Working for Justice

The Wife Bonus

Posted August 14th, 2015 by in Gender Discrimination and Harassment.

Should a feminist (married) woman accept payment from her husband for a job well done?

This question set the internet hive a flutter since a piece in The New York Times detailed the so-called “wife bonuses” allegedly commonly collected by hyper-privileged women on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. According to Wednesday Martin, author of the forthcoming book “Primates of Park Avenue,” the wives of the wealthy “are a lot like mistresses — dependent and comparatively disempowered.” In these circles, she was told, a wife bonus “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 [a]re 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.”

So far, the second takes on Martin’s piece run an interesting gamut. Jezebel proclaimed that “Rich Ladies Who Get ‘Wife Bonuses’ Are Your New Favorite Demo to Hate,” while others cast doubt on the accuracy of Martin’s claim. Meanwhile, The New York Post poured fuel on the fire by tracking down an Australian named Polly Phillips, who lives in Copenhagen and “gets a five-figure sum” every year for being a stay-at-home mom, which she spends on labels as Chanel, Prada, and Stella McCartney. It was unclear the degree to which Phillips’ arrangement truly mirrors Martin’s Manhattan moms, because her bonus is not tied to alleged “performance” and underneath the fine print, she revealed that her husband and she each take an equal amount – 20% – from his yearly bonus, and are each free to spend that sum on themselves as they please.

Other commentators have asked if, tacky moniker aside, the wife bonus represents an attempt to at least acknowledge an economic value to the traditional “women’s work” of housework and childcare. Writing for The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg commented:

Housework and child care are work, or at least they’re treated that way when someone other than the person who lives in the house or gave birth to the child in question does them. If one person in a marriage is going to take on these responsibilities, which rightfully belong to both partners, then they maybe they should be paid. And if we think it’s so important that children have their parents present and have a certain standard of living at home, maybe we should make a collective investment and pay similar stipends to families even where one partner isn’t making an investment banking or oil executive’s fortune, or families headed by a single person.

In a similar vein, Shane Ferro of Business Insider pondered whether a “bonus”—as in a pot of money that goes directly to a non-working spouse to do with as she sees fit—might help to counter-balance the “psychological minefield” of the joint checking account, which may foster “a tendency for the working partner to believe he has more of a right to determine how it’s spent, because he made it.”

Jennifer Siegel

Jennifer Siegel

Jennifer Siegel is a Senior Litigation Counsel in the NY office who works on both qui tam/whistleblower cases and on gender discrimination cases. Learn More

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