Why Is The Myth That Women Are Bad With Money So Common? History Has Some Answers

American Zoetrope/ Pricel/ Tohokushinsha Film Corporation
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Money is a feminist issue — and yet, women are still reluctant to talk about it. According to a recent Bustle survey of more than 1,000 millennial women, more than 50 percent of people said they never discuss personal finances with friends, even though 28 percent reported feeling stressed out about money every single day. That’s why Bustle launched Grown-A$$ Finances, a series that gets real about what millennial women are doing with their money, and why — because managing your money should feel empowering, not intimidating.

If you spend any amount of time looking at films, literature, and any other media that tells a story about the way women spend money, one idea continues to appear: the idea of the woman as profligate shopaholic. She's a figure of fun or censure, and pops up a lot throughout history — from Sarah Jessica Parkers' Manolo-loving "woman who lived in her shoes" on Sex & the City to the legendarily over-spending Madame Bovary. Though it has been through a million permutations, the basic idea is still crystal clear: give women money or a credit card, and they'll drive themselves straight into a debt-ditch, surrounded by glittery things they don't need. Where did this idea that women are bad with money come from — and why do we so rarely see men depicted in a similar way?

Despite what pop culture may tell us, science has shown that the tendency to overspend is not actually closely tied to gender. While a lot of attention is paid to female consumerism and how women buy things in our culture, men go over-budget just as often — but they aren't given the same scrutiny or evaluated in the same fashion. Why is this?

If you probe into history, you discover that the figure of the decadent woman who spends too much (particularly on things like jewelry and clothes) as a target for political and social opprobium goes back a very long way. And it says a lot about how we think about women's rationality, emotions, and economic power.

Powerful Women Have Been Accused Of Being "Lavish" Throughout History

Wellcome Images

One of the best examples of how female extravagance has been perceived as a perceived moral failing in a powerful woman is in a historical myth; for example. the story that Cleopatra, seeking to impress Marc Antony, dissolved pearls in vinegar and proceeded to drink them. Pliny the Elder relates the story in his Natural History, but, as academic James Grout pointed out, pearls themselves were a Roman symbol of profligacy among women, with Pliny criticizing the trend of wearing several on one earring so that they clicked together. The drink itself was also part of a mythical show of extravagance: Cleopatra was trying to win a bet that she could spend 10 million sesterces on one meal.

While pearls in vinegar are indeed a drink you could make, the story (which has no historical basis) rapidly gained ground among artists and historians as a symbol both of feminine luxuriousness and of "foreign" decadence. Marc Antony's role in this story is generally forgotten, and that's not an accident; keeping the attention focused squarely on Cleopatra and her supposed actions was an easy way in which to undermine a powerful woman's legacy and render her a figure of fun, or of irresponsibility. And this wasn't a one-off example; this kind of thing has happened a lot.

The flip side of this particular kind of pillorying comes from the propaganda surrounding Marie Antoinette, which survives well into the present day. The Queen, according to materials circulated at the time by political enemies, was so violently extravagant that she developed the nickname "Madame Deficit," a name which stood in stark contrast to the desperate financial needs of her people. In reality, scholars note, the Queen's spending was likely not seen as wildly unusual within Versailles, and was matched by the King's. But it was to become her defining characteristic through the work of republicans, who, Judith Thurman wrote in the New Yorker, "saw Marie Antoinette as the insatiable parasite who embodied all the evils of her regime," despite the fact that the country's bankruptcy wasn't tied to her spending at all. Nor, Thurman notes, "did the French people entirely begrudge the Queen her lavish toilettes:"

From an engine of trade and a (deeply out of touch) display of the glories of the French court to a villain who deserved beheading — a transition that was achieved partially through pegging her as an over-spender. It's not exactly an extinct phenomenon, either. Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton have both been scrutinized violently for their spending, particularly on "fripperies" like hair and wardrobe, while simultaneously being held to spectacularly high standards of presentation. It's a war women can't win. So where did it come from?

The Idea Of Women As Inherently "Frivolous" Has Used To Oppress Women For Centuries

Prado Museum

Criticism of women for spending their husbands' and fathers' money on finery and "frivolousness" abounds through history. These women had access to money, the logic went, because of the grace of their male relatives, and had to be restrained from spending it on nonsense. Roman law, at one point, noted that women "delight in and boast about" cosmetics and jewelry because that was their only sphere of influence (though, perversely, the same legal code also refused to let them have any political rights that might give them more spheres of influence). The basic issue, for the Romans and for societies after them, was that women couldn't really be trusted with money because of a fundamental flaw: they lacked the ability to control themselves.

The philosopher Philo noted that "the male was superior to the female because he represented the more rational parts of the soul, while the female represented the less rational." Women were supposedly less capable of reasonable thought and were more emotional, impulsive, and less capable of controlling their baser instincts. Putting them in charge of money, therefore, was seen as risky; money demanded a level head, and women would just run off and spend it on "fripperies." Lincoln's widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, was committed to an asylum as "insane" by her son in 1875 partially because he thought she was spending too much money (she was later released).

Economists have explained that there's still often a fundamental disconnect between economic theory and how women are placed within it because of this rationality myth. Three female economists, in Women & Their Money 1700-1950, note that "whether women can reasonably be conceptualized as 'emotional' economic actors in contrast to 'rational" economic men' is a vital question considering that economics is mostly seen as a rational science. If we see how economic systems work as 'rational,' and women as irrational, then we're always going to condemn their fiscal behavior." And if you think this isn't still part of how we think of women and spending today, you haven't been paying attention.

The Belief Over-Spending Will Harm A Woman & Her Community Goes Way Back

Flemish School

The idea that women who overspend are a danger to themselves and to others turns up as a thread a lot in Western discussions of women and money: if you let women control money, the myth goes, they'd damage everything. Over-spending on adorning yourself, according to opinion in medieval Europe, meant you were attempting to seduce men, an unacceptably forward kind of behavior that had to be tightly controlled. In 19th century America, meanwhile, women were encouraged to donate their jewelry to and sacrifice "unnecessary fripperies" for Christian charity. Allowing a woman to spend on herself was considered dangerous for everybody around her.  

"The overindulgence in a taste for finery," wrote George Washington Bumap in a series of lectures on The Sphere & Duties Of A Woman in 1848, "does not stop at its economical effects. Its social and moral consequences are no less pernicious." Indulging in so much self-decoration, he thought, was a societal disgrace, and "every woman... who gives into these fashionable follies, much more who commences and fosters them, commits a sin alike against humanity, morality, and religion." Can't get plainer, or more sexist, than that.

Skewering a woman's reputation through her spending, particularly on clothing and jewelry (while also criticizing her if she doesn't have a suitable appearance), is therefore a very old-school and intriguing exercise in sexism that involves a lot of historical baggage. It's also, needless to say, nonsense. Some modern women have famously taken the criticism and turned it on its head, as when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent diplomatic messages through her brooches or The Notorious RBG communicated dissent via beautiful jabots on the Supreme Court bench. Their money, they say, is theirs to spend, and those "fripperies" have serious weight.

Check out the “Grown-A$$ Finances” stream in the Bustle App for more tips and tricks on how to save and spend your money.