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January 10, 2024   5 mins

At a conference in 2015, I got talking to a man who had worked as an engineer for the Scottish Electricity Board in the Seventies. He told me that during that time, working-class women sometimes used their home electricity meters as a “bank”. These women would stockpile coins at the start of the month in their electricity meters, and, later, call out one of the company’s engineers to issue them with a refund. We stood there clutching our Styrofoam cups of coffee, an Irish woman and a Scottish man, pondering silently why this might have been the case. What compelled these women to lock away wages where they couldn’t be spent? The answer hung unspoken between us.

The Scottish savings meters evoke a 20th-century practice known colloquially in Ireland as “the manage”, where working-class women budgeted for their families by separating cash into envelopes and jars earmarked for special purposes — one for Christmas, one for electricity bills, another for new shoes. In poorer households, while men brought home most of the money, managing that money and making it meet the demands of a household was women’s work. It was often an impossible task, somehow making two plus two add up to seven.

This is the kind of social practice that fascinates the Princeton economic sociologist, Viviana Zelizer. Her work focuses on the points where the business of money meets the not so business-like subjects of intimacy, community and the sacred; money when it mixes with sex, with parenting, and with romantic love. She is particularly insightful on the difficulties of negotiating the transfer of domestic money from a husband to his wife.

Women’s money in the 20th century was distinct from everyday cash, which implied a level of patriarchal freedom. Instead, ordinary cash was transformed into tokens with strings attached: “pocket money”, “pin money” and “dole”. But defining the terms of that transition was always difficult. Should women’s money be a payment, an entitlement, or a gift? Framing it as something she was due, Zelizer writes, conferred a dangerous level of entitlement. And yet a payment implies something a little too close to a working transaction: demanding a wage undermined the assumption that some kinds of work — such as childcare or homemaking — were natural to women. If you were paid, it was no longer a “labour of love”. In fact, as feminists involved in the “Wages for Housework” campaign in the Seventies pointed out, getting paid for housework might be the first step in refusing to do that work entirely. The notion of this money as a gift, however, implied layers of subordination and precarity, being subject to some man’s whims and inclinations. There was no such thing as a perfect transaction.

While working-class women struggled to make ends meet, women in upper and middle-class households rarely handled cash at all. Instead, Zelizer writes, they “relied almost entirely on ‘invisible’ dollars”, and had to resort to “asking and cajoling and begging” for addi­tional cash. If this failed, there were always other “underground” tactics, from “home pocket-picking” to “padding bills” — which usually involved asking a dressmaker to send a bill for an inflated sum and pocketing the excess.

This image of the angel in the house “begging” or scouring her husband’s pockets for loose change while he shaved in the morning is jarring. And Zelizer realised that there were more important questions to ask than just whether or not a woman had money. The middle-class women that Zelizer studied were, by all classical economic measurements, comfortable and well-off. Their husbands provided for their every material need. And yet, they had no money of their own and, as a consequence, no real freedom.

I remember having an awkward conversation about household budgets with my own mother, who was married in 1966, three weeks after her 20th birthday. “Your father decided that £5 a week would do it,” she said. “That was to pay for my food Monday to Friday.” And what about clothes? “Well, sometimes he was paid in postal orders and he would give them over to me to cash in. Those were for clothes and children’s toys, days out, treats, that kind of thing.” The conversation hitches and stalls, as it often does with money and family. It feels intrusive. It feels too on-the-nose. By asking about money, I’m asking her to sketch out the power dynamics in her early marriage. But what if you just wanted something? I hedge. “Your Dad was always very generous,” she doesn’t quite answer. “He always bought me things to make life easier for me.” She recites the Sixties housewife’s ultimate wish list: “I had a dishwasher before any of my friends, a hostess trolley, a microwave, a tumble dryer
 Wait! — I nearly forgot the fur coat.”

The weight of our conversation would not be lost on Zelizer. Before she came along, much of the sociology of money, from Karl Marx to Georg Simmel, took the view that money reduced every human exchange to a transaction and every “thing” it touched to its price. In their eyes, money was cold, hard and calculating. Zelizer, by contrast, shows in her book, The Social Meaning of Money (2017) that money is a deeply social technology. She points to all the ways in which things that aren’t meant to be for sale are routinely exchanged: engagement rings for brides-to-be, complex treat economies for courting couples, settlements in the event of the accidental death of a child. She also shows how money can be used, not just to buy things, but to express morality, norms and social values. There’s a reason, for instance, that the poor are offered alms or food stamps rather than cash, which has long been seen as a dangerous form of relief.

We might believe that there is a vast gulf between the legitimate transactions that underscore romantic rituals — the treats, meals out, and jewellery — and the illegitimate ones, such as paying a stranger cash for sex. But Zelizer argues that it all depends on how the meaning of money is transformed through a transaction. By attaching values to money, we can make dirty money clean and clean money dirty. We can communicate power, obligation and vulnerability. For women in the 20th century, money communicated ideas about their place in the home. Unlike cash, the “invisible dollars” of pin money and housewives’ allowances not only made the work women did in the home invisible; they also hid a range of financial constraints and chokepoints — even financial abuse, where one partner takes control of bank accounts and forces the other to account for how every penny has been spent.

In 2024, it’s tempting to think we are worlds apart from Zelizer’s accounts of gender-based financial dependence. But women still earn 85p for every pound earned by men. This tends to make women more reliant on their male partners if they choose to enter into traditional romantic partnerships or have children. And contrary to the tropes of gold-digging ex-wives cleaning up in the divorce courts, women are far more likely to lose out in the aftermath of a marital breakdown, with men typically holding 2.5 times the wealth of their female partners and women’s household income falling by 41% following a divorce.

Furthermore, women continue on average to give up more of their time and income to look after children than their male partners. In the United States, the number of women describing themselves as stay-at-home mothers gradually decreased in the latter half of the 20th century, falling from 49% in 1960 to 23% in 1999. But by 2012, the number had risen once more to 29%, with women citing childcare costs and income stagnation as the motivating factor for returning to the home. The same is true in the United Kingdom, where, for the first time in decades, the number of women not returning to work after having children is on the rise. This leads us to question whether, in heteronormative relationships, women can ever fully escape their economic dependency on wage-earning men. For many women, the financial problems identified by Zelizer have never truly disappeared.