fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.

 

Anthropologists try to understand the differences among cultures by studying their structures, customs, rituals, etc.  A lot can be learned by looking at things like the division of labor between the sexes and the resulting difference in power structure. Recently, anthropologist Wednesday Martin reported in The New York Times about a tribe she has been studying for the past few years for a book she is writing: the wives of wealthy men on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Martin calls her subjects “Glam SAHMs,” for “glamorous stay-at-home moms.” Although many of these women, whom she met on playgrounds or through her sons’ nursery school, had degrees (some advanced) from prestigious universities, they did not work outside the home, but . . .

“Instead they toiled in what the sociologist Sharon Hays calls ‘intensive mothering,’ exhaustively enriching their children’s lives by virtually every measure, then advocating for them anxiously and sometimes ruthlessly in the linked high-stakes games of social jockeying and school admissions.

“Their self-care was no less zealous or competitive. No ponytails or mom jeans here: 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. Many ran their homes (plural) like C.E.O.s.”

Although they behave like C.E.O.s, in one important respect the women in question lacked some crucial aspects of the job—most notably, financial independence. Though they clearly were afforded luxurious lifestyles and hefty budgets, they were, in fact, under their husbands’ control, for the most part. The most startling revelation in Martin’s piece was the “wife bonus”:

“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.”

23492673There has been a great deal of skepticism about this particular claim, and Martin’s article, a prelude to the publication of her new book Primates of Park Avenue, has stirred up a lot of criticism and controversy. Whether or not all her findings are accurate, or whether they apply only to a very narrow group of women who live in the area, there are aspects of her research worth discussing. One of the most troubling is the idea that these privileged women are described as so dependent on their husbands. In the excerpt above, for example, the key phrase is “modicum of financial independence.”  For all the glamorous trappings of these women’s lives, because they remain dependent they lack the power that in most cultures is associated with high status. The more equally the “work” is shared in a given society, according to Martin, the more parity there is among the sexes in terms of power:

“Whether they are Hadza women who spend almost as much time as men foraging for food, Agta women of the Philippines participating in the hunt or !Kung women of southern Africa foraging for the tubers and roots that can tide a band over when there is no meat from a hunt, women who contribute to the group or family’s well-being are empowered relative to those in societies where women do not.”

Whether or not women feel “personally empowered” in this group that Martin is describing, there is a great deal of energy and discipline at work here. There are a number of ways in which the rarefied group she examines defies expectations and has turned certain traditions around. For example, 100 years ago, the wealthier you were, the less likely you were to work, whether in business or in child care. A gentleman or lady was measured, at least in part, by the amount of leisure time he or she had. Now the opposite is true. A man who is truly successful is expected to be insanely busy no matter how wealthy he is, and his wife, though she may not work, is expected to attend to the children’s needs with frenzied intensity as well (even though she has child care available). 

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  • Chris Tirpak June 4, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    Interesting article, thought provoking. We’re reaching a population tipping point in the earth’s ability to sustain human life. The earth is not growing any bigger, but the number of us is out of control.

    So, in a time of planet-wide overpopulation, why would any thinking woman choose to spend her precious life on grooming her own replacements?

    What would motivate her to avoid self-actualization?

    Reply