By definition, a housewife is a woman whose main occupation is running her family’s household and not working 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 at first to fit the bill. 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 this is the “wife bonus.” According to Martin, the “wife bonus” is a large sum of money that the husband gives 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. Just as an investment banker is reviewed for his performance at work, a housewife is reviewed for her performance at home, and compensated accordingly.
The controversy over the “wife bonus” mainly has to do with whether or not it is empowering to women. Some say very. According to them, women ought to get paid for all the work they do around the house. Housework and child-rearing are just as labor-intensive and respectable as a 9-to-5 job, and housewives should be compensated for their hard work. One woman—herself a beneficiary of the wife bonus—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, at its core, 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.
This power dynamic is reflected in the division of labor. While men are expected to go out and earn money for the household, women are expected to stay at home, scrub the toilets, and do the laundry. Even women who work full-time spend a week and a half worth’s more time on household chores than men. And from an early age, girls are asked to do more work around the house than boys, with one study finding that girls do an average of two more hours of chores a week than boys.
Therein 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.
Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House.