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May 27 2015

"Primates of New York": Dishing on Your Friends and Sanctimonious Horror at Wealthy Lifestyles

Charlotte Allen

I'm loving all the furor over Primates of Park Avenue.

Let's see: What's worse? Living on the Upper East Side and getting your Master of the Universe husband to shell out maybe $150,000 for an Hermes Birkin bag for you and $400 an hour for a "play-date" tutorial so your four-year-old can bone up on his or her social strengths and weaknesses as a prelude to competing for a slot in that $35,000-a-year preschool?

Or moving to the Upper East Side, as Primates author Wednesday Martin did, getting your Master of the Universe husband to shell out maybe $150,000 for an Hermes Birkin bag for you—and then dishing on all the other mothers who live there and thought you were their friend:

“The author asked a bunch of the moms for their stories for the book, and told everyone she wouldn’t say anything bad, then tossed them all under the bus. Everyone is furious, and afraid.”

Some UES women insist that the “wife bonus”—Martin’s word for the year-end cash that UES men supposedly give their stay-at-home wives for shopping sprees as payment for getting their kids into the right schools—is a figment of Martin’s imagination. But another super-rich wife admits that, yes, she gets a wife bonus and is proud of it. It’s her husband’s way of sharing his own end-of-year job bonus with his spouse, because their marriage is a partnership, the wife maintains.

But what strikes me as most salient about Primates of New York is the tone of sanctimonious horror with which Martin describes the costly goings-on in Manhattan’s East Eighties.

In a New York Times op-ed about the book titled “Poor Little Rich Women”—in which Martin claims that she herself moved to the UES mainly because there “was a good public school” up there, Martin described the UES stay-at-homes as pitiful creatures completely dependent on their husband’s largesse, terrified that he might cheat on her and thus cut off the gravy train, and corralled into volunteer work and excessive supervision of their children instead of heading to a full-time paying job every morning as feminist wisdom dictates.

The women I met, mainly at playgrounds, play groups and the nursery schools where I took my sons, were mostly 30-somethings with advanced degrees from prestigious universities and business schools. They were married to rich, powerful men, many of whom ran hedge or private equity funds; they often had three or four children under the age of 10; they lived west of Lexington Avenue, north of 63rd Street and south of 94th Street; and they did not work outside the home.

Instead they toiled in what the sociologist Sharon Hays calls “intensive mothering,” exhaustively enriching their children’s lives by virtually every measure, then advocating for them anxiously and sometimes ruthlessly in the linked high-stakes games of social jockeying and school admissions….

[T]here was the undeniable fact of their cloistering from men. There were alcohol-fueled girls’ nights out, and women-only luncheons and trunk shows and “shopping for a cause” events. There were mommy coffees, and women-only dinners in lavish homes. There were even some girlfriend-only flyaway parties on private planes, where everyone packed and wore outfits the same color.

 “It’s easier and more fun,” the women insisted when I asked about the sex segregation that defined their lives.

“We prefer it,” the men told me at a dinner party where husbands and wives sat at entirely different tables in entirely different rooms.

Sex segregation, I was told, was a “choice.” But like “choosing” not to work, or a Dogon woman in Mali’s “choosing” to go into a menstrual hut, it struck me as a state of affairs possibly giving clue to some deeper, meaningful reality while masquerading, like a reveler at the Save Venice ball the women attended every spring, as a simple preference.

Hmm, let’s see. Actually those UES wives are living the way nearly all wives did, say, 50 years ago. Surveys overwhelmingly show that few mothers of young children want to work full-time or feel very happy when financial circumstances force them to do so. Well, in 1965, most middle-class and even working-class mothers had husbands, unlike today, where intact marriage is increasingly a luxury for women of the upper middle class and higher. So most of them had big Baby Boom families--like today’s UES-ers--and devoted their days to making attractive homes for their husbands, caring for their children, and volunteer work—like today’s UES-ers. And like today's UES-ers, they enjoyed something most women secretly crave: plenty of “sex-segregated,” “girlfriend-only" socializing with their friends. In short, their lives were those a strapped single mother struggling to divide her time between job obligations and kids can only dream of

So, sorry, Wednesday Martin, I fail to see the Upper East Side anthropolotical pathos. I want a wife bonus! Where’s my Birkin bag?



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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