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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Women As Economists

Title:     Women As Economists
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

An able lawyer of Boston, arguing the other day before a legislative committee in favor of giving to the city council a check upon the expenditures of the school committee, gave as one reason that this body would probably include more women henceforward, and that women were ordinarily more lavish than men in their use of money. The truth of this assumption was questioned at the time; and, the more I think of it, the more contrary it is to my whole experience. I should say that women, from the very habit of their lives, are led to be more particular about details, and more careful as to small economies. The very fact that they handle less money tends to this. When they are told to spend money, as they often are by loving or ambitious husbands, they no doubt do it freely: they have naturally more taste than men, and quite as much love of luxury. In some instances in this country they spend money recklessly and wickedly, like the heroines of French novels; but as, even in brilliant Paris, the women of the middle classes are notoriously better managers than the men, so we often see, in our scheming America, the same relative superiority. Often have I heard young men say, "I never knew how to economize until after my marriage;" and who has not seen multitudes of instances where women accustomed to luxury have accepted poverty without a murmur for the sake of those whom they loved?

I remember a young girl, accustomed to the gayest society of New York, who engaged herself to a young naval officer, against the advice of the friends of both. One of her near relatives said to me, "Of all the young girls I have ever known, she is the least fitted for a poor man's wife." Yet from the very moment of her marriage she brought their joint expenses within his scanty pay, and even saved a little money from it. Everybody knows such instances. We hear men denounce the extravagance of women, while those very men spend on wine and cigars, on clubs and horses, twice what their wives spend on their toilet. If the wives are economical, the husbands perhaps urge them on to greater lavishness. "Why do you not dress like Mrs. So-and-so?"--"I can't afford it."--"But _I_ can afford it;" and then, when the bills come in, the talk of extravagance recommences. At one time in Newport, that lady among the summer visitors who was reported to be Worth's best customer was also well known to be quite indifferent to society, and to go into it mainly to please her husband, whose social ambition was notorious.

It has often happened to me to serve in organizations where both sexes were represented, and where expenditures were to be made for business or pleasure. In these I have found, as a rule, that the women were more careful, or perhaps I should say more timid, than the men, less willing to risk anything: the bolder financial experiments came from the men, as one might expect. In talking the other day with the secretary of an important educational enterprise, conducted by women, I was surprised to find that it was cramped for money, though large subscriptions were said to have been made to it. On inquiry it appeared that these ladies, having pledged themselves for four years, had divided the amount received into four parts, and were resolutely limiting themselves, for the first year, to one quarter part of what had been subscribed. No board of men would have done so. Any board of men would have allowed far more than a quarter of the sum for the first year's expenditures, justly reasoning that if the enterprise began well it would command public confidence, and bring in additional subscriptions as time went on. I would appeal to any one whose experience has been in joint associations of men and women, whether this is not a fair statement of the difference between their ways of working. It does not prove that women are more honest than men, but that their education or their nature makes them more cautious in expenditure.

The habits of society make the dress of a fashionable woman far more expensive than that of a man of fashion. Formerly it was not so; and, so long as it was not so, the extravagance of men in this respect quite equalled that of women. It now takes other forms, but the habit is the same. The waiters at any fashionable restaurant will tell you that what is a cheap dinner for a man would be a dear dinner for a woman. Yet after all, the test is not in any particular class of expenditures, but in the business-like habit. Men are of course more business-like in large combinations, for they are more used to them; but for the small details of daily economy women are more watchful. The cases where women ruin their husbands by extravagance are exceptional. As a rule, the men are the bread-winners; but the careful saving and managing and contriving come from the women.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Women As Economists