Over the weekend, Wednesday Martin, the author of the upcoming memoir Primates of Park Avenue, published a piece in the New York Times that deftly deconstructed the past decade’s ongoing romanticization of “opting out” and “feminist housewives” and whatever other trendy terms have been used to spin the continuing practice of really rich men having wives with expensive educations but no employment outside the home. This isn’t a new trend, Martin explains, but just a continuation of the way things were done in the pre-feminist era.
Betty Francis might have been at death’s door by the Mad Men finale, but her real-life counterparts are alive and well in what Martin calls the “glittering, moneyed backwater” of the Upper East Side, where “30-somethings with advanced degrees from prestigious universities” put all their intelligence and ambition into pleasing wealthy husbands; they “exercised themselves to a razor’s edge, wore expensive and exquisite outfits to school drop-off and looked a decade younger than they were.” Theirs is a gender-segregated world reminiscent of the lives of Victorian aristocrats, where the men go off into one room to talk business while the women stay in another for female-only socializing.
But the detail that seemed to grab readers’ attention the most (judging by the comments and by social-media chatter) is the existence of “wife bonuses.” Martin explains:
I was thunderstruck when I heard mention of a “bonus” over coffee. Later I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her “year-end” to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.
A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.
One just hopes there isn’t a weigh-in every year to help determine your bonus as well.
Disgust was the prevailing reaction to Martin’s revelation about wife bonuses, and understandably so—in the wife bonus, income inequality, commodification of love, and the objectification of women all converge at once. As Martin notes, the recipients “usually retreated, demurring when pressed to discuss it further,” suggesting that they may feel some shame about this practice.
But the wife bonus should raise some hard questions. Americans love to emphasize the role of the dependent housewife or the stay-at-home mom as just as much a “real job” as that of any woman who works outside of the home. You often see infographics, articles, and social media memes about how being a stay-at-home-mom is the hardest job that anyone ever worked and how, if it were paid fairly, every housewife would be making all the money.
In theory, then, wife bonuses should fit right into this narrative. If it’s a job, then it should be treated like one, with bonuses and promotions based on performance reviews. But of course, the whole “stay-at-home motherhood is a real job” meme was never really about the actual work of housewifery. It’s a defensive maneuver, a way to argue that just because a woman is economically dependent on her husband doesn’t mean her marriage is sexist or any less equal than a marriage in which both spouses work. Wife bonuses, however, remind us that if stay-at-home motherhood is a job, then that means your husband is your employer. Not very egalitarian at all.