awareness, books, gender

On Books and Gender and Money

books gender money

Do you ever wonder about the impact that your childhood reading material had on your financial choices as an adult? Nope? Just me? Oh. Okay, no problem. But stay with me anyway, because I think this could be an important topic and I definitely want to know what you think.

As someone who has only recently started to become financially conscious (we’re talking less than a year), I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the financial choices I’ve made as an adult and trying to understand what factors might have influenced those choices. Not so I can make excuses for myself, mind you, but just so I can understand myself a little better. And since books had a huge impact on me growing up, I thought they could be an interesting possible factor to investigate.

So let’s rewind about 20 years.

I was rather shy as an adolescent and teenager, and wasn’t allowed to watch much TV (a parentally enforced rule that I super appreciate in retrospect), and as a result, I was a big reader. A Big Reader. Perhaps you can relate. And when I loved a book, I read it over and over AND OVER. I loved a lot of books over the years, but I’m going to zero in on the age 12-17 window for now, because I think that’s a pretty formative period.

So, let’s take a look at a few of the books I was most obsessed with during that time. I’m including a ridiculously brief summary for each in case you’re not familiar with them (warning: tons of spoilers throughout the rest of this post!):

  1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Four sisters grow up during the Civil War in Massachusetts and later try to find their way in the world as adults. Sad stuff, happy stuff, the whole gamut.
  2. The Baby-Sitters Club books by Ann M. Martin. A series of books about a group of friends in middle school, all girls. Aimed at readers ages 8-12 I believe, but I definitely loved them through age 14 at least.
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. An orphan girl grows up to be a governess and eventually ends up marrying her employer. Lots of fire and mystery and lonely moors throughout.
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Five sisters try to figure out who to marry, since they’re not going to inherit any money if they stay single, due to highly sexist British laws of the early 1800s.

So here is the part where I reevaluate these books based on…you guessed it: personal finance! That’s right, it’s a lit-crit kind of Thursday.

Before delving into this though, let’s just recognize that all these books have exclusively female protagonists. This post isn’t meant to be 100% about gender, but it’s worth noting that people of different genders often get different messages about money type stuff, and one pretty common narrative in literature/movies/etc. is the one where the woman ends up marrying some rich guy who saves her from ever having to work or worry about money (think Pretty Woman, in which Richard Gere and his money swoop in and save Julia Roberts from her financial dependence on prostitution gigs). So that’s where some of the questions in the table are coming from.

All right, ready to find out which of these books had the best message about personal finance for young girls?

lit crit chart
(click for a bigger picture)

And the winner is….The Baby-Sitters Club books!!!!!! Followed closely by Little Women. (Pride and Prejudice, I do love you, but you come in dead last here.)

Honestly, the Baby-Sitters Club books are very, very cool. Every single book is devoted to exploring a specific topic (e.g. autism, divorce, diabetes, racism, just to name a few off the top of my head), all in the context of an overarching story about a group of 13-year-old female entrepreneurs! Nice work, Ann M. Martin. You are officially awesome.

So what does all this teach me about the influence that my reading material as a teenager may have had on my financial choices as an adult? I’m honestly not sure, since my financial trajectory doesn’t really mirror that of any of these women. I do sometimes wonder if that marriage/money narrative in Pretty Woman and Pride and Prejudice might have encouraged me to be less proactive about establishing a career early on than I could have been. It’s certainly a possibility, but I can’t say definitively one way or the other. And it turns out that I had lots of other good role models, like Jo March, and Kristy and Claudia and friends, sending positive messages about money and career.

But either way, boy, was that a fun post to write!

By the way, Amanda at Dream Beyond Debt has a recent awesome post about money and career and gender—I definitely recommend checking it out.

Do you agree with my assessment of these books? Want to add some more to the list?
Leave a comment below – I’d love to hear your take!

17 Comments on “On Books and Gender and Money

  1. OK, this is amazing.


    (1) Huh, it’s true, Lizzie Bennet is a terrible role model. Why did I never notice that before? On the other hand, she is a good role model for Not Settling.

