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A sociologist explains why wealthy women are doomed to be miserable

The US is riveted by images of the rich and famous. But it also tends to be scornful of wealthy women. Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise is predicated upon the idea that women of leisure are catty, vain, and frivolous, jetting off on expensive girls’ weekends only to descend into vicious—yet pointless—in-fighting. Women like Melania Trump and Louise Linton are cast as superficial trophy wives at best and entitled gold-diggers at worst. In one memorable recent formulation, such women are dubbed the “Primates of Park Avenue,” competing to get their children into elite schools while popping pills and spending an estimated $95,000 a year on Botox, spa getaways, and perfect blonde highlights.

It’s one thing to be Oprah Winfrey or Beyoncé—an uber-successful artist or entrepreneur more famous for their work than for their net worth. But step outside the realm of celebrity, and our typical idea of a rich woman is someone who is married to a rich man—which makes the woman inherently suspicious.

My recent in-depth interview research on the lifestyles of affluent families in New York City highlights the ways in which wealthy wives are often cast as spoiled dilettantes—notions sometimes even held by their own husbands. The stay-at-home mothers I interviewed were eager to distance themselves from the “ladies who lunch.” These women were mostly in their late 30s or 40s, with children at home. Nearly all were married to men working in finance who brought home $400,000 to $2 million or more in annual income. They had worked in, among other fields, finance, law, fashion, and medicine. And many felt deeply anxious, and guilty, about their socioeconomic status.

 Affluent stay-at-home mothers are a cultural lightning rod for anxieties about wealth and privilege. The point is not that we should feel sorry for women with a personal chef and a house in the Hamptons. Rather, my goal is to illuminate who gets to be both wealthy and morally worthy in our society. In the modern-day US, our concept of meritocracy is inherently gendered. This means that women bear the brunt of negative judgments about wealth—and raises questions about what women “deserve,” and on what basis, that cut across social class.

Affluent stay-at-home mothers are a cultural lightning rod for anxieties about wealth and privilege for two reasons. First, paid work is an increasingly important moral yardstick for wealthy people, including women. With the decline of the quasi-aristocracy of the WASP elite in the latter half of the 20th century, and the rise of finance, tech, and other highly compensated occupations, the upper class is now dominated by the “working wealthy.” Wealth is accepted as legitimate largely by virtue of work—and so figures like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are not begrudged their billions.

This represents a particularly significant shift for women. Until at least the 1970s, as sociologist Susan Ostrander documented in her 1984 book Women of the Upper Class, wealthy women rarely worked for pay, and often were not college educated. (Those who entered college frequently dropped out to get their “MRS” degree.) Women from wealthy backgrounds were valued for raising children, supporting their husbands, and doing community service.

Now, elite women like the ones I spoke with have college degrees and usually advanced professional training and experience. They internalize the expectation that wealth is morally acceptable primarily when one works hard for it.

 “They feel so guilty that they’re wasting their degrees… They feel so ‘less than.’” But “hard work” turns out to mean “paid work”—work that men are more likely than women to keep once they have children. Sociologist Pamela Stone and others have shown that “opting out” is often not really a choice, as high-powered professional jobs are rarely flexible enough to combine with being the primary parent—as women nearly always are across all classes. The women I spoke with also tend to be married to men who earn more, as men often do, given the gender pay gap in high-paying professions. So the woman’s job is the first to go.

Not bringing in money left some of these women feeling vulnerable. A parenting expert told me, of the wealthy stay-at-home moms she worked with, “They feel so guilty that they’re wasting their degrees… They feel so ‘less than.’”

Helen (a pseudonym, like all other names in this piece), who had been an investment banker and had left her career reluctantly, told me, “[I’m] well-educated. I had a career. You know, where is all that now?” She said she sometimes felt like she was “working for” her husband. She added, “There are power dynamics, where he’s the breadwinner now, and I’m really not. And yet, I do so many things for the family that you can’t put a number on it.” Her unpaid labor is hard to measure, and therefore hard to appreciate.

 By bringing in the money, men often get the power to decide how it is spent. Equally important, they also get the right to feel like they “deserve” what they have. Bridget worked part-time, bringing in much less money than her husband did. She said he gave her “a hard time” about spending but felt free to buy what he wanted. She put this dilemma succinctly, saying, said, “I can’t make enough money to impact our life. And how am I ever going to make enough money to deserve something, if I don’t just say I worked for this and I made this money?’” By bringing in the money, men often get the power to decide how it is spent. Equally important, they also get the right to feel like they “deserve” what they have.

