Women and Taxes: Crossing the Line

War tax resister Andrea Ayvazian, in a column for The Progressive that appeared in their issue, wrote about what happens when she challenges our cultural taboos concerning money, particularly those that discourage women from taking the reins economically — and about the experiences of women who have taken the reins in a controversial and confrontational way by becoming war tax resisters:

Women and taxes: crossing the line

I like to talk to people about unpopular or taboo topics: racism, sex, money, and taxes. I find that once I raise a subject that most people would rather ignore or deny, they tend to open up and share thoughts and feelings they have previously suppressed.

As a war-tax resister , I’m particularly interested in people’s attitudes toward money. I regularly ask about their income, inherited wealth, giving patterns, and relations with the Internal Revenue Service. In casual conversations and formal interviews, I’ve heard some remarkable comments and stories.

Though I did not give it much attention at first, a pattern began to emerge in my discussions with people about money and taxes. Women and men tended to express different thoughts and feelings. Men often talked about money without great difficulty, but at the same time with a sense of caution, choosing their words carefully and speaking in generalizations rather than specifics. Their comments on taxes reflected irritation, frustration, and sometimes anger. Male war-tax resisters often talked about the military budget, the misguided approach of U.S. foreign and domestic policies, and what it means to stand up to authority and withhold all or a portion of one’s tax dollars. Some men told me they felt considerable anxiety about war-tax resistance — one said becoming a tax refuser was “terrifying” to him for the first two years — but many discussed both money and tax resistance in far more remote terms, without reference to their feelings, much less their fears.

When I talked with women, the subject of money often carried with it a sense of mystery. Many mentioned the confusing messages they received as children: never knowing their parents’ income, and sensing that they should not inquire about it; hearing terms on the news they did not understand — terms like “the Dow Jones average,” “the GNP,” “the discount rate” — and slowly realizing that maybe they never would know what such terms were all about; having their allowance and gifts of money tied to love and “good behavior”; then, later in life, finding they did not know how to discuss salary when applying for a job, or how to negotiate for a pay increase when on the job.

Women talked about absorbing the message that they were not expected to know or talk about money, and that they were not supposed to care about it. They were supposed to value things of a higher order — nurturance, interpersonal connections, and community — things money cannot buy. So my conversations about money with normally articulate women often took on a muddled tone — women groped for words, furrowed their brows, and said things like, “Oh, I don’t know… I guess it’s just not my strong suit.”

Historically, women have been generous donors to “charities.” Giving money to good causes is an acceptable way of creating change in America. Withholding money from bad causes is not considered quite as acceptable, and women are rarely encouraged to regard this as an appropriate social or political activity. Consequently, “crossing the line” — as one woman referred to her decision to become a war-tax resister — is often a big decision. For many women, it is a decision that runs counter to years of subtle and overt socialization and deeply rooted patterns of behavior.

I heard so many ambivalent comments from women about their socialization around money — how it was mysterious, dirty, and both precious and irrelevant — that I began to wonder about the thousands of women who have become war-tax refusers. How did so many women break through their intimidation over money, defy their “nothing is sure but death and taxes” upbringing, and start to use their money as a political tool, a powerful statement of resistance?

I began asking women — both war-tax resisters and others — about their attitudes toward filing their Federal income taxes and their approach to the IRS.

The responses to my questions should not have surprised me but they did. One woman in her middle years told me that whenever she files her Federal income-tax form (which she has a professional agency prepare), she overpays — considerably — just to make certain there is a wide margin for any miscalculation that might have slipped in.

Another friend told me that he has the job of filing the estimated tax returns for an elderly female relative. He said this woman marks her calendar and insists that her tax return be mailed ten days before it is due. When I asked why, he said that she is sure that if her form and check are even one day late, she will go to jail for life.

When I asked female war-tax resisters how they felt about engaging in that particular form of protest, many said they had to wrestle with a profound sense of apprehension. Certainly not all women are frightened as they think about or begin war-tax resistance — some women move into this form of protest with a cool confidence. But others struggle with considerable fear, and they push ahead just the same.

A woman in her mid-thirties who lives in Texas told me, “Although I thought I had prepared myself quite thoroughly before taking the first step as a resister, I remember very clearly the day I sent in my first IRS form indicating my decision to withhold payment. My body shook in periodic spasms throughout that day. I tried to keep my hands in my pockets so their shaking would not be noticed. That kind of fear has passed, but it surprised me at the time with its intensity.”

A woman from Georgia, who began her war-tax resistance in at the age of fifty-four, told me she also had to battle the demons of fear before taking the step to become a resister. “It takes a lot of courage to stand alone before the monolith of the IRS and the Government,” she said. This woman found the support she needed from a group she joined that included several war-tax resisters. Acting in concert with others proved to be vital for the female war-tax resisters with whom I spoke.

Other women spoke of confronting their fears when deciding to engage in war-tax resistance. A woman in Massachusetts who began withholding war taxes at the age of forty-three told me she had tremendous anxiety about “breaking a rule.” She said she had been taught to be obedient and respectful of authority, and here she was withholding a portion of her Federal income tax — defying a “big authority figure.” She went on to say she was the kind of person who has difficulty crossing the street outside the white crossing marks, “and when I do, I hurry along hoping that I won’t be arrested before I reach the other side.” Despite this need to be obedient, her conscience guided her to engage in a significant protest that “would not be ignored by the Government.”

