On Class, Identity, and Prejudice

In uncertain times, you want to improve the world and still hold on to what you value. It’s hard, and this issue of Lilith explores some of the tensions. How to ensure reproductive justice; why it’s so hard to slough off shame around having—or not having—money; what kept Jewish women out of good jobs, and more. Money can affect what we think of ourselves, though its inflection has changed for women in different eras.

What class are you?

When I was a college student, a history professor opened his first class of the term by hollering, “What class are you?” The students, a little weirded out, called back the year each expected to graduate. The professor then launched into his lecture on how in bygone times the answers would have been “working class” or “shopkeeper,” or maybe “landed gentry.”

Class distinctions have percolated into people’s consciousness once again. On the campus and on the street (i.e., on social media), there’s steady commentary on privilege, both from those uncomfortable possessing it and from those suffering its absence. Stratification by social class is always clear to those on the ladder’s lower rungs, and others need to keep their empathy handy. Example: At a college gathering, I heard an alumna announce that she’d never understood her fellow students’ chronic complaints about the facilities. “The dorm rooms were warm in winter. There was always enough heat and always enough food,” she recalled. As my late grandmother would have responded, “Some people complain that the pearls are too thin, and some people complain that the soup is too thin.”

Earning money and growing it.

Alongside the abstractions of class and caste and privilege are women’s burgeoning practical concerns about finances. I was invited recently into a conversation with Jewish women in their 30s who wanted to explore their feelings about money. They’d mostly, proudly, paid down any education and credit-card debt, and the evening started with “Buy now or keep renting?” and “How much can I give away?” They sounded confident, but half an hour in, every woman in that room had confessed anxiety about not “doing money” well enough. They want to be as good at managing it as they are at their day jobs. They want to get As. They came into young adulthood during the global financial crisis of 2008 and they want to have a hedge against awful things that might happen in the world. None of the dozen women— some married, some in a relationship, some single—was depending on a partner to provide this financial safety net. Avoiding the dependencies of their mothers’ generation, their goal is to hold their future financial security, whether from earnings or inheritance, in their own hands.

Identity, anxiety and prejudice.

How you speak and where you were born can be proxies for money, as status indicators. In the early 1900s, immigrant Jews were thought to be a drain on the economy, and Jewish welfare organizations rushed to assure the authorities that these Jews would not be a public burden. Being indigent was shameful. Fast forward, and the shame has shifted; some are uneasy not about poverty but about having wealth, thanks to damning, millenniaold slurs about Jews and money, while a new wave of immigrants bears the brunt of social and political scapegoating.

Old anti-Semitic tropes about powerful, rich Jews are surfacing again in hate-filled tweets and public rants. Jewish college students hesitant to identify themselves as living in well-off suburbs tell new friends they’re from “New York” rather than Scarsdale, “L.A.” rather than Beverly Hills. And we know that Jewish women in particular feel caught in a classic trap, deplored for being consumers who squander parental or spousal dollars and also put down if they aspire to be the ambitious earners themselves. (See Lilith’s numerous articles on the damaging JAP image and its sister stereotypes.)

Philanthropic models in the shadows?

Perhaps these lingering stereotypes explain why some women are reluctant to stand out from their peers. Take a look at the facing page. A firm feminist principle at Lilith has been to demonstrate that every gift counts, and so all are listed, regardless of size.

There’s a downside, though, when you level donor distinctions. Anonymity, and masking dollar amounts, means that philanthropic role models are in the shadows. Philanthropy— giving of your resources in support of the values you hold—is an important identity marker. Your name on the list demonstrates to others what you hold dear, and you feel good when you give to a cause that inspires or challenges you. Nonetheless, we play down the feel-good aspect.

It’s a little like warning teen girls about the perils of sex (STDs! Pregnancy!) without mentioning that sex can be fun. Keep pleasure in mind as you do your own philanthropy, at any level. We hope you enjoy yourself along the way; it’s a chance to mitigate the gloom.

Here’s wishing you—and all of us—a year of ample resources and deep empathy, a year rich with meaningful connections.

Susan Weidman Schneider

Editor in Chief