Women must be financially independent to thrive

He who has the gold makes the rules.

–Anonymous (who was she?)

You cannot choose to be financially dependent on a man and also call yourself a feminist.

The past decade has been a hotbed of debating the merits of the stay-at-home mom, how to achieve work-life balance and create workplaces that embrace family. The most recent brouhaha was New York magazine's article The Retro Wife: Feminists who say they're having it all — by choosing to stay at home. Writes the author:

American women are better educated than they’ve ever been, better educated now than men, but they get distracted during their prime earning years by the urge to procreate. As they mature, they earn less than men and are granted fewer responsibilities at work. Fifty years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, women represent only a tiny fraction of corporate and government leaders, and they still earn only 77 cents on the male dollar.

I personally have experienced both sides of this equation: I've always identified as a feminist, and always been driven to succeed professionally. For the short time I was a married mom, I scaled back my work to very parttime and was with my daughter and caring for our home the rest of the time. I was stunned to find that I possess the stereotypical female urge to nurture the home and devote the best parts of myself to my family. I still cherish memories of my long — if exhausting — days spent with my newborn daughter, delighting even in changing poopy pants, babyfood making and cooking my husband dinner every night. But as I've written here, I am so grateful that I did not abandon my career completely. What this New York article does not explore, and the SAHM arguments rarely address, are the real and scary financial vulnerabilities involved with the decision to be a SAHM.

Feminism aims to empower women. Money is always power. That is why economic equality for the sexes has always been at the center of feminist initiatives. By definition, financial independence is at the core of feminism. When you chose to toss away your career, you put your whole family in financial jeopardy, and you rob yourself of your full potential by becoming dependent on a man. By choice. It is impossible to call yourself a feminist and consciously hand over your financial power to another person.

Each and every tenet of the feminist revolution can be boiled down to aim of  financial independence for women:

The vote: If women can't vote for laws that protect their financial interests, women remain chattel in marriage and society.

Equal access to education: We're not talking finishing school! Women haveSexist-ads-from-the-1950-s-feminism fought for Title 9 and access to all levels of primary and higher education so you can gain the skills necessary to have a career, earn money, support yourself and be empowered to make choices on your own behalf.

Equal pay for equal work: Duh.

Sexual assault and domestic violence legal reform: If you do not have your own money it is very hard to muster the confidence to report crime, finance the exit an abusive relationship, or be a plaintiff in a legal case.

Family law reform: No fault divorce set the ball rolling to ensure that the lesser-earning spouse (a.k.a. the wife) is financially protected, and children are financially provided for.

Abortion: Granting women power over their reproductive choices gives them financial power since they are not forced to provide for unwanted children.

Let's quickly address anomalous scenarios that would be immune from this rule: Women who live in oppressive communities (developing countries, mainly), medical conditions which render an adult woman dependent on male relatives, and of course gay women, to whom I say you cannot be dependent on a female partner and also be a feminist. (If you are a lesbian and not a feminist, please email me stat because I want to interview your freaky ass.)

1950s-housewifeEach day I try to give thanks for the feminists that came before me: Suffragists who understood that voting power equals financial power equals gender equality. Second-wave feminists in the 60s and 70s who paved the way for my assumption that a) I would go to college, and b) I could do any career I wanted and be expected to be paid as much as my male colleagues.

In this exercise I find myself being thankful for things in my life that I had no control over — mainly that a family tragedy and ensuing divorce forced me to return to fulltime work and be financially responsible for my family. It is only now in this role as financial provider and mother that I have found all the fruits of the activism and work of my feminist foremothers. It is only now that I am realizing my creative, professional and financial potential.  Looking back, I see how the fact that I earned less in my career created a subtle power shift in my relationship — my husband earned more, and so his career was a priority. With this, it meant that he should invest more time and financial resources in building that career. It also meant that our life plans — relocating, investments, home purchases — hinged on that career.

My earning power and career were secondary. By default, I became secondary in some regards.

My life today is an expression of the benefits of a formal education, equal access to professional opportunity and pay. My children and I are protected by divorce laws that made that transition of our lives easier, and I enjoy the safety and freedom to live as a sexual woman for whom the law affords me protections and choices.

It is only now that my am truly proud that my children can be raised by a person who is living the fullest, richest version of herself — which is exactly what feminism set out to help me do.

Are you following my 10-year marriage contract project? Ryan Seacrest, Woman’s Day, CafeMom and Huffington Post are all over it.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Angela on January 17, 2016 at 11:07 am

    A woman’s responsibility in today’s America is to build her own, direct access to resources, including financial resources, and a network of support beyond a male partner (e.g., sole sourcing). It is risk management so that she is not wholly dependent on a single resource. It is not about choice. it is about responsibility.

    • Emma on January 19, 2016 at 4:07 pm


  2. AW on May 16, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Well strong independent women are a real turn off for many of us Good men which they’re really to BLAME why many of us men are still SINGLE today since they now have their CAREERS that made them so very high maintenance, independent, selfish, spoiled, greedy, picky, and so very money hungry too which certainly it. They will Never Ever go with a man that makes much LESS money than they do since they always will want the BEST and will Never settle for LESS. Quite a Change in the women of today compared to the GOOD old fashioned women of years ago which MOST of the women back then were Never like that at all.

    • Emma on May 16, 2016 at 3:57 pm

      Such sweeping generalizations … I’ve dated lots of good guys and I don’t think they would say I’m selfish, spoiled or the other insults you lay out

  3. Confused Male on March 15, 2018 at 2:20 pm

    I’m in a now 4-year relationship with a woman who identifies herself strongly as an intersectional feminist but who chooses to sleep in every day, spend her hours on Facebook and lunching with friends and only contributes minimally to our household financially. While it’s true that she does the laundry, shopping and some of the cooking, I’ve often said that I did those things for myself before our relationship and that I’m happy to do them again if that’s the obstacle to her career growth (but we all know it’s not).

    I found this article while looking to see if I’m alone in my situation, because I’m confused how a woman can fight the patriarchy while relying on the same for food and shelter. I can’t think of a more vulnerable position of weakness to put yourself in, and yet my wife (and seemingly lots of other women) are making that choice daily.

    I’m truly baffled and I’m not sure how to continue with my wife. I entered the relationship looking for an equal partner and have found myself with something more like a rebellious teenage daughter, who both resents her dependence on me and yet does nothing to change it. The dynamic isn’t healthy for either of us and yet I’m not sure what changes I can make. For me the answer seems to be that she needs to choose to become financially independent and that’s not a choice I can make for her.

    I realize this is a very old post, but thank you for writing it, and thank you in advance for any advice or support you can offer.

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