Real Housewives of the Upper East Side

By Nian Hu


Financial dependency and gender roles in marriage

By definition, a housewife is a woman whose main occupation is running her family’s household and who does not work outside the home. She is, for the most part, financially dependent on her husband, the breadwinner of the family.


But the women described in Wednesday Martin’s memoir “Primates of Park Avenue” don’t seem to fit the bill at first. Dressed in designer clothing and armed with Ivy League degrees, the Upper East Side housewives featured in Martin’s book are described as “wealthy, competent, and beautiful women.” And yet, they too are financially dependent on their husbands.   


Perhaps the best example of their financial dependency comes in the form of the “wife bonus,” one of the most controversial topics broached by Wednesday Martin in her memoir. According to Martin, the “wife bonus” is a large sum of money that the husband would give to his wife at the end of the year as a reward for good performance at managing the household, taking care of the children, and other wifely duties.


The controversy over the “wife bonus” mainly concerns feminism: namely, is it empowering to women? Some say, very. According to these people, women ought to get paid for all the work they do around the house. Housework and child-rearing is just as labor-intensive and respectable as a 9-to-5 job, and housewives should be compensated for their hard work. One woman—a beneficiary of the wife bonus herself—adamantly defends the practice, calling it empowering and feminist because she is getting paid to be a housewife, a lifestyle that she finds satisfying and rewarding.


It’s a compelling argument. For far too long, “women’s work” has been largely undervalued by our society. Domestic work—from managing a home to raising children—is not seen as a worthwhile pursuit. As a matter of fact, when women choose to abandon their careers and dedicate time and energy to their homes, it is often seen as quitting.


This mindset contributes to the stigma that many housewives face. And for many women, the “wife bonus” means that their hard work at home is appreciated and, for the first time, given a real monetary value. In this way, the “wife bonus” is an acknowledgement of the hard work that housewives do every day.


But this argument is far from perfect. It completely overlooks the fact that this transaction is taking place in a marriage. This is not a corporate office where the boss is giving year-end bonuses to his employees. Marriage should be a relationship between equals. Why, then, do people still think it’s okay, even admirable, for husbands to dole out “bonuses” to their wives, as though they are fathers giving their teenage daughters some extra spending money?


It’s because marriage is not supposed to be a union between equals. Going back to its patriarchal roots, marriage was intended as a transaction, as a woman is handed from her father to her husband. That’s the reason why brides are walked down the aisle by their father, why women take the surnames of their husbands, and why women wear engagement rings while their fiancés do not. Under the patriarchy, women are little more than commodities. Therefore, in traditional marriages, men are inherently dominant and women are inherently subservient.


Same-sex marriage, therefore, threatens this idea of a “traditional marriage.” One of the most frequently-raised points is this: If both are men, or if both are women, then who is the dominant one and who is the subservient one? If two men are in a relationship, then who is the “woman” of the relationship—the one who does all the cooking and cleaning and “women’s work”?  


Here lies the problem. The problem isn’t that society doesn’t value “women’s work” enough. The problem is that household tasks like cooking, cleaning, and child rearing is deemed “women’s work” in the first place.


This arbitrary gender-based division of labor carries the assumption that women are intended for the domestic sphere. Women are the ones who are supposed to cook for the family, clean the house, and raise a child or two. Naturally, this takes up a lot of time and energy. Therefore, even if a woman were to work and have a career, she would be confronted with the problem of having to “balance” her work and her life at home. Given that she would be forced to juggle demanding domestic duties with a full-time job, is it any wonder that most women simply choose to become housewives?


Wednesday Martin’s wealthy Upper East Side housewives have been criticized as shallow, lazy, and unambitious. But I think that’s too harsh. The fact that these women have chosen to take their Ivy League degrees and become housewives speaks less about their personalities, and more about the dismal fact that we are living in a society where women are forced to choose between work or home.


In this lose-lose situation, it’s impossible for women to win. Choose work, and you’re a selfish and overly ambitious career woman. Choose the home, and you’re a shallow and unambitious housewife. In this situation, there are no winners—only losers.


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