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What The Handmaid’s Tale teaches us about money

I recently binge watched The Handmaid’s Tale, the brilliant adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of the same name, currently screening on SBS On Demand. The story chronicles the role of women in the totalitarian world of Gilead, formerly part of the United States. Gilead is ruled by a brutal theocratic regime that treats women as property of the state, and faced with environmental disasters and plummeting birth rate, forces the remaining fertile women into sexual servitude as “handmaids”.

The repression of women is initially achieved economically, banning them from working or owning property. Commentators have drawn parallels with the treatment of women in some parts of the world today, and the seeming erosion of women’s rights in Trump’s America.


Research suggests economic empowerment for women improves outcomes for the whole society. Photo: George Kraychyk / Hulu


The importance of female economic power extends beyond the lives of each individual woman. History suggests that societies with high rates of female autonomy, property ownership and decision making are more socially cohesive, have less inequality and experience lower rates of all types of crime. This is described in the book Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll by evolutionary biologist Professor Rob Brooks.

Here are some ways to help women build robust financial positions, for the benefit of us all:


Invest in your career

Work provides much more than just an income, building confidence, social networks, and valuable learning opportunities. Therefore, it is essential to build skills that enable you to maintain satisfying and rewarding employment throughout your life. Former editor in chief of Mamma Mia, Jamila Rizvi’s recent book, Not Just Lucky provides timely career advice, particularly for young professional women. Embracing the strategies recommended by Rizvi, from asking for a pay rise, dealing with a difficult boss to becoming a great boss yourself, are a great way to build a sustainable career with longevity.


Fit your own oxygen mask first

Many women prioritise the needs of others ahead of their own, seeing their income solely as a conduit for meeting the needs of others. Childcare, school fees, family holidays, are all important, but can sometimes come at the expense of building women’s own financial security.

If women really want to help the ones they love, they are best placed to do this from a position of strength – physically, emotionally and financially. As they say in aeroplane safety briefings, “in the event of emergency, fit your own oxygen mask first, before helping others”. The greatest gift you can give your children is the confidence that you will be there when they need you. Reframe the way you think about your income, investing part of every pay cheque as an essential down payment on your own financial independence. This is a generous act, allowing you to help those closest to you when they really need you. Role modelling financial capability is also a wonderful way to educate the next generation.


Engage with your finances

With so much going on in our lives, retirement can seem a long way off and many immediate concerns require our attention. However, there is well over $2 trillion of retirement savings within the Australian super system, and what we choose to do with it not only shapes our own lives, but also our society. Super funds are increasingly engaging with their members’ personal values, not just their balances. Many funds offer ethical or sustainable options, making super a vehicle to make the world a better place. For example, oncologist Dr Bronwyn King went from knowing almost nothing about her super, to spearheading a campaign to eliminate tobacco investments from retirement portfolios around the world. Not only is she a leader in her field, but there are few who are more knowledgeable and as passionate about their personal finances being an instrument of impact. If you can find something that piques your interest, motivating you to open your statements and maintain engagement, it might be the catalyst to take charge of your long-term financial health.


Offred the handmaid, played by Elizabeth Moss, and commander’s wife Serena Joy, played by Yvonne Strahovski. Women in the fictional republic of Gilead have to play one of a limited number of proscribed roles. Photo: Hulu


When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she based the treatment of her female characters not on fantasy, but on historical precedents. Let’s work together to financially empower women to ensure her tale is not also a prediction of the future.


Catherine Robson is an award-winning financial planner with Affinity Private. Twitter:@CatherineAtAff.