Primates of Park Avenue, is a book that coins the term “wife bonus” written by the anthropologist Wednesday Martin, describes the lives of glamorous stay-at-home mums married to multimillionaire Wall Street financiers.
Some of these women receive a yearly bonus from their husbands for achieving targets such as getting the children into the “right” schools or managing the family budget. It remains unanswered if the wives’ sexual performance is graded and rewarded with cash.
Superficially at least, these are women to envy, with their lives of private jets, luxury holidays, multiple homes, designer shopping and dinners at the best restaurants. Delve a little deeper, though, and there is nothing to covet — in fact, there’s plenty to pity.
As Ms Martin explains: “Access to your husband’s money might feel good. But it can’t buy you the power you get by being the one who earns it.” The wives are dependent and disempowered, controlled by cash.
In my experience of more than ten years in the City, wife bonuses are rare and only for the super-wealthy. However, toxic, unequal relationships dominated by money and power are all too common in investment banking.
Almost everyone in the financial industry is only in it for the money. And, as we have found out since the crisis, such worship of wealth drives unethical and immoral behaviour. If a “banker” is willing to break all the rules to make a profit, how is he likely to treat his marriage vows?
Many of the men I worked with “traded up” after their first big bonus. Out went the ordinary size-12, Next-wearing girlfriends from university. In came the stunning “higher-status”, designer-clad partner. One colleague complained that his much better-looking date expected him to buy her regular and costly presents. I was surprised at his self-delusion, as clearly that was the deal. He got the Trophy Girlfriend to impress; she got red-soled shoes and the latest designer handbags.
My ex-boss told me that a mutual colleague had “done well” because she had married a multimillionaire fund manager. I remember thinking how different his values were to mine. I do not consider marrying wealth an achievement.
A female City friend asked her daughter’s schoolmate what she wanted to do with her life. The 11-year-old girl replied: “To marry well.” Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice more than 200 years ago. Have we really not moved on?
Yet what of the men who award their wives bonuses? So far, criticism has been aimed at the woman, but what kind of man seeks to control his supposed life partner and the mother of his children with money?
For some “Masters of the Universe”, a decorative wife is just another status symbol to go with the Lamborghini, the helicopter or the yacht. This puts pressure on the wives to be thin, toned, youthful, beautiful and exquisitely dressed. Their children must also be smart, successful, well-behaved and good-looking.
But life has its ups and downs and a partner is supposed to be there for both. “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Perfection slips, crap happens.
In a New York Post article, Polly Phillips, a Briton, declared proudly: “I get a wife bonus and I deserve it, so STFU.” She wrote about a shopping trip “moving from designer store to designer store”, trying to work out how many pairs of $800 shoes to buy. “As I tally up the total, I can’t help but smile — I can easily stretch to both pairs.”
Is this supposed to make the rest of us jealous? Because it doesn’t. Can she only find meaning in her life from buying things? And what sort of example is she setting her daughter?
A bonus is a term of an employment contract. Is the husband the boss that the wife must satisfy in order to get paid? There is a word for that relationship and it’s not marriage.
Obviously, not all City relationships are toxic — and not all toxic relationships are to be found in the City. But I think there are more than average in finance. That’s because of two things: first, there is still enormous wealth to be made in finance, which creates inequality and a power gap between (typically) the husband earning the money and the wife spending it; and second, the type of man driven by money is likely to be one that values the status symbol of a “perfect” wife.
What is particularly depressing about these women is that they are intelligent and highly educated. I hope Wednesday Martin’s book will cause them to look in the mirror a little closer.
I take great pride in paying my way and supporting my children. What I want in a partner is kindness and compassion. I value being brought a cup of tea in the morning or a hot water bottle when I have period pain. And the test of a truly great husband is whether he clears up the kitchen on Mother’s day after the offspring have made “breakfast in bed”. It’s not about how much a husband earns.
I will not starve myself to be a size 6, I am not a slave to the treadmill and I don’t believe in excessively tutoring my children to get them into the “right” school (whatever that is). I’m too ballsy, too critical and detest being told what to do. Even assuming that I would be “hired” in the first place, I would never qualify for a wife bonus. And I would never want to.