Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve likely seen the flurry of articles and responses regarding Wednesday Martin’s new book, Primates of Park Avenue. The focus for many has been the ‘wife bonus’. At the core of the argument is the scorching contention that a woman earning a bonus for services rendered knocks organized feminism back into the bra burning decades.
A recent acquaintance wrote an articulate article outing herself as a wife who has been on the receiving end of such a bonus for years. The article generated a lot of press and a lot of commentary. Precisely what an article aims to do. Most of it was negative, a lot of it personally attacking the author for coming out of the wife bonus closet to make room for more shoes in there.
Far from setting feminism back, she argues, the idea of financial remuneration means her spouse recognizes the monetary value of her work as a stay at home mother. Achieving a high enough place at the negotiating table to warrant a monetary bonus actually means feminism has succeeded. If true, the argument means that we, sister suffragette, have come full circle. Instead of being regarded as a parasite within a global society which values the number of zeros on your pay stub (are there still pay stubs?), a wife bonus means non-earning women have finally reached a level of equality in which the unpaid work of women in the home sphere is equal to the paid work of the working male.
We’ve come a long way, baby. But not as far as you think.
If you are tee-shirt wearing member of Team Happily Ever After you may not like what I have to say next. Until the last century and a half or so, the notion of love and marriage decidedly did NOT go together like a horse and carriage. Marriage was merely a legal way of transferring land, property, money and possessions. And in the case of Game of Thrones, bleak, icy castles and slippery allegiances. In the best case scenario a wife was offered societal protection, financial security and a modicum of independence (in the sense of being afforded the umbrella privilege of ‘wife’). I need not go into the worst case scenarios, (poor, poor Sansa Stark) whereby a woman’s name was listed somewhere in between the linens and the clay pots on a laundry list of transferred possessions.
Somewhere along the way, the legal side of it got mixed up with Love Potion #9 and suddenly couples were making goo goo eyes at one another and the idea of marriage as a social and legal construct was usurped by the idea of marriage as an emotional one.
The current view of marriage is as a partnership. My husband, as with many husbands of his generation, will happily shout from the rooftop that his career and indeed the life he lives, especially as an expat, would not be possible without someone (me) at home taking care of business so he can free up his days, desk, and head space for the money-making business.
A partnership, by colloquial definition, means that both parties have an equal stake. Partnerships naturally veer toward the mutually beneficial. Ideally, in a marriage, both parties have an equal stake. That’s where the word ‘bonus’ becomes contentious.
In reality, any partner not earning money is reliant upon their partner’s salary for their basic needs. For many people, that stay at home ‘bonus’ pays the electricity bill, buys milk and bread and Christmas presents for the kids. No one bats an eye. But bump up the zeros and the ‘bonus’ is paying for shoes and bags and vacations and it becomes anti-feminist and makes anyone who owns up to it the object of vitriol.
Is there a difference? What’s the difference between buying milk and bread with your spouse’s salary and buying a five-figure handbag with it?
Move over white privilege and enter wife privilege.
Should a wife go out and buy herself a new pair of shoes if she doesn’t work? As long as she’s not putting the rest of the family in debt, as long as the milk and bread are covered, absolutely. Is there a difference between a buy-one-get-one-off sale at Payless and a pair of Jimmy Choos?
This argument is not about feminism as much as it’s about money. Very few people would balk at a Toyota driving Mom of 2 treating herself to a pair of vegan leather knock-offs at Nine West. But if a woman admits to buying herself something expensive merely because she coveted it, even if the family finances can afford it, she is vilified unless she earned it. If she then submits an invoice for family services rendered, she is accused of, essentially, cooking the books along with the dinner.
Work inside the home though it may be valued anecdotedly, is still viewed by detractors as deserving nothing more than ‘pin money’. It’s not real work. Real things, important things, are not done in the home. There is no tangible value. So therefore the non-earning partner is dependent upon the charity of the working partner to make life bearable or livable or in some cases, simply luxurious.
Wife bonuses or wife privilege has little to do with self-worth, it has little to do with deserving. None of this is new, it’s been going on since before marriages had anything to do with love, since back when Targaryens married Tyrell and tried to bridge the narrow sea. The only thing that’s changed is the brand names and the number of zeros rung up at the register. And what we call it.
We’ve come a long way, baby. But there’s still a long way to go.
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If you are referring to the Polly Phillips article, I think a large part of the problem was the messenger. All the bragging about her expensive shoes etc. really undercut her point. It didn’t sound like she stayed home to take care of her kids (or do anything else especially worthwhile), it just sounded like she just wanted more time to go shopping!