    (2) When I was babysitting as a 12-17 year old I stole all kinds of ideas from the BSC. I didn’t have a club (my neighborhood was pretty short of teenage girls) but I did have a bag of activities like the ones they had, which I always brought with me. And I think they did generally inspire me to make money babysitting. All of which I immediately spent on stuff like eating out and this great bedspread I remember seeing at the mall and saving up for, which I did use until halfway through college when someone stole it from storage over summer break.

    (3) If I had to pick a role model here I’d actually pick Jo March. I am firmly in the camp that says that Jo made a good marital choice. I suppose Bhaer is less exciting than Laurie, but he is one million times more compatible with her actual values and desires in life, and they do good work together. She ended up (fictionally) having a really meaningful life that used her skills and talents.

    1. Yes yes, absolutely, I do think that Jo made an excellent choice. No disagreement there. I think she’s a good role model in terms of making romantic decisions: Laurie is rich, but she didn’t love him and so she didn’t marry him. That is admirable, no question. I guess I just feel like Jo’s narrative still fits a tiny bit into that “a woman’s story ends happily ever after when she gets married” trope, you know? Also her personal finance issues (like Jane Eyre’s) are sort of impacted by a rich relative dying and bequeathing stuff to her (Aunt March leaves her her house).

      And yes, Lizzie Bennet is awesome in so many ways. Just maybe not in this particular way. Although I guess you could argue that it’s just a coincidence that the person she’s compatible with happens to also be super rich. On the other hand, this is a carefully constructed novel we’re talking about, so probably actually not a coincidence at all.

      I personally vote for the BSC because their entrepreneurial venture was completely independent from their romantic lives. Most of them had love interests at one point or another, but nobody ever (to my memory) considered quitting the BSC to spend more time with her boyfriend.

  2. I loved the Baby-sitters Club–this series (as well as familial financial insecurities) sparked an interest in me to find a part-time job at 14. Perhaps I’ll write about it in the future.

    I also love Jane Austen and her novels. I love her commentary on the gentry class, their leisurely pursuits and the desire to live un/settled. She captured the frustrations of Victorian women that boiled under the surface of their well-manicured lives in a style that has always resonated with me. Women relying on their significant others to solve their financial matters can still be found in 2015, so I wonder what Austen would say about it.

    Awesome post!

    1. Thanks, Claudia! I’d definitely love to read about your part-time job experience — you should write about it for sure.
      Yeah, I totally appreciate those things about Jane Austen’s novels too. It’s probably not really fair to evaluate her books based on modern-day personal finance principles, since that’s not what they were actually meant to be about! 🙂 I think they were, as you say, more about trying to capture those little things that were boiling under the surface, whereas the big things, like money and estates and entailments, were just the backdrop.
      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Totally amazing post. Truly. (And thanks for the shout out:)

    I never read The Babysitter Club books, but this has prompted me to think more about what financial influences existed in the Sweet Valley High series. Those books really knew how to perpetuate the John Hughes/Breakfast Club stereotypes. They also were very good at describing class statuses through “stuff.” Looking back, I think I was aware that I didn’t share or identify with the twins’ (or their friends’) class status, but I was able to ignore it in service of the fantasy I came to those books to experience. I didn’t identify with anyone in VC Andrews’ novels, either, but those were a staple of my youth.

    Oh, and this also made me think about the TV shows that were so important to me when I was 16. I loved the original 90210, and when I think about it now, Brandon had a job while Brenda had a rich boyfriend. Hmmm….

    This is a very important post, and one that I hope we talk about more within the personal finance community.

    1. Oh my goodness, Sweet Valley High, totally! (Although I will admit I was more into Sweet Valley Twins, the middle school iteration.) Yes, that’s a good point, the themes of money and class those books had a lot to do with material possessions. I think that theme is pretty representative of the financial spirit of the 80s and early 90s actually; same thing with the John Hughes movies.

