agency, autonomy, cher, Christian Welzel, Christopher Peterson, control, female power, freedom, Gloria Feldt, happiness, Helen Gurley Brown, I am a rich man, independence, Jeff Fairbourn, Paolo Verme, Roberto Foa, Ronald Inglehart, strength, Will Wilkinson
I have daddy issues.
My father was detached and disinterested (at best) for most of my childhood and adolescence before cutting off contact with me completely. A shadowy figure, usually working, often distant, frequently disapproving, he never seemed to provide me with enough of his attention.
As an adult, this void translated into a deep-seated need to feel taken care of. I never felt safe as a child, much less as an adult, so I gravitated toward relationships with men who would take care of me. I spent my twenties trying to figure out how I could be desired, how I could find a man who wanted to desire (and protect) me. I thought that would make me feel safe.
I spent my thirties imagining a future in which I would be surrounded by love, with a husband, some children, a house, and all the security I had ever wanted. I thought that would make me feel safe.
I joined one of those matchmaking agencies that pairs beautiful young women with the men who can afford them. My dates had fancy cars and fancier bank accounts. I briefly had a suitor from Texas. I flirted with the notion of being a kept woman. I thought that would make me feel safe.
All I wanted was to feel loved and secured, taken care of. I wanted a safety net that would envelop me. I wanted that which I had never been able to find. I didn’t know that I could provide it for myself.
And then I realized that a safety net can suffocate you. It doesn’t just protect you; it tethers you, it restricts you, it traps you.
Image by Jeff Fairbourn.
When someone owns you, they own you. Your life is no longer your own. You must worry about what they want from you, how to keep them happy, how to keep them wanting you. That money in the bank account? It comes with strings attached. These strings may be thin and wispy, dancing in the breeze, or they may be crushing and weighted, but they are always going to be there. And you will never be able to forget it.
One of my idols is the legendary Helen Gurley Brown, author of the groundbreaking Sex and the Single Girl. “Don’t use men to get what you want in life – get it for yourself,” she often said. Why? Because then you own it. You own your choices. You own your freedom. You own you. You can do what you want, when you want, and that is power.
Feminist activist Gloria Feldt, author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power,” argues that women must liberate themselves from outdated social structures and standards. In her first chapter, Feldt reflects on one of most confounding the problems facing women today. It isn’t that “doors aren’t open,” but, rather, “that women aren’t walking through the open doors in numbers and with intention sufficient to transform society’s major institutions once and for all.”
Feldt also emphasizes that “while lack of money is often cited as a reason women fall behind, money is rarely acknowledged as a tool for enabling women to meet the social justice aims at the core of feminism.”
Money — having it and choosing where you spend it — is power.
Money may not buy happiness, but it definitely buys autonomy, especially if it is money that you earn. This specific kind of money directly translates into independence. “People thought that if women had sexual liberation, everything else would follow,” says Feldt, but the reality is more complicated. “It’s truly more important for women to have economic and political power, and sexual liberty does not necessarily lead to either of those.”
So how do women get economic and political power? Not by waiting for handouts or permission, but simply by taking control, instead.
It wasn’t that long ago that a woman who wanted her own credit card needed a man to cosign, even if she was single, divorced, or widowed. Freedom and control — whether the freedom to have a credit card in your name or the ability to control how you spend your time — comes with an added benefit. In a 2009 paper by Italian economist Paolo Verme entitled “Happiness, Freedom, and Control,” Verme found that: “The variable freedom and control is by far the most significant predictor of life satisfaction. It shows the highest coefficient, the highest odds ratio, the highest z-score and one of the lowest standard errors. For a one step increase in the one to ten freedom and control scale, happiness is expected to change about 36 percent of a step on the one to ten happiness scale.”
In “Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness,” a 2008 paper by Ronald Inglehart, Roberto Foa, Christopher Peterson, and Christian Welzel, the authors found that average self-reported happiness (as measured in the World Values Survey) increased between 1981 and 2007 in 45 of the 52 countries for which data was available. To what did they attribute this worldwide rise in happiness? More than any other variable, freedom (or a sense of freedom, at least) accounts for the increase.
Will Wilkinson, in his article “Happiness, Freedom, and Autonomy,” takes it one step further: “Closely related is the claim that autonomy is important, too. By autonomy here I just mean the sense that you, and not your boss or your dad or your wife, calls the shots–the sense that you are the decider, the boss of you.”
One of my favorite Cher anecdotes is the one where she recounts her mother telling her to settle down and marry a rich man. “Mom, I am a rich man,” was her response.
May we all be our own rich men. May we all be our own daddies. And may no one tell you what to do.