Fascinating Womanhood: family finances

1950s Woman Shopping Frozen Food Section Of Grocery Store

Occasionally during the course of her book, Helen gives her readers practical, “down-to-earth” level advice. This is one of those chapters, which is dedicated to telling women how they can help their husbands by “developing the womanly art of thrift.”

Like she usually does, she opens up her chapter by appealing to the Bible, which “makes it clear” that it is “the husband’s responsibility to provide the living.” However, also like she usually does, she doesn’t reference any particular passage, just expecting us to know what she’s talking about. However, I can think of a few examples that render this claim completely unfounded:

  • The Proverbs 31 Woman. She’s been used to bludgeon Christian women for decades, but one of the things that “the Bible makes clear” that she does is not just “practice the womanly art of thrift” but she also makes money. Proverbs 31 describes a woman who is like “the ships of the merchant,” whose “merchandise is profitable.”
  • Priscilla, who with her husband runs a profitable tent-making business. Paul frequently talks about how indebted he was to this married couple, and he always lists Priscilla first. Considering that the culture of the time always listed the head of the household first, Paul’s decision to lead with her name is significant. (Acts 18).
  • Lydia, the “seller of purple,” and traditionally considered the first Christian convert in Europe. Because of her wealth and her status as a free woman, she invited Paul and his companions into her home, which she would not have been able to do if she was under the legal control of a husband or father. She was clearly in control of her home, independent of any man (Acts 16).
  • Phoebe, who Paul describes as “minister” (the same word he uses to label other notable pastors) and a “leader” or “patron.” She was tasked with delivering his letter to Rome, a duty that also would have required her to read and interpret it for the church there. She was certainly not staying at home, behind closed doors, hiding behind her husband. (Romans 16)
  • Titus specifically tells Roman-Christian women to be “keepers at home,” which as I’ve written about before, was a charge to run a profitable family business; it was not something Paul wrote to make sure women stay in the kitchen.

“The Bible makes clear” Helen? I’m not sure what Bible she’s reading, but it’s not the one I’m pretty sure everyone else in the world has.

But, the biggest thing that bothers me about this chapter is how harshly she divides up people. The way she talks about married couples in this chapter is incredibly divisive. She boxes every single last human being on the planet into what she thinks is “biblical” without any sort of exceptions, without extending grace, without viewing difficult situations with compassion.

She is strictly addressing wives, here, and what she tells them is that they are to be given “allowances” to cover the “household budget”– which does not include anything outside of groceries and clothing. She forbids women from making any sort of purchase– at all— that doesn’t fit inside of “anything in regular demand.” Any kind of need, like furniture or repairs, is to be sought out and paid for only by the husband, and he has “major jurisdiction and final say.” She tells us that we’re not allowed to discuss these sorts of things with him– ever. If we do, we risk emasculating our husbands and “relieving him of his responsibilities” which, somehow results in husbands becoming incapable of handling money wisely.

This actually fits into Helen’s pattern, and is a direct result of how she views communication. To Helen, any possible sort of discussion (“conflict”) is to be avoided at all costs. If a conversation between a husband and a wife could lead to any sort of disagreement whatsoever, she absolutely forbids you from having it. To Helen, a marriage is only “successful” if the two never disagree, and the only way for that to happen is for one person to never have a say. In Helen’s world, that person is always the wife. The fact that one of the biggest sources of conflict in marriages is money (couples who fight over money once a week are 30% more likely to get divorced) has led Helen to believe that husbands and wives must never, ever talk about it. If you never even discuss money, you can’t fight over it, and presto-change-o, happy marriage!

For families in “financial distress” she tells women they they aren’t allowed to go get a job. Instead, we’re supposed to “reduce expenses” and “trim the luxuries” which… gah. The suggestions she makes for how women could do this? Selling their second car. Cancelling vacations. Don’t be tempted by advertisements. Which, in some situations could be perfectly reasonable advice. However, I’m becoming more and more convinced that Helen has never interacted with a poor person in her entire life. People who have two cars and can afford to sell one of them aren’t in financial distress, I’m sorry. Maybe someone who has two cars is living outside of their means, but that is nowhere near the sort of scale many families are facing when 20% of all children go hungry because they live in “very low food security households.” Selling your second car isn’t going to fix that.

And what are we supposed to do when men “make a mess of things”? When they don’t pay the mortgage, or the bills, when they overdraft their accounts?

Let go completely and turn your back on things. Don’t be anxious, checking the books to see if he added right, or is neglecting anything. If he make a mess of things, let him suffer the consequences, no matter what they are. That is the only way he will learn.

I might have thrown the book across the room at that line. Because he’s not the only one suffering consequences when the bank forecloses on your house because he didn’t pay the mortgage. This sort of comment doesn’t even begin to make sense, but she justifies it with “psychology”:

He will begin to feel responsible, to know that if anyone is to worry about the money, it will have to be him. And he will notice your relief, that you are happier. Let him know you are. As he sees you brighter he will try harder to make a go of things, to keep you happy.

