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May 18 2015

Are wife bonuses really an outrage?

Carrie L. Lukas

Wednesday Martin, an anthropologist living in an ultra-rich part of Manhattan, wrote in this Sunday’s New York Times about the subculture of the rich, nonworking mothers living around her.  She offers a few colorful anecdotes, but otherwise tells a very familiar tale:  Just as the ultra-rich spend money on clothes, vacations, cars, jewelry, cosmetics and beauty treatments that seem mind-blowingly extravagant to us regular folks, ultra-rich moms can apply that extravagance to child-raising too. 

Martin implies that what she is describing isn’t just over-the-top wealth, but evidence of a destructive sex-segregated world in which the women inferior to their dominant husbands. The most noteable example given in this article of the warped relations between the sexes in the concept of “wife bonuses.”  She writes:

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.

This is the first I’ve heard of a “wife bonus.”  I find it strange to be sure, but can also see how this might have come about, and it doesn’t necessarily require that the men involved are cavemen or treating their wives like servants:  A rich man learns he is getting a 7-figure bonus so goes home to tell his wife the good news; the wife jokes about wanting her own bonus.  They talk about the criteria that would be used, decide on something, and she then tells her friends who then tell their husbands and the tradition of a “wife bonus” blooms.

Perhaps some of them do feel disempowered by having to go to their husbands for money and feel less free to give to charities or buy stuff for themselves with money that they didn’t directly earn.  Yet this is undoubtedly true across the spectrum of incomes.

Martin notes that these women are generally highly-educated and involved in prestigious careers themselves before having children and dropping out of the workforce, and they have now applied their competitiveness to parenting.  They are enriching their kids however they can, jockeying for positions at highly competitive schools, and spending time exercising and on their own physical appearances.  In other words, they are behaving much like everyone else, except they have much more money and time to spend on these endeavors. 

These women explain to Martin that they could have had careers themselves, but have chosen not to.  Martin implies there is something wrong with this:  Are these women being defensive?  Do they secretly wish they had their own shining careers?

I’ll just bet that there are women among this set who wonder what they may have accomplished if they’d remained focused on their careers.  But that isn’t very different from the rest of us, who also wonder about the road not traveled. 

Wondering, however, doesn’t mean that one has made the wrong choice.  And, if they already have essentially all the money they could possibly need as the article implies, it hardly seems insensible that they “give away” their talents to charitable institutions and focus on their kids rather than grinding away at corporate job in pursuit of a paycheck.  The title of the piece “Poor Little Rich Women” implies that these women are self-pitying, yet that doesn’t come across from Martin's descriptions of the women.  Rather these women seem to be a bit over-competitive, but otherwise to recognize that they are fortunate to have the options and opportunities they do, and are doing their best to raise their kids and enjoy their lives.

Martin tries to paint these women as an exotic tribe, yet I imagine that many stay-at-home moms across the income scale will see a less glamorous reflection of their own story in the glittering tale of these rich moms.    

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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