Being a trophy wife is not real power. Real power is never dependent on someone else’s mood and/or generosity, says Louise O’Neill.
Melania Trump. It’s hard to know whether we should feel sympathy for her or castigate her as a willing participant in her husband’s increasingly deranged reign of terror.
Personally, I am veering towards sympathy because in public appearances she always seems to look like someone who is frantically searching for the nearest emergency exit.
As the old adage goes, if you marry for money then you will end up earning every penny of it.
The assumption here is that Melania did marry for money. I don’t know Melania Trump so I can’t say what her motivations were.
Maybe she does love Donald. Maybe she has a yen for orange skin and men who boast about grabbing other women by their ‘pussies’ without consent. Who knows?
But every time I see her, I start to think about trophy wives, gold diggers, and the concept of ‘marrying for money’.
There is something inherently sexist about each of these terms, positing women as opportunistic; scheming witches that men need to be wary of lest their fortune be wrested away from them.
And yet, I must admit that when I was younger I used to joke about marrying a rich man. Although claiming to be a Jo from Little Women — bookish, smart, independent — there was a small part of me that worried I was actually an Amy — vain and materialistic.
“I may be mercenary,” Amy says, “but I hate poverty and don’t mean to bear it a minute longer than I can help. One of us must marry well.”
Like Amy, I wanted to be wealthy (in my defence, this was the Celtic Tiger era) and marrying ‘well’ seemed the most viable method of acquiring that wealth. In some ways I was correct.
Due to the gender pay gap (which the World Economic Forum forecasted last year could take another 170 years to eradicate) and the dismally low percentage of women in positions of power in politics and at the boardroom table (women occupy only 13% of top management jobs globally) maybe I was right to assume that my gender was the biggest barrier to being successful in the way I wanted.
When I moved to New York to work for a fashion magazine, I was prepared to work for free to gain invaluable experience that I could parlay into a ‘real’ job back home once my American visa expired..
There were countless other interns who worked for free (although many did so in exchange for college credit), and most of them came from very privileged backgrounds. Besides the issue of increasing elitism in creative fields that prohibits entry to gifted but disadvantaged artists, it was interesting to see how they, and the assistants who were earning low-level wages, could survive in a city as expensive as New York.
Upon further investigation it became clear that they were being financially supported by wealthy men in their lives. None of them ever mentioned a mother or a female partner — it was inevitably a surgeon father, a boyfriend on Wall Street, a husband who did ‘something with hedge-funds’. (No one was ever sure about the details.)
A rich husband was seen as the Holy Grail for a straight woman, it was presented to us as The Dream. But as I get older, I realise that it’s not a dream.
This notion that a rich husband is something to aspire to is a very clever way of keeping women in their place, preventing us from examining the economic inequalities between the sexes and demanding a revolution.
Being a trophy wife is not real power. Real power is never dependent on someone else’s mood and/or generosity.
There is an essential distinction to be drawn when it comes to stay-at-home mothers, women who are often financially dependent on their partners because their role is not seen as a ‘proper’ job, as if raising a human being to be a valuable member of society isn’t one of the most important jobs anyone can do.
Change is desperately needed to help these women. We need better and more affordable childcare options so that women can return to work without being crippled by creche fees.
There needs to be a more equal sharing of maternity and paternity leave and a shift around how we view stay-at-home fathers on a societal level. We need to stop automatically seeing women as the primary care-givers, as if being in possession of a womb confers maternal instincts upon us.
Lastly, if a woman decides that they do want to stay at home with their children, the state has to offer them more support so they enjoy a level of financial freedom unrelated to their partner.
When I was in my early 20s, I was with someone who had more money that I did. Due to my lack of experience and his innate generosity, we fell into a pattern where he would pay and I didn’t realise at the time how damaging that pattern would be for my self-esteem and for the relationship in general.
When I go on dates now, I like to pay if I asked the man out or we simply take turns when the bill arrives. I have always been drawn to men who are ambitious and driven and smart but I would never be with someone because of their money or success.
I want to make my own money. I want to be successful on my own terms. And I want other women to have economic freedom as well.
So, let’s stop telling our young women to aspire to marry rich men and instead encourage them to realise their own ambitions, to find jobs that they love and to negotiate for pay rises and promotions without fear of seeming ‘aggressive’.
As for the rest of us? We must continue to insist that the pay gap is something that must be urgently addressed and refuse to accept earning 20% less than our male peers simply because of our gender.
I don’t want to wait until 2186 for that to happen. Do you?
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