A Feminist Icon Reflects on Money

Gloria Steinem talks about the financial progress women have made and analyzes her own strengths and weakness in managing her assets

Discussing women and finances with Gloria Steinem, the 67-year-old activist and author who helped ignite the 1960s feminist revolution, is like participating in a seminar on the recent history of women in our economy. "The women's movement has always been one of finances, but it has taken different forms," says Steinem, who spoke to me at her Manhattan duplex last month.

How did the women's movement first address the subject of money and finances?

Back during the Suffragist Era, women used to be the property of their husbands or fathers. The movement fought for the women's right to own property and retain their own salaries. That was certainly financial.

What happened in the next phase?

The second wave, which began in the 1960s, was about self-sufficiency, the right to earn money, and the ability to support oneself in the paid labor force. Out of that came the emphasis on equal pay for equal work. Then came comparable worth. That's where you don't just look at the job per se, but a comparable position in terms of training, experience, and skill level. Obviously we don't yet have equal pay, and we certainly don't have comparable worth. We've narrowed the gap, but we still have more to go.

Where do you think the movement is now with regard to women and money?

What is beginning to enter the public consciousness now is the way in which money is passed down. Concentrations of wealth are passed down in this culture in a very biased way. The widows are almost never in control of what passes through them. It usually goes to the son or under professional control. But women in families of inherited wealth are beginning to prevail and take control of their money and break the trusts. It takes a lot of courage to do that, to address not just the problem of economic equality, but to do it inside your own family.

What about women who don't inherit wealth?

More and more women are starting their own businesses after being treated with such inequality in the paid labor force that they hit the glass ceiling, got stuck in the pink-collar ghetto, or couldn't adapt their schedules to their need to raise kids. But access to capital is still a problem for women.

What can we do to change that?

We need to invent new ways of moving forward. For instance, communal capital, like three women buying a florist shop together. There are a variety of women who come together as venture capitalists, or as angels to women who own their own businesses. We need much more of that.

Do you think the women's movement has stressed how important it is for women to take financial responsibility for themselves?

I think money in the form of a salaried job, "a room of one's own," and independence has been superemphasized by the women's movement. The accumulation of wealth has been less emphasized, perhaps because a lot of feminists came out of the left, as I and others did. The dominant idea now is to take control of our own financial lives, to achieve security and freedom, but not to become like the rich guys for whom no amount of money or power would be enough.

Women are trying to redefine power as control over our own lives, not control over others. So, yes, I think we emphasize financial independence enough, but perhaps not enough about planning for the entirety of our future.

How did your family handle finances?

My father was the financially irresponsible member of the family, always getting into debt. My mother, on the other hand, was the worrier, the responsible one. I'm a little bit of each. He taught me to live with insecurity, which is why I could become a writer and a feminist organizer, and she taught me to remember that disaster could strike.

What kind of investments do you have?

I have never invested in the stock market, mostly because I never had any money. I had just enough to live on for 60 days at a time. We do absorb what our families have done, and people in my family invested very little in the stock market.

If they did invest, it was to buy property after the war (World War II). I follow my father's philosophy, which is to never buy anything that you can't sell for more--mostly antiques or objects of art. My father was an antiques dealer and he taught me to find value in assets. I've never owned a car, but I own my apartment.

Do you have a retirement account?

I do save for a pension fund, which is invested by a woman friend. It was a big financial step toward maturity for me to create a pension fund, which I started when I was well into my 50s. I could have done it sooner.

Do you have any of the typical issues surrounding women and money, such as aversion to risk and difficulty making financial decisions?

I have a tolerance for risk, certainly. And while I am comfortable with making financial decisions, I am bored by the detail. I just don't pay attention, except to make sure the pension fund is in good hands.

You recently got married. How do you and your husband, David Bale, handle your finances?

We keep our finances separate. We often find ourselves arguing over whose turn it is to pay for things when we go out, and each one insists it's their turn. So far, there hasn't been any difficulty. We're just starting to talk about estate planning, but haven't done as much as we should. We haven't made out a joint income-tax return yet--or even figured out whether we should. We will have to talk to the accountant and see what makes sense.

Are you confident about your financial security and retirement?

I had thought I was going to end up as a bag lady, but my response to this fear was that I could always turn around and organize the other bag ladies.

Now, however, I don't think that anymore. I no longer fear I'll end up on a street corner somewhere. Since I've had a pension fund, I've changed my state of mind. I feel comfortable and confident that I'll never retire. That's because I feel that I have never really had a job. I've been working at what I care about, and some of it has been a source of income.

By Toddi Gutner

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.