The other reason wealthy stay-at-home mothers are vilified is that they are imagined to be excessive and self-indulgent consumers, in a world where over-the-top consumption is often seen as a moral failing. Women, more associated with consumers in general, bear the brunt of this kind of judgment, especially when they are thought to be spending only on themselves.

Willa, a professional who contributed $500,000 to her household income of $2 million, listed the variety of ways that wealthy stay-at-home mothers spend money. “It’s amazing how you can fill the day with lots of things…. Renovations, decorators, going shopping, having lunch with your friends, going to the gym, going to Pilates, going to a masseuse, having acupuncture. I mean, there are a lot of ways you can fill your day. I find most of them to be quite vapid. Oh, you’ve got to get your hair blown out.”

 “I mean, there are a lot of ways you can fill your day. I find most of them to be quite vapid.” In an effort to resist the negative image of selfish spending, many women framed their tasks—including their consumption—as work. One woman paid herself a salary out of the dividends from assets she and her husband had accumulated or inherited, having calculated “how much it would cost to replace” her labor of child care and home management. David, an interior designer, said of his affluent female clients who had left paid work and were doing home improvement: “They really view it as their job.”

Wealthy mothers, unlike their middle-class counterparts, are often assumed to “outsource” the socially valued work of mothering to household employees. But the women I interviewed emphasized the time they spent with their children or doing activities on their behalf, including volunteering at their schools. They described the paid labor they employed as helping them to get other family work done, rather than allowing them to fritter away their time on self-pampering. For instance, Zoe said, “I have a nanny that helps me out. And she’ll come, maybe take [the kids] out in the morning so I can go to the supermarket, or go do an errand, or doctor’s appointment, or whatever.” They were clearly sensitive to judgments from others about this issue. Alexis asked me if I thought she was a “snob” because she paid for a lot of child care.

Alexis also told me she lied to her husband about how often she hired the babysitter when he was out of town for work. This admission highlighted another source of discomfort: their economic dependence on their high-earning husbands, and the ways their husbands recognized, or failed to, their wives’ contributions.

When the husbands valued their activities as worthy work, women reported feeling more comfortable in their relationships. One woman with assets over $50 million told me, “I’m in charge of literally everything” having to do with the household and family. But, she said, “I’m so super lucky that I married someone who never makes me feel like I’m contributing less. And never questions what I’m spending money on, and we have a really good division of labor.”

Some husbands, on the other hand, did not really recognize what their wives did as “work.” Stephanie prided herself on being an attentive mother, making Halloween costumes for her son and baking “beautifully decorated” cookies for his school. She also explained in detail the stresses of managing their home in Manhattan and their weekend home, saying, “I’m the one that deals with all of it.” But, she said, her husband “thinks that I’m, you know, eating bon bons all day. It’s hard.” He also hassled her about spending too much, though she protested that she bought clothes at Target and cut her own hair and nails, while he splurged on expensive meals for his friends.

 She bought clothes at Target and cut her own hair and nails, while he splurged on expensive meals for his friends. When the roles were reversed, women did not exert the same judgment over their husbands’ spending. The women I interviewed who earned more than their husbands, or who brought the bulk of the money into the household through inheritance, described this state of affairs as threatening to their husbands. Rather than control their husbands’ expenditures, they went out of their way to make men feel like they were contributing too, by letting them control the family’s investments or by legally turning over some sum of money to them. So the power dynamic here is about masculinity—not just about who brings home more of the bacon.

The point here is not the wealthy stay-at-home mothers are particularly deserving of praise. Instead, what I want to highlight is that the American idea of “meritocracy” both perpetuates and relies on traditional gender roles.

So long as women are expected to serve as the primary caregivers for children, and so long as the gender pay gap persists, women in high-income brackets will continue to be more likely to give up their jobs and stay home. In so doing, the women become targets for cultural disdain—as does the time they spend renovating, shopping, and doing other tasks that are necessary to maintain their families’ lifestyles.

The upshot is that our culture directs doubts about what it means to be a “good” rich person toward women, while making it easy for men with lucrative jobs to feel morally worthy of their wealth. In this way, women carry our cultural, ethical, and psychological baggage around money. Men, on the other hand, travel light.

Rachel Sherman is the author of Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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