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Why we love to hate the ‘wife bonus’

Americans have a fraught relationship with dependence – particularly when it concerns women

June 4, 2015 2:00AM ET

On May 16, The New York Times struck click-bait gold with an excerpt from Wednesday Martin’s forthcoming memoir, provocatively titled “Primates of Park Avenue.”

The headline was “Poor little rich women,” and it revealed that some rich women living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan do not hold office jobs. Instead, these “mostly 30-somethings with advanced degrees from prestigious universities and business schools” pour their time and talents into “intensive mothering,” obsessive exercising and competitive shopping. They depend wholly on their husbands for financial support, and some even receive a “wife bonus” for their troubles. One of these wives, Polly Phillips, argued in a recent New York Post essay that her wife bonus is her husband’s way of acknowledging that her homemaking is as valuable as his work as an oil company executive. But she refers to him as her “boss,” implying a distressingly unequal relationship, and she is clearly less interested in arguing seriously that she is “empowered” by her husband’s munificence than she is in bragging about her designer clothing.

In the U.S., the land of the free, dependence is usually interpreted as weakness — but who gets to be dependent is largely a function of gender and class. Spousal dependence is still socially acceptable in some settings and for some women, i.e., those in the middle and upper classes. Poor women with children, on the other hand, are seen as irresponsible breeders in need of the “dignity” of soul-sucking low-wage work.

Dependence has never been seen as widely acceptable for men either. There is still little social incentive for and considerable stigma attached to being a stay-at-home dad. But whether you call it pin money, an allowance or a wife bonus, if you can’t buy things without your husband, you are by definition dependent on him.

Just how dependent is another question. As Martin noted, these women have advanced degrees from prestigious universities; it wouldn’t be easy, and they would almost certainly earn less than they would had they remained in the workforce, but there’s no doubt in my mind that these women could support themselves and their children if they had to.

The truth is the “poor little rich women” of the Upper East Side are no better or worse than any of the rest of us; they’re just luckier in the short term and, absent an exhaustive prenup, more vulnerable in the event of a divorce.

Park princesses

Unsurprisingly, the question of who “gets to” or “should” stay at home is politically charged. When prospective first lady Hillary Clinton snarked at a reporter in 1992, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession,” the backlash was so intense that she was made to atone by submitting a cookie recipe in a Family Circle magazine–sponsored bake-off. In 2012, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen was forced to apologize for saying that first lady hopeful and stay-at-home mom Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life.”

Contrast this with the majority of Americans who admire first lady Michelle Obama. She holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard. She left a lucrative, high-status career for the Miss America–like occupation of fighting childhood obesity and running the White House garden.

Why disdain Ann Romney and the ladies of Park Avenue but give Michelle Obama a pass?

Why disdain Romney and the ladies of Park Avenue but give Obama a pass?

You could argue that Obama’s are worthier pursuits than exercising and shopping, but the ladies of Park Avenue also invest time and money in charitable causes, and Obama also exercises and shops for clothes. I’ve heard women complain that the Park Avenue set isn’t really staying home to raise their children; they have nannies to do that. But Obama also has help with child care, as do most educated women of means. Very few women who have the money (or family) required to avoid it choose to spend every waking second with their children — and those who do would rather perfect their offspring than maintain relationships with husbands and friends. Whether this kind of intensive mothering is good for children is an entirely different question.

Novel choices

The only novel thing about Obama’s choice is that she got to make it. That is a luxury that’s still out of reach for most black women. Her public comments about her choice have been candid and thoughtful. “Work is rewarding,” she has said. “I love losing myself in a set of problems that have nothing to do with my husband and children. Once you’ve tasted that, it’s hard to walk away.” Her mother, Marian Robinson, reportedly told her daughter she didn’t think Obama could handle the “boredom” of staying home with children full time.

Upper-middle-class women seem to want to be able to stop working when and if they choose without being seen as selling out feminism or unable to compete in the working world. Even the ultrarich “glam SAHMs” (stay-at-home moms) want to be seen as normal women who “married successful men because they are our intellectual peers, not sugar daddies” — and Linda Vester Greenberg’s letter to the Times nearly convinced me that they are.

But middle-class and poor women don’t have time to overanalyze every choice they make; their only options are to work or to stay at home because they can’t find jobs that pay enough to cover child care costs.

It’s also worth noting that a sizable minority of American moms stay home because they are in school or are unable to find work. Others are single, cohabiting or are married to men who don’t work. But roughly two-thirds of stay-at-home moms chose to stay home and have husbands who make enough money to support them.

Americans don't like what they see as uppity women like Clinton who think they’re too talented to stay at home baking cookies. They don’t like women like Rosen who point out that supervising staff in a multimillion-dollar mansion is not a form of labor. They don’t seem to care for the Park Avenue moms, who represent the hated and envied 1 percent. Many Americans do like Obama — partly, I’d guess, because she traded her high-status job for the chance to pose for photos with vegetables yet is intelligent enough to feel ambivalent about it.

Ultimately, most people don’t really care whether a woman who is not a member of their immediate family works at home or in an office. What Americans seem to want from women is not so much one choice or the other but an assurance that we’ll feel bad about it either way.

I do not believe, as my favorite Onion headline put it, that women are “now empowered by everything a woman does.” But decrying individual choices as disempowering strikes me as unfair, limiting and beside the point.

Most women have to work; there’s no denying that those who have a choice are lucky. But however a woman decides to organize her time in our deeply flawed, structurally unequal world of work is fine with me. If that involves working less or working for free or working from home, so be it. That seems like a choice most of us, including many men, would make if we could.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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