Helen doesn’t live on this planet. I’m positive. If she did, she’d realize how ridiculous a statement this is. Sure, some people are motivated by wanting to make the people in their life happy. I’m one of them. But there are plenty of people who couldn’t give a damn, but she doesn’t even acknowledge their existence. This chapter, while Helen has presented it as practical advice, it is almost entirely inapplicable for huge sections of humanity. It is only relevant to the top 20% of all American households, and is wholly incapable of even making sense anyone who doesn’t have the luxury of two cars and a $70,000-a-year income. Helen, here, is displaying an astounding lack of compassion or even awareness that some families really are destitute. Her white, middle-class privilege is pouring out of her, and it’s more that just disappointing.

Helen isn’t alone in this attitude, which is heartbreaking. Many people in conservative evangelical America share the exact same blinders that Helen has on in this chapter. We’ve forgotten that Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you” and that our primary responsibility as the Church is to care for the widows, the orphans, and the poor. We don’t even know they exist anymore. Not really. Oh, we do the Christmas shoebox drives and the book drives and the canned food drives and the backpack drives– one for each season. And then we completely forget about them, except for those four times a year.

I want to be angry with Helen, but I can’t be angry with Helen without feeling anger towards the modern American church in general.

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  • I joined this bible study that my friends had been telling me was “soo good” for “soo long”. It’s called “Wife of Noble Character.” I’m finding a lot of things in this study like you are discussing. This woman get praise because she never said a word when her husband majorly messed up finacially, they had to move, etc., and he eventually got back on his feet. I would think the wife would be responsible in that case to at least take a look at the finances, if not take them over for a while. It makes no sense. I don’t know what to say to this good friend that takes me to this group. So far, she hasn’t asked me what I think of it. The whole thing seems rather ridiculous.

  • Helen just doesn’t see THOSE people as Christian. She can’t possibly. Because they are so different from her that they might as well be a different species. She is a white, affluent, evangelical wife, and she worships the American Jesus. The rest of humanity simply does not matter to her, as they do not share her walk with God.

  • Oh gosh. My husband and I tried that “if anyone is going to worry about money, it’s going to be him” thing. What a disaster. For one thing, we both knew I was a lot better at doing the finances than he was. For another thing, I enjoyed doing them and he hated doing them. The result? He felt scared and inadequate, knowing it was only a matter of time before something went majorly wrong. And I felt worried and upset pretty much all the time, knowing as well that it was only a matter of time before something went majorly wrong. I had to constantly restrain myself from checking up on him, and I was stressed out constantly.

    We both hated it. When we finally said, “This is ridiculous!” and I took the finances back, peace and confidence was restored to our household.

  • M

    Good heavens, if discussing something is considered conflict, then my husband and I do nothing BUT fight! Why didn’t anyone tell me?! Here I thought I was in a happy, healthy relationship. This whole time I’ve been so blind to the truth…

    Seriously, though, I handle most of the finances in our household. Like Kristen, I’m much better at it than my husband, and he hates doing it. So, it just makes sense for me to manage that area of our lives. Still, I don’t think a week goes by that we don’t talk about our budget or money in some way. I find that regularly discussing our finances actually lowers stress and conflict in this area because we both know where our money’s going and can get on the same page.

    I also want to add that I’d been preached facets of patriarchy and complentarianism growing up in an evangelical church, but am only recently learning to what extent they’re sometimes practiced. It’s…disturbing to me that a book like this exists. Is this viewpoint as extreme as I hope it is? Or is this pretty common?

    In any case, I love reading your blog. Your honesty is amazing, and you’re opening my eyes to a lot of things I probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, so thank you!

  • Nea

    She boxes every single last human being on the planet into what she thinks is “biblical” without any sort of exceptions, without extending grace, without viewing difficult situations with compassion

    That right there sums up the total of fundamentalist advice. No grace, no compassion, no empathy, no second chances for others (while claiming that God’s grace has given second and third and bazillionth chances to you) – and NO CLUE what the world is like outside of affluent (white) suburbia!

  • Sarah

    Wow. A friend of mine knows married women who don’t have a say in their family’s finances. She told me they experience so much pain and feel as though their husbands are too controlling. I had no idea this was so common. I’ve only been married eight months, but I handle all of our finances. My husband is “in the know”, but he also trusts me to keep track of everything because I have more time, and I do most of our shopping. All of my close married friends also handle their family’s finances, and some of their husbands don’t even know the in’s and out’s, but they trust their wives! I think whoever has more capability/time should handle things. If that means you can both equally work on things together, more power to ya. But to disclude women on the basis of Biblical teaching is incorrect.

  • Helen makes infants and idiots of women. Foolish, truly foolish. Your reading of this book and assesment of her posiiton is outstanding.

  • L.

    I knew someone in real life who seemed to live by this advice. Her husband was a compulsive spender (maybe gambler?). They had to move out of their house and into a mobile home. They had small children. He had a job and a business degree. The last I knew her, they were going to have to move out of the mobile home and in with relatives.

    She (but not her husband) went to my church when I was in high school. As I recall, it seemed like everyone felt there was nothing that could be done about the situation. But she could have set some boundaries with her husband. I wonder if anyone suggested that she see a professional counselor? I wish she had known that she did have power in the situation.