Money stories: Northampton writer’s project probes women’s troubled financial lives

Last modified: Tuesday, March 11, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — If she’d been born a man, Christian McEwen would have inherited a 113-room Scottish manor and thousands of acres. But that’s her money story. She’s more interested in those of other women.

Like the woman who went to a vault to retrieve her engagement ring as her divorce drew near. She’s real, but in a play that premieres Saturday, she’s identified only as Frances. In “Legal Tender: Women & the Secret Life of Money,” Frances picks up the story:

“So I went home, and I said to Howard, ‘I can’t imagine what happened. ...’ And he said, ‘No, I took it.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Was it mine or was it his?’ ... I can still feel it — as if I were somehow being struck in the stomach. I said, ‘What do you mean you took it?’ He said, ‘Well, I had it appraised, and I’m probably going to sell it, ’cause I’m going to need the money.”

Frances told McEwen she grabbed all the jewelry her husband had given her and threw it at him. “She realized that everything he’d given her wasn’t really hers. There was rage and clarity,” McEwen said.

That was one of 54 interviews the Northampton writer conducted since deciding in 2009 to explore a topic she found to be rife with distrust, anxiety, fear, misunderstanding and anger.

“What really interests me is taking the lid off the Pandora’s Box,” McEwen said of her research project. It has resulted not only in the play that debuts Saturday for two weekends of sold-out shows at the Quaker Meeting House in Northampton but also in workshops at Forbes Library and a hoped-for oral history anthology.

While financial self-help guides abound, McEwen’s work seeks to go deeper into lives and relationships clouded by money trouble. “I would watch the money story coming alive as they described the elephant in their room that had been there all those years,” McEwen said. “They’d say, ‘I really need to get this out.’ Several people spoke through tears. ... You can’t have financial literacy without emotional literacy.”

One cast member of “Legal Tender” believes the money stories it presents should be just the beginning.

“I think this play is a really great start to this conversation,” said Trenda Loftin, a bartender, Smith College graduate and Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter High School teacher. “It’s meant to be a catalyst to go deeper on this issue. I’m curious about which stories still aren’t being told.”

The sold-out show will be performed Saturday and March 15 at 3 and 7 p.m. in the Quaker Meeting House at 43 Center St. in Northampton.

By the numbers

Numbers show why women’s financial lives in the United States are complicated.

After paying their bills, 54 percent of women have no money left, according to a 2012 study by the Federal Reserve.

Nancy Folbre, a professor emerita of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, pointed out that the ideal of femininity in our culture is tied to a willingness to care for others.

“That basically puts women at a competitive disadvantage in an economy where nice guys finish last,” she said Friday. “Money is very complicated and is connected to people’s personal identities. The more people talk about it, the better — to understand where they get jammed up about money.”

In a 2010 survey by the TransAmerica Center for Retirement Studies, 60 percent of women said their financial priority is “just getting by” or paying off debt. Nearly half said they were saving less since the Great Recession started. And they were spending less too, 61 percent said.

Financial stress is harsh on older women and those managing families on their own. According to U.S. Census data, three out of five women over 65 can’t pay for their basic needs. Women make up 87 percent of the nation’s impoverished elderly, the Fed survey found. More than half of all women expect to be working past retirement age.

Just 18 percent of families headed by single mothers have financial security, U.S. Census data shows.

Women bear a greater share of the cost of raising children than men do, Folbre said, and are doing so amid “a real decline in the social safety net” that leaves them more vulnerable. Despite calls for increased support for childcare programs, state and federal funding is going down, as is traditional cash assistance to needy families, she said.

Idea into action

Pam Hannah, the play’s producer, was attending a cast party for a local production of “The Vagina Monologues” when McEwen, a friend, wondered something aloud: “She came up with this question, ‘What else don’t women talk about? Money.’ That’s absolutely right.” It kicked off years of interviewing by McEwen.

Companies market products to women as consumers, Hannah said, but many women do not feel financially literate.

In her day job with a local credit union, Hannah helps counsel members about money. “There are certain (financial) skills that you need, and information, but that’s only one piece of it — and I think it’s a small piece.”

More important, she believes, is diving in to one’s attitudes about money and peeling back the layers and getting women talking.

“The opportunity to let women tell their stories is really powerful,” said Hannah, who grew up in working-class Jewish family in Philadelphia and was the first in her family to attend college.

“What are the underlying things?” she asked. “One of the things that is really threaded through this work is class. That’s something nobody really wants to talk about. We want to think that we’re in the middle class and can be upwardly mobile.”

Another layer is race, she said. “It gets really messy. You have to get to the emotional pieces. ... You have to really unpack your baggage around money and around class.”

Melissa Redwin, the play’s director, asked cast members to share their money stories with each other to build trust and understanding.

“Once they got started, they just rolled. Most of us will do that. It’s opening a door. We need a platform and a safe place to talk about money. Once we get going, it feels so good. There is relief and exhilaration. I’m sharing a part of me that I don’t get to very often.”

Often, people’s money stories begin early. “Sometimes a child really sees a difference between their home life and a friend’s home life,” Redwin said. Her own childhood memories came from growing up in North Carolina and include images of the collection plate being passed in church. “It brings up a lot of my own personal thoughts and opinions ... and questioning what are my own connections to the women in the play,” she said. “Money is hard to think about in the context of telling other people about your money.”

But in the telling, people learn about each other, she said, including their fears and anxieties. They see what they have in common and can find themselves talking about big business, Wall Street and how the economy works.

“It’s hard to see beyond the personal story,” Redwin said. But people must understand the forces that control one’s economic well-being. “They create a very tangled web for people to crawl out of.”

Despite her family’s early wealth in Scotland, McEwen lives a modest writer’s life today, having moved to the United States and embarked on what the program calls “a long career of downward mobility.” She has worked as a gardener, counselor and house painter. She also leads workshops on creativity and is a sort of life coach to the overworked. Her latest book is “World Enough & Time” (Bauhan Publishing, 2011).

In the interviews she conducted for “Legal Tender,” McEwen heard women speaking about what they plan to do if fragile financial lives come crashing down. Then, they spoke of living off their gardens, living communally and bartering goods. She said women fearing the worst would ask, “Who are my resources? Who would I turn to?”

Not all subjects were struggling with a lack of money. “I interviewed several people with deep pockets. And that’s why I say you can be rich and poor at the same time,” she said.

Hannah, the producer, said that through rehearsals, McEwen has guarded the integrity of the original voices. “Its really important to her to stay true to the women’s stories,” she said.

Redwin, the director, hopes the piece will be presented later by community groups and colleges. “I can also see it as a fully staged production in certain settings.”

For now, McEwen is glad to get to the next stage: “I hope people will go home and start to talk to people and share their stories.”

Larry Parnass, the Gazette’s editor, can be reached at

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