What's A Bag Lady?

Recently, I went to a women's financial empowerment event, which featured guest and author, Leslie Bennetts. She was promoting her new book about Joan Rivers' life, 'Last Girl Before Freeway'. She's impressive in her accomplishments as a journalist and writer, as well as her passion for women's issues. Her previous book was 'The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?' 

During her presentation, she said that the fear of poverty - of becoming a 'bag lady', is one of the most common fears for aging women today. Admittedly, I had to look up what that meant, even though I pictured it: a bag lady is a homeless woman who carries all her belongings in shopping bags. 

That's my fear! My worst imagination of poverty. Utterly unwanted, lonely, haggard, destitute, disheveled and tossed away without any apparent value to anyone.  

But, all of a sudden, when Leslie said that, I didn't feel so ... alone.

RECENT FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE

Not that it makes me feel any better to know other women have a similar fear, but it does present an intriguing situation to explore for myself and for other women. Why is this common? Where does it come from? To begin with, it's historical. And it's very, very easy to forget how far we've come. Only in recent decades have women been able to have even basic control over their own finances and to have financial independence by working.

Some women in the room that evening said they remembered when they could not open a bank account without their husband co-signing... Indignant outrage!! As I let my boiling blood subside, I wondered, "Why does this fear - of abject poverty, social ejection and total loss - still exist for so many women?"

Because many abdicated financial control to the men in their lives, and some still don't know they have a choice. Their life and sense of security is at the mercy of their husband. He who earns. He who has control over financial matters. He who provides. She, who receives. She, who, even though she may work, does not participate in financial decision making or planning.

These women are not empowered. They are in relationships where their independence is compromised. Their basic needs are provided by someone else. They have a certain 'role'. They lack the knowledge, education, and experience to be in control financially or to even feel competent enough to have the conversations. And women tend to not speak up, participate or engage in a topic unless they feel competent - like 1000% sure that they know what they are talking about. 

Most women from previous generations never learned about finances or money management in school or talked about it with their parents. Money can be a taboo topic, and for many women - of any generation - it carries guilt and shame. Most adult women today grew up being told they weren't good at math and that finance was only for men. Numbers were a man's skillset. Girls could be secretaries. 

Clearly, we have a lot more definitions to rewrite - about ability and proficiency! More shoulds to silence - about what a woman, by definition of being female, should do! What her contribution really means.

But first, some data.

FEMALE ECONOMIC IMPACT & EMPOWERMENT

Women control 85% of consumer spending globally and make 70% of major financial decisions for themselves and their families (auto, insurance, home and investment). In the US, women control $14 trillion assets or roughly 60% of personal wealth. Globally, women control $36 trillion in total wealth.

Based on a UN Women's Report, when more women are educated and participate in the workforce, the economy grows. And it grows faster. The report also found, unsurprisingly, that women’s economic equality is good for business.

Also, when more women are in leadership and senior management positions, organizational effectiveness is increased. My experience already taught me this and is one of the reasons I am doing more work with organizations and management teams to integrate female leadership through training and development programs. 

Yet, labour participation is still unequal. In 2013, the male employment-to-population ratio stood at 72.2%, while the ratio for females was 47.1%. Globally, women are paid less than men. Women in most countries earn on average only 60-75% of men’s wages. 

The data in the UN Women's Report is enlightening and somewhat enraging. These two examples stood out to me: 

  • "Women bear disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work. Women devote 1 to 3 hours more a day to housework than men; 2 to 10 times the amount of time a day to care (for children, elderly, and the sick), and 1 to 4 hours less a day to market activities."
  • "Gender inequalities in time use are still large and persistent in all countries. When paid and unpaid work are combined, women in developing countries work more than men, with less time for education, leisure, political participation and self-care. Despite some improvements over the last 50 years, in virtually every country, men spend more time on leisure each day while women spend more time doing unpaid housework." 

Guilty, guilty, guilty! I admit it, I still do a ton of housework. I know I "shouldn't" ... 

I know I'm supposed to do more business-productive things with my time. But, it's a default. I have the same default around cooking and meals. My husband certainly isn't obliging, shaming or guilting me into the care-taking stereotypical woman's housekeeping role. I do it because I care. It's important to me to have a clean, organized, uncluttered space. It's important to me to have healthy meals and snacks, and to make time to share those meals with him. It's a choice I make.

