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Rich Housewives Go Under The Microscope In 'Primates Of Park Avenue'

On the hunt from a good public school for her son, Wednesday Martin moved from her old home in downtown Manhattan to a new one just a few miles north. The spots were no more than a short cab ride away from one another, yet she soon found they were galaxies apart in personality.

For one thing, the moms around her looked entirely different.

"What first struck me, really, was the glamour and the beauty and just the over-the-top put-togetherness at 8 o'clock in the morning of these women," says Martin. "They looked like they were ready to sit in the front row at Fashion Week, but they were doing school drop-off."

Those observations got her thinking.

"It's a body-display culture," says Martin. "Sex ratios on the Upper East Side are quite skewed. There are more women than men. And so at a very basic level, it takes a lot to be noticed. And many women are courting and re-courting their mates."

Martin is a trained social researcher with a doctorate from Yale. She's studied anthropology and motherhood across the world. After her move uptown, Martin decided to aim her academic lens at a new tribe: the women of the Upper East Side.

Martin describes the findings in her new book, Primates of Park Avenue. She speaks with NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates about the new book, the controversial "wife bonuses" and going native on the Upper East Side.

Interview Highlights

On a surprising social hierarchy

One of the first things that I saw was the sex segregation between men and women. And it gave a clue to the fact that while this was a very wealthy elite, power dynamics might not be exactly what they seemed to be.

Wednesday Martin is also the author of <em>Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do</em>.
Lena Seibert / Courtesy of Simon and Schuster
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster
Wednesday Martin is also the author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do.

On the "wife bonus"

Mostly [women] describe it as a thank-you, a compensation, a way of sharing. Some women recently have written about it as a way to negotiate economic dependency when they don't work. It's opened up a conversation about economic dependency, about autonomy, about whether women want to be compensated or should be compensated for working in the home, about whether choosing to stay at home is actually a choice.

On the Hermès Birkin bag as a show of power

These are status markers, and they were used in that way to assert and establish dominance on the sidewalks. I realized this early in my time on the Upper East Side when I was walking across an empty sidewalk and a woman walked right toward me and brushed me with her handbag intentionally. And I was astonished, and I thought of Jane Goodall's chimps in Gombe, Tanzania, and how they did dominance displays. They'd wave their arms and bare their teeth and shake branches and throw things. Not in an attempt to hurt anybody else but in an attempt to say, 'This is my territory and I outrank you.' I realized that was exactly what this woman has done with her bag.

We talk a lot about power dynamics in the workplace but we don't talk about power dynamics in the other workplace, where so many women spend their time: the world of the stay-at-home mom. And in that world, relationships between women are rife with power dynamics.

On becoming one of the very people she was studying

It's often called the anthropologist's dilemma, but I felt that had happened to me when I became fixated on a Birkin bag. But there were other things that happened. As I spent time among this group of women, their concerns became my concerns.

Primates are pro-social and affiliative. We want to be part of the community, and that happened to me. I was true to my primate legacy, even on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

On what readers can learn from the Upper East Side moms

These mothers wanted to advocate for their children the best ways they could. It's just that the resources they had at their fingertips and the definition of what was "doing the best for your child" was out of bounds for most of us.

On another level, I really hope that this book — which incorporates a lot of social science and really strives not to make fun — could be a modest contribution to the literature on motherhood.

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