that conversation. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow and death can visit even the happiest marriage. There were too many women who were married in the 1950’s who found themselves widowed or divorced with no idea how to take care of themselves financially. Learning a new skill while struggling with grief is not the best way to learn that skill.