What My Divorce Taught Me About Latent Sexism In The Financial System

by Dena Landon

I’m good with money. I bought my first house at the age of 25. I have healthy retirement accounts. My savings account doesn’t contain three months of living expenses, it contains a year’s gross salary. And, after 10 plus years working in the financial services and banking industries, I’m not intimidated by bankers who see my gender and not my experience. 

Which is why, when I left my ex-husband, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of latent sexism I encountered in the financial system. 

The first surprise came when I ordered and paid for my car registration tabs. I logged onto the online system, paid my fee, and waited for them to arrive in the mail. And waited. And waited. Three weeks went by and the tabs on my car had expired. From past experience I knew it was only a matter of time before some nice policeperson gave me a ticket, so I ducked out of work on a lunch break and went down to the DMV.

“Oh, those were mailed weeks ago,” the helpful clerk told me.

When I told him I hadn’t received them he read off the address where they’d been sent. It was the apartment that my ex had moved into. 

“Why did you send them there?” I asked. “The car is mine, it’s my name on it, I paid the fees, the address I input into the system when I paid was the same as the car’s registration (and not my ex’s new apartment)…”

He shrugged. “It’s just assumed that everything goes with the man.”

Ever seen that gif from Clue with Madeline Kahn gesturing “Flames! Flames at the side of my face!”? 

When I explained that my ex had apparently been sitting on my tabs for weeks and not told me they’d been mailed to his place the clerk kindly gave me a new set for free and advised me on how to get the car fully out of my ex’s name. Mind you, I bought the car myself by trading in a car I’d owned outright from before the marriage. But somehow his name had ended up first on the title.

In fact, his name had ended up first on everything. This may not sound like a big deal until you realize that in order to remove his name from all my accounts—the water bill, the gas bill, the phone bill, the trash—companies insist on speaking with the primary account holder. It didn’t matter that I was the person who’d set them all up when we’d originally moved into the house. It didn’t matter that some of them pre-dated the marriage and I’d added him afterwards. 

When I called to remove him each and every company insisted on speaking with the ‘primary account holder.’ The man. As much as I try to not lose my temper with customer service representatives, by the fifth phone call I’ll admit to losing it. “Why was he put first on the account? It was my account!” And, time after time, I heard, “The husband is just put first automatically.”

Eventually I had to spend a highly uncomfortable afternoon sitting on the couch with a man I’d left for some very good reasons while he called all my accounts and gave them permission to both remove him and speak to me. Because that’s not at all infantilizing.

The third, and largest issue, was my house. I kept the house in the divorce. It had a small mortgage, the down-payment came from pre-marital funds, and my income was more than adequate to pay it on my own. I’ve applied for over four mortgages and re-finances throughout my lifetime, two of them without a co-borrower. Due to a clause in the current mortgage I could simply assume it—remove my ex’s name for a small fee—and nothing else would change. I thought it would be easy.

Two years of bank statements, all retirement statements, two years of taxes, two years of W-2’s, the last four months savings account statements, two months of paystubs, and on-going requests for more supporting documentation. At least twice what had been requested of me when I’d previously applied for mortgages (both pre and post the subprime meltdown). 

Finally, in exasperation, I exclaimed to my mortgage broker, “You know I have the cash to just pay off the damned thing, right? Why are you asking for so much information?”

His response: Well, my underwriter needs this information because it’s going from two people on the mortgage to one. And, you know, you’re the wife. So there are some concerns.

Forget flames. At that point I’m pretty sure my head exploded. 

My issue with this latent sexism goes deeper than the annoyance, frustration and time spent straightening everything out. 85 percent of women who leave abusive relationships return, and a large proportion of these women cite financial stressors as the reason for their return. Initiatives such as The Purple Purse are trying to bring awareness to the issue of financial abuse and how it impacts women’s lives, but it’s still largely ignored in most discussions of domestic partner abuse.  As spokesperson Kerry Washington pointed out in a PSA, “Finances are almost always a weapon of choice. Taking away access to cash, destroying credit, jeopardizing jobs—financial abuse leaves invisible bruises that can take decades to heal.” 

I’m lucky. I have a good, salaried job and a boss who will let me take a longer lunch break to stand in line at the DMV. I have the knowledge to go toe to toe with bankers trying to convince me they can hold onto large checks for thirty days, or who want to talk to my ex-husband about an account he’s never been on before they’ll talk to me. And I had an ex-husband who was motivated to get himself off the accounts, too. But many women, particularly low-income women, do not have these advantages. 

While studies have shown that there are no substantial differences in employment status between women who are domestic abuse victims and women who are not, women who are victims of domestic violence report that they are late to work more often, miss work more, and have a greater difficulty staying employed3. If you’re working in an hourly, retail position, many of them have zero to low-tolerance tardy policies. Show up late more than two times in a month? You’re fired. In an hourly position a half hour lunch break isn’t enough time to visit to the DMV or a bank, and taking a day off work equates to lost wages. By not considering the needs of all their customers, many of these institutions are contributing to circumstances that keep women in unhealthy and abusive relationships. 

Until these default assumptions—putting the man first on the account, assuming that assets belong to him unless proven otherwise—are changed other women will face these same struggles, but often without my resources. And, as a feminist, that’s something I care about, deeply.

So, banks, financial institutions, state agencies and utility companies? It’s 2016. Let’s stop putting the man first.

Photo via 401(K) 2012.

This post was originally published on July 25, 2016

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