Paying Wives: Bonus, Gift, or Allowance?

06/02/2015 04:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016
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Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue exposé of the "wife bonus" cashed by Manhattan's Upper East Side women has amused and scandalized readers. But the practice is less exotic than it appears. It follows a long history of wife-paying strategies with their own vocabulary, including allowance, pin money, "egg money," spending money, pocket money, or "dole." And each payment has generated moral controversy.

Why the fuss? Zoom back some 100 plus years and consider the battle over the dole. At the turn of the 20th century, most upper and middle class wives received their money as an irregular dole from their husbands. To extract additional cash from their men, women had to ask, cajole, beg, or seduce. Or engage in domestic fraud. In 1890, an article in the Forum, denounced the "amount of deceit... and double dealing which grow out of the administration of the family finances." Just to obtain "a few dollars they can call their own," some women for instance "get their milliners to send in a bill for forty dollars, instead of thirty, the real price, in order to take the extra ten to themselves." Sometimes only sexual blackmail worked. One woman confided the secret of her "quick victory" to Good Housekeeping (1910): "Last summer I knew I could never stand another year of absolute misery over money matters... On Monday night, after the best dinner I could serve, I told my husband... that unless he gave me $175 a month I would never let him so much as kiss me again... In the afternoon I had moved all my clothes...from our room to another across the hall." After a week of solitude he relented.

Women's stratagems to extract some cash from their unforthcoming husbands became a perennial staple of vaudeville routines: "Oh, how she always liked to clean my clothes; she often used to take spots out of my clothes. One night she took three spots out of my trousers -- a five, ten and a twenty spot." If women wore trousers, went another standard joke, a wife "would get up in the middle of the night and steal money from herself."

The dole came increasingly under attack as a demeaning payment system. Condemning an arrangement which forced women to play the "mendicant before a husband," the widely syndicated columnist Dorothy Dix remarked on the irony of men who "will trust [a] wife with his honor, his health, his name, his children, but he will not trust her with money." But what was a proper income for a wife?

The allowance emerged as a wives' favorite method. By 1915, according to Harper's Weekly, some young brides, "of the ultra-modern type" required the promise of an allowance, "before vowing to love, honor and obey." Women's magazines increasingly endorsed the allowance in their articles and even in their fiction. In "Her Weight in Gold," for instance, a short story appearing in The Saturday Evening Post in 1926, Mrs. Jondough, the wealthy female protagonist, declared "that all the gowns and diamond pins in the world were not compensation for even a tiny personal allowance of her very own." That same year, the Women's Freedom League of St. Louis went further, sponsoring a bill that would make a dress allowance for wives legally compulsory.

But the allowance generated its own controversy. What kind of money was it? If the allowance was no longer supposed to be a dole or gift, neither could it become a payment for services as if the wife were her husband's employee. And if the allowance did not depend on the performance of wifely duties, how was its amount determined? The uses of the allowance remained unclear as well. Was it exclusively for the household? Who "owned" the surplus, if there was one? Did it cover women's personal needs? By the 1920s, allowance critics began denouncing the payment as inequitable and degrading.

What explains the persistent failure to find the right form of payment for full-time housewives? Should it be a discretionary gift, compensation for services, a spending bonus?

We waver and joke and worry for two reasons: first, because finding the right mix of family intimacy with family monies challenges standard views that money and love belong to separate worlds. Whether it's a wife bonus, a child's allowance, or a husband's personal spending money, we struggle to identify moneys that match our ideas of intimate relationships. The bonus has elicited such response because it imports disquieting Wall Street vocabulary into the household.

Second, payments for full-time housewives magnify that challenge of mingling intimacy with money because we have long resisted recognizing the real economic value of women's household and caring labor. Wives' monies are therefore labeled as gifts or bonuses because they are not recognized as legitimate portions of a shared household income.

We can do better. Regardless of Upper East Side wives' extravagant contemporary lifestyles, their merit bonuses demonstrate our longstanding failure to recognize that the household is a kind of collaborative economy between husbands and wives, whether employed at home or in the workplace. So let's leave behind outmoded payment systems of dole, allowances, or wife bonuses and move towards more equitable and fair intimate economies.