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The Wife Bonuses

A snapshot of the decadent Manhattan rich

Life among rich stay-at-home moms of the Upper East Side, according to an anthropologist who lived among them and studied their ways:

And then there were the wife bonuses.

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.

Women who didn’t get them joked about possible sexual performance metrics. Women who received them usually retreated, demurring when pressed to discuss it further, proof to an anthropologist that a topic is taboo, culturally loaded and dense with meaning.

Can you imagine the conversation in which the husband tells the wife that she’s not getting her bonus this year, and here’s why?

Here’s author Wednesday Martin’s conclusion:

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.

The wives of the masters of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses — dependent and comparatively disempowered. Just sensing the disequilibrium, the abyss that separates her version of power from her man’s, might keep a thinking woman up at night.

Notice that what matters to the feminist Martin is marriage as a power dyad. And why not? The relationship she describes is less a marriage than a business arrangement. I can see why it would offend her as a feminist, but as a human being, would this marriage and family life be more humane if it were between two masters of the universe?

It’s so perverse. But what do you expect in a world where pre-nuptial agreements are thought normal, and when childbearing is something you can arrange in a laboratory and farm out to a prole whose womb you’ve rented?



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