WE CAN CHOOSE THE ROLES 

For years, I would stress over making dinner every night. Just so. On time, well prepared, varied and interesting. Thinking, planning, shopping, preparing. On top of being an entrepreneur, investor and advisor. I didn't realize it was causing me that much anxiety until we got in an argument.

I had all this pent-up perception of ungratefulness, lack of appreciation, and all the usual things we get angry about when we feel under-appreciated for the way we, as women, prioritize family and home, no matter how much we are working, savings lives or saving the world.

It turns out, he never expected - nor asked - me to make dinner every, single, night. That's right. I was stunned. And I couldn't even retort. I had put all that pressure and all those expectations on myself. Me. Just, me.

Now I make certain choices just a little differently, and with a lot of conscious awareness. I'm questioning myself when I default to an unconscious behavior like cleaning, while passive-aggressively being loud about it. I open my mouth and ask a question to gain clarity or ask for help to alleviate the burden. I give myself the power to choose the reason I'm going to do something. Then, it's truly up to me to choose whether I want to be doing something else. I'm accountable for those actions and their consequences.

My 'role' is up to me. It's my choice. In every situation where I show up, I can choose how I show up, and who is showing up.

I recognize that not every woman can choose. Certainly not every woman, everywhere, can make the same choices I make. For some women, undoing a belief in who they are is not fully possible. Most can't just get up and walk away, though some do. There are real situations where a woman may be in danger if she tries to break out of her pre-assigned role. Some women have nothing to fall back on, financially or materially, if they leave. That's damn scary.

I honor and recognize how fortunate I am.

However, for most of us, it's really important to recognize where we do have a choice. Where we are choosing to act in outmoded roles. Where we are abdicating our independence and personal power. Where we are defaulting to beliefs that are not actually imposed on us, and that pose no danger. Except the danger of keeping ourselves unhappy, frustrated, stressed-out, and disconnected from our deep, driving desires. 

The work of self-inquiry needs to be done within each of us. We need to work through limiting beliefs that we are clinging to. Beliefs that are acting like taskmasters, naysayers, haters and bullies. Nasty, disempowering, soul-sucking beliefs about who we are, what we are capable of, what we can and should do, the work we want to bring to the world, our 'roles' and the change we want to realize can absolutely be released and replaced by more empowering beliefs, constructs and mindsets.

BACK TO THE BAG LADY

Why do I bring all this up in relation to the bag lady?

I'm illustrating examples of the way our minds can weave tall tales that we ultimately act on, unconsciously. There are societal and cultural factors that we think are real. But they are not. They are outmoded ideas and opinions that have no bearing on who we really are. And deep inside, when we take a moment to stop and listen to our hearts, and make an inquiry of the soul, we know.  

We know we are allowing 'them' to dictate our beliefs, our thoughts, our actions and our outcomes. But 'they' are holding us back unnecessarily. We don't want to admit it, but it's easier this way. It's easier to let an external influence or group-think or media message keep us unconscious. It's deep, difficult work to find our authentic self and haul it back up into the daylight. 

But something is changing. We feel called. We can all feel that there is more. And we aren't finding it out 'there'. We need to be more diligent and more discerning with our thoughts and our beliefs. Especially about our roles. Because those roles are up for grabs. They are up for re-election. For redefinition. 

None of us are going to be the bag lady. 

That's an old, archaic persona. She is a cultural, fear-based construct that has kept too many women from making decisions that could lead to a better life. Why? They were kept in fear of being destitute because they were not financially independent. And today more than ever, we have no reason not to take control of our independence. Especially through our ability to earn and with sound financial planning.

ROLES & ROLE MODELS

There are some incredible women, like Steph Wagner, who are making it their mission to bring financial independence to women going through transitions. Or Amanda Steinberg, who leads a female financial planning company that educates first and provides services second.

Listening to Leslie recount the stories about Joan Rivers and other women throughout the years reminded me of how much even I take for granted today when it comes to being an independent, ambitious, and empowered woman. 

It's important to let the rage fly when inequality and gender bias is keeping women down. It's more important to do something about it. It's of even greater importance to take that rage and be proactive with it. To transmute it into power, and give it back to ourselves.

We choose our roles. And by doing so, we are role models for others. We provide a kind of silent yet staggering permission to other women, and girls, to do the same. When we consciously choose our roles, we choose our present, and irrevocably change our future.

 
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