THESE three women come as close as any to the media image of today's woman -- hard-driving and successful. They have had no problem reconciling their lives with feminist advancements. Reconciling their finances has been another issue.
Despite other gains, women are not economic equals today. There are exceptions, but for most, money has traditionally been a man's world -- from the corporate board room to the family checkbook. Women may have made the bread-and-butter decisions, but ultimately financial responsibilities rested on men's shoulders.
Economic reality is casting a harsh light on that tradition, exposing the perilous position many women are in. The career woman reveling in her independence and the homemaker pinching every penny often share the same problem: They aren't paying attention to the bigger picture, their overall financial picture. Sure, they pay their bills on time and eat hamburger instead of steak so they can pay for next year's vacation. But the cookie-jar stash, alone, is no match for today's inflation and is hardly a systematic financial plan.
Some women avoid more thorough financial planning because they're intimidated by the assumed complexities of finance. Or they may believe they don't have enough money, or that their husbands will handle things. These assumptions are inaccurate, say financial experts, who note that money management requires less complicated math than it does common sense; that even the lowest income earners can manage their way into better circumstances; and that leaving money matters to the man of the house invites trouble.
It's not that women have a corner on marketplace naivete. ''All Americans have had less financial education than they would like,'' says Catherine Willis, director of the Chase Exchange, a financial services program for women established by the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. ''Talk to a group of men and women and they'll both say, 'We don't know as much about money as we need to.' The difference is the degree - women have had less (financial education). . . .Mommies bring up their sons to manage money and not their daughters.''
Another Chase representative emphasizes the difference: ''Women often take a coy pride in not being able to balance their checkbooks. How many men would admit that?''
Observes Emily Womach, president of Women's National Bank in Washington, D.C. , ''There's been a great awareness with women that they have to have a career goal, but they've never been conditioned to think about money that way.''
Financial advisers explain that a simple awareness of the basics of personal finance - like savings and investment plans - can boost women's economic standing. Some believe legislation and regulation are better ways to even out inequities. Others suggest that, bookkeeping and legal issues aside, women must first overcome their own stereotypes about their roles and abilities.
Certain demographic figures should be economic red flags for women. Statistics from the federal government, working women's organizations, and financial institutions show that 51 percent of all American women are in the work force - double the number 20 years ago. However, 80 percent of working women are concentrated in the ''pink-collar ghetto'' of low-paid, low-status service and clerical jobs. Their earnings average 59 cents for every dollar men make - a gap that has not fluctuated in 20 years.
About 52 percent of US stockholders are women, and according to one New York advertising executive, women are believed to directly influence 80 percent of all purchases in the US. Yet female-headed households, which grew 10 times as fast as two-parent families in the past decade, account for a growing chunk of the poverty class -- one-third of all poor families to date. Among black and Hispanic female-headed households, half are poor.
For generations, women have been encouraged ''not to worry their pretty little heads'' over money matters. Statistics, of course, don't support this attitude. But tradition does.
A surprising number of women approach financial responsibility with a yawn, or fear, or total neglect. Financial advisers can rattle off a stream of examples: single women who harbor the notion that serious money business begins with marriage; women who avoid writing checks because they don't want to keep a running balance on their accounts; married women who ''signed on the dotted line'' years ago without asking questions and now find themselves divorced or widowed without a clue to where all the family money is.
Tradition, which has been based on the upper-class ideals of Victorian literature, doesn't reflect women's true economic role, suggests Judith Stiehm, a consultant with the Committee on Women's Employment and Related Social Issues at the National Academy of Sciences.
Historically, Ms. Stiehm explains, women's work has been a cornerstone of the US economy. Paid or not, women labored on the farm in colonial times, then later worked in factories and clerical services. And they've always provided unpaid labor as housewives. But to protect the family structure, women's economic dependence was encouraged through discriminatory property and inheritance laws and even family law, in which children were, until recent history, considered the man's property. These laws almost guaranteed that a woman couldn't make it on her own, she says.
But, adds Barbara Reskin, study director of the committee, women still carved out a financial niche in the home. ''Economists have found that women very often were the family money managers . . . as long as it basically involved consuming, spending for the family. The place that you find men taking over is when there's so much surplus that it involves investments . . . multiplying the money.''
Women interviewed by the Monitor echoed the same idea, remarking that they did not consider the clerical chores of household budgeting the same as controlling family money.
