Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Brooks the Communist (?) but Never the Feminist

David Brooks' op-ed today is about the economics of marriage. Specifically, it is about his upset over couples maintaining separate checking accounts. A quote from To Have and to Hold, for Richer for Poorer:
"But some of the people quoted in Shellenbarger's article seem unaware that there may be a distinction between the individualistic ethos of the market and the communal ethos of the home. A Texas woman celebrated her family's separate accounts, remarking, "It's so freeing to be your own person, and not feel like someone is looking over your shoulder." It's not clear whether she's talking about a marriage or a real estate partnership.

I went to the local bookstore and was startled to see how many personal finance gurus insist on separate accounts. 'If you're part of a couple, maintain separate accounts - yours, mine and ours,' writes Glinda Bridgforth in 'Girl, Get Your Money Straight.'

'Each partner needs his or her own money,' writes the best-selling guru David Bach. 'Regardless of whether or not you both work, each of you should maintain your own checking and credit card accounts.' Bach says he doesn't need or want to know every detail of how his wife spends her money: 'It's none of my business.'"

Notice whose finances are targeted as being "separate"? Once again, sociological wannabe Brooks fails to locate marriage in a historical context. Women were once the legal property of their husbands. After that (and at the same time), property they brought to the marriage was legally then their husbands. All the while (in families where the man could afford a wife to stay home), men continued to earn money and women were at the mercy of their husbands economically.

So really what Brooks laments is a new formation of family economics that seems to be more empowering for women (most likely middle class women, as poorer families are still going to have to pool all their resources to get by). He calls this individualistic rather than communal. He reveals a patriarchal bias of family, which has meant historically that the wife is supposed to sacrifice her property for the commune the husband controls.

It's amusing to hear Brooks espouse communal values. But using this rhetorical device, he is trying to justify a status quo that has hampered women's ability to be self-sufficient and not dependent on her husband. This has kept many women not only in unhappy, unhealthy marriages but also psychologically and physically damaging relationships as well.

So the economics of marriage do matter. Does he forget the divorce rate? So sisters, make sure you are taking care of yourself.


At 10:18 AM, Blogger Drek said...

I'm not sure it's as simple as you suggest, Erin. Certainly the idea that women become the property of their husbands is repugnant, but joint accounts could also be seen as a way to equalize some of the power in a marriage, given that the male will probably be earning more. While separate accounts in some ways empower women, they may also empower men a whole lot more. Just something to think about.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger Erin said...

It is a good point that men are more likely to earn more than their wives. If this is the case and they have separate accounts economic power (which could lead to other issues of power) is unequally distributed. In fact, I know of some relationships like this. So, let me be cleark, I'm not saying that separate accounts are the answer to inequality in a marriage.

Fred's post "Brooks Dissent" at Stone Court, goes into this issue more than my post.

However, I am saying that historically, joint accounts have not benefited women (or the family overall which I should have elaborated on) as much as they have created situations in which women's choices have been seriously limited. But Brooks is not interested in how things affect women, indeed he is uninterested.

I find simplicity is better for blogging, and more conducive for time.

It leaves ample opportunities for my fellow bloggers and other guests to make comments. The more the merrier!

At 2:02 PM, Anonymous clew said...

I dunno, Drek; I think about half of working women are now the highest earners in the family. (This is probably tilted by having the poorest workers be single women, and the richest men most likely to have spouses without jobs. But.)

In my casual survey, anyway, the actual advice is almost always to have three accounts, and to have the bulk of the money for joint expenses, current or retirement. And some couples intentionally equalize access to money by, for instance, having each paycheck split in the same proportion between two private accounts and the joint one.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger alice, uptown said...

I'd just like to remind Drek that the earliest U.S. legislation allowing married women to own property was New York's "Married Women's Property Act" of 1848. Prior to 1964's federal Fair Credit Act, married women had a hard time getting credit in their own names, even if they generated the greater income in a family.

As a financial planner, I see couples who have comingled all their money (except retirement accounts, which legally are owned only by one person), and personally, I think they are nuts.

Given the divorce rate and the fact that one person can clean out a joint checking account in the time it takes to sign a check, I can't see how that could be construed as "empowering" to married women -- particularly not if one partner in the marriage stays at home and the other generates the income.

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