I am, Kelly, but I need to clarify and will edit this in the post as well. The article to which I’m referring was the original one published last week in The Telegraph in the UK, which bears almost no resemblance at all to the one that seems to be popping up in the NY Post. I’ll link it up. It was much more of ‘why’ a wife bonus isn’t necessarily anti-femninist and less ‘I go out shopping for x,y, and z.” Not sure what happened there, but the tone of the article in the Post definitely came across as sensationalistic and polarizing. Which again, I’m sure was the intention in order to sell papers.
I’ve been dancing around this from the role of a stay-at-home dad and it sure is odd, how these values and assumptions are engrained in us. I sometimes feel bad spending money because my wife is earning ours, and of course (no surprise here) I feel I don’t get enough recognition for the hard work at home that goes basically unnoticed, taken for granted. It’s just the way it is. Queer for us, my wife and I, because we tried it the other way around with her staying at home, but she said I’d be better at it since I’m the fussy one, and also like to cook/clean. Don’t really mind it. But I do mind it when I feel like it’s taken for granted, right? Here I am ranting – sorry. Not sure if I’m riffing off your post or going on a tangent. Going back to my book now and shutting the laptop down. Should probably ask the kids again if they’re ready for their goddamned lunch.
When we first moved abroad and I stopped working and well and truly became a housewife (call it what it is, right?), I struggled mightily with the notion of spending money I didn’t earn. I also threw myself into such extreme housewifery that my fingertips were fairly scorched with the bleaching–because I was raised that if you’re going to do a job, out well. So if changing the sheets and cooking dinner was going to be my ‘job’, then I was going to do the best damn job of it I could. After nearly seven years, I’m over it. It’s a constant struggle to maintain a balance between demanding recognition for the non compensated work one does to keep the family running smoothly (in order to allow the earning partner to focus on the earning) and feeling worthless for not earning. What’s really interesting is that you feel similarly–so it’s not necessarily a female/male question, but more a financial one–which at the end of the day is easier to answer than one rooted in sex roles and biology. I think…Damn those kids and their constant demands for food.
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It’s not the first time I’ve written about it, I’m sure it won’t be the last!
I’d be ok with their constant demands for food if they’d just pretend to enjoy my cooking.
Such a complex issue — I appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion of it!
Thanks. It just occurred to me that all the bashing seems to stem from a place of privilege rather than from the idea. And once again, it’s women deriding other women. So the real danger of feminism is not the wife bonus, it’s taking down other women over the wife bonus.
I remember reading a financial expert—Suze Orman, I believe—recommend that the stay-at-home partner be paid an actual salary by the money-earning partner. This salary would be calculated by the cost of replacing the partner with a housekeeper, bookkeeper, chauffeur, nanny, etc., etc., etc. This would seem to be the equivalent of a wife bonus, but instead of changing in good years and by performance, as bonuses do, the salary would be consistent year after year.
The purpose of a salary is more than a bookkeeping sleight of hand, it puts a value on the work of the homemaking partner. The money becomes her, or his, own to spend without feelings of responsibility or explanation.
The bigger problem is a wider attitude that work done without pay has no value. If stay-at-home spouses felt more valued and important, then there would be not need to feel guilty about salaries, bonuses, or spending on whatever the heck their hearts desire.
Agree, on all counts. Non-earning work has no merit, no value outside of Hallmark cards and therapy. Ironically of course, if anything that goes wrong the blame is almost always laid at the feet of said non-earning partner. As I was saying to someone else, I had to wallow through my own river of doubt as to whether or not I deserved to spend money I didn’t ‘earn’. Luckily I have a wonderful partner/spouse who not only countered all my arguments, but actively encouraged me to go out and spend money on myself. There’s a lot of female on female judgment going on in between these lines. “Why does SHE think she deserves to buy herself a pair of fancy shoes when all she’s doing is the same as the rest of us?” Some of it’s petty jealousy, some of it is judging, some of the view society toward stay at home mothers/caregivers. I’m not sure what changed, but I do feel valued, as a partner in this journey and as a wife and mother. Perhaps it’s aging, or having something that I feel is worthwhile in my writing, or maybe it’s just finally seeing that raising the next generation is worthy in and of itself. Regardless, I’m grateful. And just the other day I blasphemed by noting it was possible I owned too many shoes… ;-).
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Oh my, did he have a car?
Haha! Couldn’t agree more with you, these things get me on my nerves…
I imagine he had a very expensive car with heated seats. 😉