Ironically, the media stars of personal finance are women. Sylvia Porter and Jane Bryant Quinn command considerable respect with their syndicated newspaper columns and best selling books (''Sylvia Porter's New Money Book for the 80's,'' ''Everyone's Money Book,'' by Ms. Quinn).
Asked, for the sake of credibility, to use only her initials on her first business columns in the 1930s, Ms. Porter admits she had to buck some stereotypes. And she concedes that some ''old-fashioned'' logic crept into at least one part of her book, where she writes that the wife should pay for household help with her own money (assuming a husband and wife have some form of separate funds). She says she reconsidered this position after her daughter noted the paradox.
Jane Bryant Quinn doubles the irony of her position in a man's world with her explanation of how she landed her first job in the 1960s. ''I started doing money stories because nobody else wanted to do them. Business reporting was always a low-status job,'' says Ms. Quinn, who now also does television reporting for CBS Morning News.
Acknowledging the perceived differences between men and women, Ms. Quinn says , ''There isn't a difference in their ability to handle money -- only in whether they have had the need to do so. If tradition had been that women handled the money and the men didn't, the men, I assure you, would be breathing a great collective sigh of relief. Because balancing the checkbook is no one's idea of fun.
''Women often have been able to say, 'I don't have to do that, so I won't. Someone will do it for me.' Consequently, you get this (false) notion that women can't (handle money).''
Why would women want to avoid control of money, which represents increased power and independence for them?
One possibility is the Cinderella complex, offered by Colette Dowling in a controversial book of the same name. She suggests that certain social forces and parental influence have caused many women, like Cinderella, to expect a man to save and protect them; that independence is not perceived as a feminine role, therefore causing women to seek the safety and acceptability of dependence.
Based on dozens of interviews for her book, Ms. Dowling concludes that women ''can't have emotional independence unless they have their own money.''
Yet they continue to ignore some of the blatant signposts along the way, she says. ''The financial jeopardy women live in that really appears in their middle lives when marriages break up, or when they're older, is horrendous. The poverty level among older women in this country is twice what it is among older men, for example. And still women are not paying attention to that,'' she explains.
''Women in general are intimidated still, and somehow can afford to be, by money and what to do with it and how to make it work for them. There's still the idea that somewhere in their life there's a daddy to do it for them,'' she says.
Although this phenomenon may seem less likely among working-class women who are ''tougher than a lot of middle-and upper-middle-class women,'' Ms. Dowling says the myth does exist there too. ''They sort of expect they're going to have to work all their lives . . . probably their mothers did. They don't necessarily have a different attitude (than other women) toward independence,'' she says, adding that soap operas, romance novels, and women's magazines still suggest that ''the ideal for womanhood is to be able to stay home and starch your curtains.''
Angel Seratta, the oldest of seven children living on welfare with her mother and stepfather in East Boston, offers a hint at the contradiction of myth and reality. The 20-year-old woman affirms strongly: ''I want to be self-sufficient. I don't want to depend financially on anyone.''Yet in the next breath she adds, ''If I had a family I'd stay home with them to take care of the kids.'' Her statement implies that someone will be supporting her financially.
Professional women offer similar contradictions. They make a good living, but , says Ms. Dowling, ''They don't make it grow and don't think of it as the beginning of a kind of portfolio that will carry them through a lifetime. They go out and buy a lot of shoes with it. I would find that there still was this idea that it was glorious and grand to have this money, . . . but there was a kind of cutoff point. . . They didn't quite see themselves doing this thing a few years down the path.''
That same mental cutoff point, when they expect to be swept away by Prince Charming, may account for the thoughts of freshman women at the University of Southern California. In informal polls every semester, Ms. Stiehm, now on leave from her USC political science teaching position, found that students typically believe most women remain in the work force for 10 years, adding that they expect to work only five. As a frame of reference, Ms. Stiehm notes that women work an average of 23 years.
The perceptions women have about money can be keyed to marital status. Single women may neglect to save or invest, seeing marriage as the beginning of serious money management. Married women may find a financial partnership with husbands to be anathema to marital romance.
Can a line be drawn between love and money?
