"Why in the world are you studying rich mommies on the Upper East Side? Who cares?"
Like everyone at the dinner party, my questioner was highly educated, politically progressive and no doubt a feminist. I was slow to answer, in part because I had to wait for the loud laughter that had erupted all around the table to subside. The short answer was "I do. Their lives are interesting and full of surprises." But the question itself, one I have heard repeatedly over the last several years, raised a much more urgent one.
Privileged women seem automatically deserving of derision -- ready-made butts for jokes. Their very existence, it seemed that night and over the course of my research studying a group of non-working women with young children on the Upper East Side for six years, cracks the world up; they are walking punch lines. Writing about the Women of the One (Percent), I found that they are subject to a level of hostility, vitriol and resentment I hadn't imagined.
Why is that? And what does it say about us?
Our society is newly vexed by and committed to addressing disparities of wealth and income. From Thomas Piketty's bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century to Obamacare -- and from the administration's push for a living minimum wage to last January's doings in Davos, where growing inequality was considered as pressing an issue as climate change and terrorism -- concern about parity is now mainstream.
But this heartening shift seems to go hand in hand with a darker, disturbing trend: an entirely unexamined, reflexive contempt for and anger against women who are or seem privileged. Whether they married wealth or made it on their own, rich women lately incite especially vicious feelings. From the ever-burgeoning Real Housewives of Virtually Everywhere franchise (who would care, if they were poor?) to the way we love to hate blonde, thin and moneyed Gwyneth Paltrow, that paragon of privileged motherhood, for sharing her lifestyle -- not to mention grumblings that it's easy for Sheryl Sandberg to tell us to lean in when she's a multimillionaire staffed up to her ears; or jabs at Marissa Mayer's annual compensation and in-office nursery -- wealthy women, or women who stand for wealth, are in our sites, giving clues to a seemingly unslakable cultural thirst to mock and devalue them.
The snowballing desire to degrade uber wealthy women first came to my attention during the economic uptick of the aughts. In 2002, The Nanny Diaries, with its portrayal of Upper East Side mommies as indolent, out of touch parasites, shot to the top of the bestseller list (a sequel and movie were soon in the works). Two years later, during her trial for insider trading, Martha Stewart was frequently portrayed in the media as unrepentant, greedy, and virtually inhuman. It didn't help that she was known as a demanding boss and an ambitious power broker committed to the global dissemination of her vision of the Good Life. There was a kind of collective cultural glee as she was sentenced to five months in prison. Fast forward ten years and what she did looks like jaywalking compared to the global financial crisis and subprime meltdown, for which no one has been prosecuted, let alone locked up.
Across the pond in London, the Times ran a piece in January 2007 called "I Hate Yummy Mummies." It described the glossy, toned women of South Ken and Mayfair and Notting Hill who dared show up at cafes with babies in tow as "idle heifers" leading "conceited, boring lives." A new enemy was born: she pushed a Silver Cross pram (or Bugaboo in the states), carried an expensive handbag and led a life of leisure bankrolled by her IB or hedgie hubs. More than merely idle, she was a destructive and even contagious force, "the epitome of the fraudulent charade that passes for being a parent these days." This scourge on London -- and the world -- incited a pile on. Soon we were being told that "Yummy mummies make mothers depressed," setting impossible standards by getting blowouts and manicures; by 2009 there was undisguised schadenfreude about her alleged demise. "Death of the Yummy Mummy: They made us feel so inadequate but at last they're being credit crunched to extinction," The Daily Mail crowed. There was a special kind of jubilation reserved for rich women getting their comeuppance and it reverberates still.
When the economy was partly back in 2012, our urge to pillory privileged women was re-inflamed. The Atlantic ran an unyielding piece with the histrionic headline, "1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible." Beyond citing the facts about women and work, it fell into the contempt trap, suggesting that by doing yoga, getting facials, and availing themselves of nannies while their husbands toil, hedge fund wives aren't merely ruining their own lives; they are wrecking it for the 71% of women with kids under the age of 18 who have to work. In other words, it's rich women, not sexism and politics, that fuels the war on women. And it's hedge fund wives, not hedge funders, who fuel all kinds of inequality. Or revel in it the most.
Or are these rich women just soft targets?
My money is on the latter. Consider how we delight in every misstep of Paltrow, not long ago named People Magazine's "most hated" celeb. We lacerate her for everything from what she feeds her kids to the expensive clothing on her website to her conscious uncoupling, which the press has widely assumed had to do with her infidelities. Mightn't we call this zeal to take down a beautiful, powerful, and yes, rich woman... sexism? Again and again, our loathings are subtended by an easy and unexamined presumption: that hating one class of women is not just okay, but somehow enlightened, a shorthand for being progressive and politically engaged.
Our asymmetrical expression of anger, the unthinking way we direct our outrage at the Women of the One, distracts us from the real issues at hand. Income and wealth parity are huge and important ones. Another, related problem is the fact that we are a country with no infrastructure of care, no tax credits for childcare, false choices masquerading as actual ones when it comes to leaving (or never entering) the workforce for full time motherhood. Women who have the "luxury" to do so most often stay home with their children because in our nation's childcare options are pathetic -- unregulated on the home front, and low quality, with shameful caretaker-to-child ratios and dizzying staff turnover in many "regulated" daycare situations. And the number of employers who provide on-site, high quality creches, so women can nurse and spend time with their babies and toddlers whenever they want at work is extremely low. Until we have these options, why are we so sure that these women we criticize for "doing nothing" would never avail themselves of them?
Yes, privilege has its considerable and undeniable perks -- never needing to worry about whether you can feed your children or afford the best pediatrician, for starters. These advantages cannot be overestimated or denied.
But it's hard to shake the sense that our zeal in seeking out modern-day Marie Antoinettes is an insidious, widespread, and totally accepted form of misogyny, one that masquerades as engaged cultural critique while rehearsing and repeating the very same sexist salvos most enlightened men and women have long banished from their vocabularies.
Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. is a social researcher and author of Primates of Park Avenue. She lives in Manhattan.