Fresh off the heels of the news that fancy New York ladies have been getting mani-pedis from tragically exploited workers came Wednesday Martin’s New York Times op-ed, “Poor Little Rich Women,” a preview of her new pop-anthropology memoir about the wealthy stay-at-home moms of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The story was a guaranteed hit, thanks to the fact that it concern-trolled a group everyone loves to hate-envy.
Sure, these socialites may have wardrobes, hair stylists, and gym hours the rest of us could only dream of, but do they have their dignity?
Fine, they go on lavish vacations without having to work, but are they good feminists?
Between the lines, Martin assures her fellow upper-middle-elite readers that they’re actually superior to the super-duper elite. Well played.
Taking the piece seriously, though, required suspension of disbelief. Was Martin really—as she claims—surprised (even after all those Bravo shows) to learn that rich housewives still exist? Could someone have really experienced “culture shock” in 2004 upon moving to the Upper East Side (with a “financier” husband) from the long-since-posh West Village? Still, the piece was, as The New Republic's Rebecca Traister noted, “clickbait,” mainly because because of its (dubious) claim that women in that milieu receive something called a “wife bonus”—a portion of the husband’s banker bonus, which the wife gets for successful childrearing, or maybe for fulfilling “sexual performance metrics,” or who knows, really. I came away from the piece thinking the “wife bonus” had been made up, if not by Martin, then perhaps by some fellow moms who’d tired of being her research subjects.
How wrong I was! In a similarly viral New York Post piece entitled “I get a wife bonus and I deserve it, so STFU”—a follow-up to an earlier, gentler version she published in the Telegraph—Polly Phillips not only confirms that the “wife bonus” is a thing that happens, but rebuts Martin’s claim that recipients of such funds are to be pitied. “Rebuts” may, however, be too strong a word. The Post essay is barely recognizable as prose—much of it consists of almost spambot-like lists of luxury brands (e.g. “My favorite labels include [names six labels]”) and banal details about how, exactly, she shops for them (e.g. “I ended up buying the [brand] ballet pumps and [other brand] heels not at the Houston mall, but online because it was more convenient.”). Interspersed are photos of the author looking rich and pampered.
Yet buried under the talk and photographic evidence of Phillips' materialism is a discussion of family finance, one that leaves the brand-crazed author sounding reasonable. Phillips writes that she used to have her own high-paid career, but a combination of frequent international relocation and raising a young child (young enough to have an age still measured in months) led her to put that on hold, so now they’re living on only her husband’s income. She didn’t seek out financial dependency, and doesn’t appear to have sworn on a stack of New York Posts that she won’t return to the workplace later on.
And the financial arrangement she describes sounds sensible enough. After setting aside the vast majority of her husband’s (vast) income for family practicalities, the two of them “each take 20% of his bonus, ensuring that we both have an equal opportunity to reward ourselves for a year of hard work.” As in, he gives himself a husband bonus as well. The arrangement seems to be, if anything, about Phillips’s desire not to spend too much of what she views as her husband’s money. This tells us that she’s not (at least in her own self-description) a gold-digger. That she’s more comfortable shopping using pseudo-payment from her husband than simply using a joint account suggests, if anything, above-average discomfort with treating money her husband has earned as her own.
Phillips insists, defensively, that she's a feminist. "To me," she writes, "there can be nothing more feminist than believing that staying home to take care of our daughter—as well as the day-to-day washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning—is just as worthy of a wage as going out to a job outside the home."
But others have likened such arrangements to prostitution, and not in the sex-positive libertarian sense. Martin doesn't do so explicitly, but writes, “The wives of the masters of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses—dependent and comparatively disempowered.” And Phillips recalls women asking her whether she must perform sexually to earn her bonus. From her Telegraph piece:
Grown women asked me seriously, nodding and winking lewdly like naughty little schoolboys, if there was anything that I ‘had’ to do to secure my bonus, the assumption being that, by accepting appreciation of the sacrifices that a stay at home mum makes on a daily basis as a monetary compensation is somehow on the level of prostitution.
To answer the more smutty-minded critics of the ‘wife bonus’ which, perhaps hereafter should be known as ‘partnership premium’, the bonus is in no way linked to how I’ve performed in the bedroom or anywhere else.
Phillips is right to make this distinction. Some degree of income imbalance is going to be present in nearly all marriages at any given time, including dual-earner ones. Especially in cases where one spouse earns a ton, the distinction between lower-paid and unpaid may not be all that great. Writes Martin:
Rich, powerful men may speak the language of partnership in the absence of true economic parity in a marriage, and act like true partners, and many do. But under this arrangement women are still dependent on their men — a husband may simply ignore his commitment to an abstract idea at any time. He may give you a bonus, or not. Access to your husband’s money might feel good. But it can’t buy you the power you get by being the one who earns, hunts or gathers it.
Ideally, of course, the default high earner wouldn’t be of one gender or another. But “true economic parity” shouldn’t depend on spouses living as economically autonomous units, where each spouse lives only off his or her own money. If a marriage of equals requires that such a split wouldn't lead to either party's standard of living noticeably diminishing, exceedingly few marriages would qualify. It doesn't suddenly become a form of prostitution if, temporarily or even permanently, the female partner in an opposite-sex relationship is the substantially lower earner, or is not working outside the home.
But let’s say it is prostitution: Wouldn’t it be better, then, to pop-anthropologically mock the johns?