      I’m so glad that you liked the post. I think gender is something that’s so, so important to consider when we’re talking about personal finance — both in terms of the messages that women get today as adults, as you talked about in your post, and in terms of the messages that were implicit in our childhood worlds. I’m definitely planning to write more about this; there’s so much to say. And if you decide to write more about gender stuff too, I’d love to read it! 🙂

  4. Great analysis, not a way you’d typically look at those books. I think how we were raised has a much bigger influence on us than we’d like to admit. I think it has a HUGE influence. Your personality and DNA obviously impacts you, but not nearly as much as your environment and the experiences you have. To be honest I read books by Donald Trump and various personal finance authors growing up because I was curious about money and business and my parents/relatives weren’t giving me answers to my questions.

    1. Wow, that’s so interesting that you gravitated toward books about money and personal finance growing up — I definitely avoided those books like the plague! 🙂 But yes, I definitely think that our childhood influences and experiences have a huge impact on our values and choices later on. Not that we aren’t responsible for our own decisions, because of course we are. But I think it’s really important to try to think about some of the factors that may have come into play.

  5. Hi,

    I enjoyed this post a lot, very cute! And you’re not alone. I’ve wondered the same. I read the Nancy Drew series, Of Mice and Men (lol, really) and the timeless classic Chronicles of Narnia.

    I’m not sure what it all means and how it has influenced my writing or my life, but there you have it.


    1. Thanks, Laura Beth! I read the Chronicles of Narnia many times as well — I probably should have included that. And now that I’m thinking about it, Nancy Drew is probably kind of a great role model for young girls. I can’t remember the specifics, but basically she’s solving mysteries on her own, maybe not necessarily as her actual paying job, but still, she’s being independent and proactive not relying on anyone else — good for her!

  6. Fun analysis! I would never have thought to look at a book from that standpoint. Way to combine two interests and find extra value. I don’t know if I would pick up these books and read them per se just based off of the financial expertise. However, I guess I shouldn’t be too quick to judge a book by its cover, right? haha

    This was my first time visiting the website and I like it a lot. Looks like I will be making some more visits. I love how your articles are different and fun! Have a great weekend.

    Bert, One of the Dividend Diplomats

    1. Thanks so much for your nice comment, Bert, and I’m so glad you like the site. Writing about this stuff is a lot of fun for me!
      Yeah, I’m not sure if choosing novels based on their personal finance messages is necessarily the way to go, but it’s definitely interesting to think about the impact that these messages may be having on readers of any age.

  7. I heart Jane Austen, but yes — maybe not the best financial lessons in there. Maybe Jane herself is the better financial role model, since she strove to have a career *two hundred years ago* when women working was not a thing, at least not for upperclass women like her.

    I love this post. So much good, thought-provoking stuff in here. There really is a lot to say about gender and finance, and what women are taught and not taught. I think back to so many of the books I read in my early teen years, and there is an absurd amount of fetishizing of wealth and status. No wonder we all grow up wanting name brand things and the big house and fancy car! Except for those wonderful babysitters — they were on to something. I’m trying to think of *any* books I read during that era where women or girls aren’t aiming to marry wealthy… maybe Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird? (Though I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman yet, since I’m still on the library waitlist! She still has time to become a gold digger, I suppose.) 🙂

    1. I agree 100% with your point about Jane Austen — my original plan for this post was actually to compare the protagonists of these books to their authors, because I think the Bronte sisters are actually not bad role models here either. But then I got fixated on the Baby-Sitters Club books because they’re so awesome. 🙂

      Scout, that’s true…she seems pretty independent. I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman yet either; you’ll have to let me know what you find out!

      Ooh, another good one that I just thought of is Matilda (as in, the Roald Dahl book)! It’s not really finance-oriented, but the general idea is that she’s so smart and resourceful that she’s going to grow up and do great things.

  8. I decided early on to marry for money, but the heart wants what it will. I guess we can’t all grow up to be like our favorite book characters. I’ll settle for being Jo March instead.

    1. Hahaha, awesome. Yes, it’s so true — there’s no controlling these hearts of ours. 🙂 Anyway, Jo March really is a fantastic role model, in my opinion. Much better than Amy, who did marry for money-and-love (or that’s my sense of it at least).

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