Here I was, sitting in the shoe department of Saks Fifth Avenue with my Mother next to me, watching with enchantment as the salesman brought her pair after beautiful pair of gorgeous spiky shoes for her to try on.
She smiled as her fingers lightly brushed the finely shaped leather. I loved watching her treat herself to something that made her feel glamorous, womanly and happy.
And wow, she had that long-leg stunning look! My heart leapt. I was so proud that she was my Momma. She bought three pairs of Stuart Weitzman super-high heels that day with her own cash. Chu-ching! Now, that’s freedom!
As I saw her swinging her Saks bags as we walked along the streets of downtown St. Louis – the big city as we called it – the message to me was freedom to choose, freedom to like myself, freedom to love being a woman.
It’s a vivid image that’s remained with me, and one I’ll hold dearly for the rest of my life. It was the day I decided I would be a girl with cash too – just like her.
It was unusual in her day – the 1960s – to be a girl with cash, her own cash, that is. With courage, she grew more cash as she started her own business. It always gave me goose bumps of pride when I drove down Main Street in my hometown Decatur, Illinois, and saw the big banner that read ‘Perry Travel’. That business belonged to my Momma.
When she went to work — that’s when I saw Momma step up to be who she really was: a smart, accomplished, talented, creative and inspired woman. Going to work was what made her confidence shine and showed off her talents.
And yet, there was the dark side — the secrets behind the outward success of my Mother’s life and the source of my pain.
At dinner each night, there was a cruel ritual: my Father would mock and insult my Mother because she was vulnerable as she aspired in life.
While my Father, too, was accomplished, he let his own jealousy rage, accompanied by his glasses of wine: “You can’t even balance your own checkbook so you can’t run a business, Hurry up, can’t you do it faster?, Who do you think you are? – you’re not smart enough for that. No one likes you. How come you spend all my money?”
I wished that he would say something good about her. And, on and on it would go, night after night as we gathered for dinner. And what really hurt is that he would draw me into his tirade as his ally and make me laugh with him to mock my Mother.
Others were jealous of Momma, too. I heard murmurings by people who resented her success. There were those who were quick to spread gossip to demean her abilities. This embarrassed and hurt me because I wanted to have a Mother that everyone loved. But through it all, she showed me how to step forward and live my dreams.
She would whisper to me, “Don’t worry about what other people say about you, it’s when you are so unimportant that people stop talking about you that you need to worry.” – she said this over and over till it rang inside of me.
She was being tested and showed her courage. And it was both the rare glimpses of her happiness and the depths of her misery that taught me what it was to be a woman, taught me how to be a woman — how to tolerate unthinkable abuse and terror, while presenting ‘perfection’ to the world outside. It developed fortitude in me.
I wasn’t sure why I went to business school. Somewhere deep down inside, I must have known that it was a way out — a way out of the big hurt that plagued the inside of me. In my heart, I wanted to be loved most of all.
Going off to business school was doing what I saw light my Mother’s happy spirit. It must be where I thought I would find the self-worth and pleasure that I couldn’t find within. It was part of the legacy my Momma created for me.
And I loved the sound of the words, “I’m going to business school.” It meant a journey to becoming a “girl with cash.”
Maybe, in being so, I would avoid the horrible agony my Mother endured as I was growing up, and escape the secrets that both created my own pain and carved my path.
As I graduated from business school and went on to a career in the investment banking world, I, too, was tested, and nearly taken down by those who did not believe in me — just as I had witnessed my Father trying to take down my Mother.
It was unsavory for a young woman on Wall Street in the early 1980s: “Sit up on the desk and spread your legs,” and, “I’ll see that you don’t have a job tomorrow.” I faced what I had seen my Momma face — and I found myself going it alone and hiding my fear, just as she had done.
The tricks and shenanigans of Wall Street, a place that didn’t care in the least about me, were more than this Midwestern girl had ever imagined. But I worked on being skilled — a solid, quick and clever negotiator — and my Momma taught me that living my vision was more important than the talk of the day. And I was determined to be a girl with cash.
One day when I thought that I had seen it all, I was sitting at my grey metal desk in the middle of the testosterone-loaded trading floor of the brokerage firm where I worked. The desks were so close together that it made me suffocate — all I wanted was six more feet around my desk and not human ones!
My ears perked up as I heard a guy on the telephone at the other end of the floor say, “Be a pioneer, those are the ones with the arrows in their ass.” I thought, Hey — here I am, the only woman on the trading floor — I am that pioneer!
And then I got it! I had to do what Momma did. I had to put on blinders, ignore the putdowns, the berating comments and sexual assaults to go forward – to learn all that I could learn, all that I could soak up about all aspects of money, to be able to teach other women so that they wouldn’t have to suffer as my Mother did.
I was willing to be the pioneer, to set the stage, to gather the knowledge so that other women could have cash, too, to negotiate their lives.
I’d heard men say, “women can’t take risks.” But my Momma had shown me differently as she grew her travel businesses to include her travel agency, travel school and enterprises that employed women. She eventually sold her business to AAA for a handsome sum. In my own time, I started the first female-owned municipal bond firm in the country underwriting big blocks of bonds and selling them in the financial markets. I too proved that women could take risks.
So I learned about money, and how to teach others about it. I even wrote a top book about it, published by Random House. But while I toured to promote A GIRL NEEDS CASH, I was holding a secret just as my Momma did; I had married an abusive husband. I was living in daily terror — holding my breath.
One afternoon, while I was on a phone interview for a radio station in my office, he stormed into my office in a rage, shouting that I had “a huge ego.” I stopped the session immediately and felt a blow to my stomach.
I was never again comfortable anywhere I went to speak about my book. And because I feared my husband’s abuse dropped out. Then and there, I stopped the pursuit of my success — stopped sharing my talents – dead in the tracks.
Here I was, right back in the hurt that I had tried so hard to escape, and this time I was the focus. I withered and went quiet.
Not long after, my husband took his new girlfriend to the Bahamas (where I had taken him for our anniversary months earlier). Upon his return, he announced that he could do anything that he wanted to do (even though he was still married to me). I had put his name on my house, and we had other real estate assets together.
I flashed on my childhood as I gasped for air and cried in humiliation and anguish. And then the divorce lawyers descended. What my husband didn’t calculate on was that I had the tenacity of the woman who had gone before me: my Momma, who had taught me not to be just a girl with cash, but and even more, a girl with assets. She taught me not to give up. I fought for what was mine, and I won.
Breaking free from my abusive husband and taking back everything that was rightfully mine — including my sense of self-worth — instantly reawakened my pioneering spirit, and my passion. I’d weathered abuse for being a strong and prosperous woman, but no more — I was finally done paying my dues.
As I walked out of the courtroom, I thought of Momma, happily stepping lightly down the street in a pair of her new high heels. Even if she had taught me how to suffer in silence, she had also taught me to go for my dreams. And even if she had never escaped my Father’s tyranny, she had shown me what it meant to be free. I felt the glow of her pride in me.
What I saw was the importance of a woman having her own source of cash and economic contributions. Being a woman with cash gave my Momma freedom and choice – and I wanted those too.
It was the impetus for me to do what it took to develop myself with skills and talents to create my own financial circumstances. This is something that I hold very dearly and deeply understand the importance of this for the vitality of a women’s, my, life.
And through all of the changes that I’ve gone through in my life, I am deeply grateful to my Momma who instilled this in me and gave me the means to navigate by being a woman with cash!!
Joan Perry is an author, life coach and speaker dedicated to woman cultivating the keys to a successful life: Stability, Authenticity, Expression & Contribution.