A single mother in her mid-forties who lives in California and has been a war-tax resister for a dozen years reflected with me on her experience with “horrible fines, penalties, garnishments, and job losses.” She told me, “Looking back on the hurdles I have faced with the world’s largest collection agency, I must say the greatest hurdle was my own fear — it would come in big, choking, dark-of-the-night assaults.”

Another mother, a thirty-six-year-old woman in Vermont who became a war-tax resister just , said, “The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was to let go of my fear of the IRS. I used to be terribly afraid that war-tax resistance had the potential of hurting my children, because I would be a law-breaking, not a law-abiding, parent. But gradually I came to believe instead that not obeying my conscience would be far worse. What kind of a role model would I be for my children if I did not obey my own deeply held beliefs?”

A woman from Iowa who began her tax resistance in told me how difficult she found it to risk losing the “approval and affirmation” of others. “Even if people do not agree with me,” she said, “I still desire their respect and understanding for my position. It is hard to be vulnerable and share openly with others and then feel no connection with them taking place.”

When I asked what had moved these women to face their fears, their responses had one common theme: the inescapable realization that they personally were complicit in the activities of the U.S. war machine by paying for it and that they could register a dramatic protest by withholding their own Federal tax dollars. The Vermont mother stated it succinctly: “The turning point for me was in realizing that my need to obey my conscience was greater than my fear of the IRS.” And a long-time resister in Massachusetts told me, “I finally understood the simple fact that the military needs bodies and money to continue. They don’t want my middle-aged, female body, but they want and need my tax dollars. So that is where I can say no.”

Many women told of meeting other war-tax resisters and joining support groups before they finally decided to take the step themselves. A mother in her early forties said, “Just as I borrow milk and flour from my neighbors, I was able to borrow strength and courage from my war-tax-refusers support committee when my supply ran low.” The woman from Iowa who found it difficult to risk losing the affirmation and approval of others also said, “I am lucky to be a part of a penalty-sharing community that supports me and others doing war-tax resistance. Even when others in my life fail to grasp the concept, I do not feel alone.”

Though the women in Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best never seemed to have jobs or to handle or mention money — and shows of this kind taught a generation of women a great deal about their customary roles — many women have been able to reexamine their relationship to money and to transform it into an effective political tool. And once women have decided to become war-tax resisters, once the line has been crossed, the sense of empowerment and strength among many female war-tax resisters is palpable.

The woman who is afraid of being arrested for jay-walking told me that since she became a war-tax resister, “that sense of being overwhelmed by big authority figures, like the Government, the police force, and the IRS, has melted away. My decision to become a war-tax resister turned out to be just the first step in saying no to many immoral and unacceptable behaviors and policies in this country.” And the woman from Georgia told me with pride, “I have even been to tax court and survived.”

The long-time resister from Massachusetts said other forms of public protest no longer seem so daunting. “I have received dozens of certified letters from the IRS. been visited numerous times by IRS agents, had money taken repeatedly from my bank account, and I currently have a lien on my home. Since I chose to become a war-tax resister, none of these challenges has been too much to bear. Plus, I have felt freed up to speak out when I used to hold back. I write strong letters to the editor, demand meetings with legislators, and generally take pride in being a public nuisance.”

Many women seem to derive unexpected benefits from war-tax resistance. A grandmother from Pennsylvania, a resister for so many years that she has lost count, told me she learned one of her grandchildren had made her the focus of a report on “Great American Heroes.” Another grandmother, from Michigan, said one wonderful memory she has of her years as a war-tax resister was a letter she and her husband wrote to the editor of their local newspaper. Apparently, the letter was picked up by an international wire service. She told me with delight, “We got about equal amounts of hate mail and love mail from all around the world — it was fascinating”

Women discussed how brave they have become in revealing that they are war-tax resisters. One told me, “I was initially timid to let on that I engaged in that sort of radical-fringe activity. I now tell people with pride that I am a war-tax resister, and it helps me feel that that one area of my life is congruent with my deepest-held values.” And the mother from Vermont said, “I mention my war-tax resistance whenever I think someone might be receptive to the idea. Just talking about it is empowering and makes me feel great.”

What advice do these resisters want to give to other women who may want to become tax resisters themselves? The most common answer was: If you feel frightened but you want to take this step, don’t go it alone. Find a group, talk with other resisters, reach out for support. Many of the women I spoke with recommended that women find a group of women, or men and women, engaged in tax resistance and “stay close,” as many women put it. One woman said, “I know that in following any belief which is not upheld by the majority of citizens around me, I must have a connection with those who believe as I believe.”

War tax resistance is a big and often fearful step to take. Some women choose it, some do not. One thing is clear: Women who have decided on this form of protest have, on some level, wrestled with and rejected many of the norms, expectations, and stereotypes prevalent in society about women’s behavior with regard to money. It is also clear that the women who choose war-tax resistance are changed and strengthened by this choice. And I believe the country is as well.