There must be an emphatic division, says Norman Abrams, a Los Angeles accountant who handles the financial end of divorces for women. He insists that it is in a woman's interest for her to know every detail of the family finances. ''They don't see the necessity of it because it's love, honor, cherish forever, and everybody believes when they make the oath that it's really going to be that way,'' he says, noting that a glimpse at divorce rates and the longer life expectancy of women should tip off women that they might be on their own financially at some point.
Ultimately, says Mr. Abrams, ''They have to want to educate themselves. It might very well be that it should be started by fathers and mothers.''
Although it could be another generation before women are financially independent, today's woman will find tradition and stereotypes no match for the inflation and rapid economic changes she faces. These factors are forcing more responsibility on women.
Women pepper Emily Womach of the Women's National Bank in Washington, D.C., with what they call ''stupid questions'' about personal finance. But she views these questions as the first stage of women's financial sophistication. The big picture: know the rules of the game
The grocery budget is probably a bigger concern for most women than the national budget. But, says a Boston economist who teaches economic literacy workshops, women's problems ''are systemic. . .things that budgeting won't help.
The larger issues - like Reaganomics, or inequities in existing laws - may seem academic, compared with the practicality of stretching a dollar. But to take financial responsibility, a woman must know the rules of the game.
Although there is a variety of laws - some helping women, others perpetuating inequities - some examples offer a perspective of women's economic niche.
A representative sample of inequities perpetuated by existing laws is addressed in the ''Women's Economic Equity Act of 1981,'' a package of congressional bills (some already passed) which aim to eliminate discrimination in pensions, tax policy, insurance, and government regulation.
Among others, the legislation includes these proposals:
* Allow nonworking spouses to establish their own individual retirement accounts, which now offer wage earners a chance to defer taxes on investments up to $2,000 a year.
* Allow single heads of households to claim the same standard tax deduction as married couples filing jointly. This would help the single parent whose expenses can match those of a two-parent family.
* Lower the minimum age for participation in private pension plans from 25 to 21 to allow women more time to establish the pension coverage often lost when their work years are interrupted by family responsiblities. Interruptions for maternity leave would be counted as service time for vesting and accrual of benefits.
* Require consent of pensioners' spouses before terminating survivors' pension benefits. By waiving survivor benefits, benefits received while a pensioner is alive are increased - often at the expense of widows who are shocked to find that there is no coverage after their husbands are gone.
* Require payment of a survivor's annuity to the spouse of a vested employee who dies before retirement.
* Establish pension benefits as a property right to be prorated in divorce cases.
* Offer tax credits to employers hiring displaced homemakers.
* Require stricter enforcement of child-support awards.
Two portions of the package already signed into law include increased day-care tax credits for lower-income taxpayers (effective on 1982 returns) and agricultural estate-tax reforms easing inheritance taxes on widows of farmers.
Older laws, like the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1975, don't always prevent discrimination. But Ramona Ripston, executive director of the southern California offices of the American Civil Liberties Union, says she has not found any ''real cases of credit discrimination.''
But that doesn't mean discrimination doesn't exist, says Ms. Ripston, a victim of credit inequity herself in 1968 when she was denied an American Express card in her own name and given one under her husband's name even though he earned less than she did.
She offers the example of a couple attempting to buy a house. The lender, basing his loan on the income of both people, often may try to delve into the wife's intentions to have or not to have children. ''He may even suddenly ask about what kind of contraception she uses,'' explains Ms. Ripston.
''Every time you call the bank and say, 'You can't ask those kinds of questions,' the bank collapses (the loan is granted). . . So it doesn't mean discrimination doesn't exist,'' she concludes.
Some changes under Reaganomics have both helped and hindered women economically. Inheritance taxes have been eliminated on estates up to $225,000 in 1982, meaning many widows won't be taxed on estates they helped build.
Easing the so-called marriage tax will benefit working couples but increase the tax burden for single people again, says columnist Jane Bryant Quinn. The tax-cutting pendulum will swing in favor of working couples, she says -- especially where the woman makes ''anything vaguely approximating what her husband makes.''
In other areas, social program cuts are affecting women negatively. ''When you see crackdowns on poverty programs, you see crackdowns on women'' because most welare recipients are women and children, says Jean Entine, of the Massachusetts Women's Commission in Exile.
Other cutbacks affecting women include the elimination of social security benefits for education and day-care cuts. This means widows will have to come up with the cash for their college-bound children and working mothers will pay more for child care.