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Class, Women, & Restrictions on Martha’s Vineyard

August 12, 2009

This week I find myself in culture shock on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. I am aware every moment that I am of a lower wealth class than the majority of those around me, though no one has acted untoward.

What has interested me most in my time here is the subservient gender roles women I have encountered throughout the island seem to adopt. In the majority of couples I have observed, women have walked behind their husbands, are handed children and told to wait outside of shops while the men go in, and berated when they wish to engage in an activity other than the husband.

In noticing this, I began to question some of my assumptions about autonomy and class. I have assumed that with greater wealth comes greater autonomy, acknowledging that women would still be oppressed. However, the behavior I have seen here seems far more restrictive then that of the middle-class women I grew up around. What are your thoughts? Have you had similar experiences?

5 Comments
  1. August 12, 2009 6:23 pm

    YES!!! I have noticed this exact same phenomenon in “wealthy enclaves” across the country. My gut says that the greater the disparity between the TAKE HOME incomes of two individuals in a household (ergo, negating the value of unpaid work done on the home front), the higher the odds are of seeing this disturbing behavior. What this says about our capitalistic society, our values, our beliefs, etc. is no doubt nuanced and complex.

    On possible solution, however, is straight-forwards and powerful: Encourage women to learn as much about personal finance as possible so that they can live their lives from a place of financial strength… no matter what their life situation.

    Thank you so much for highlighting this unsettling phenomenon…

  2. Carrie permalink
    August 12, 2009 8:37 pm

    I lived in Massachusetts for 22-and-a-half years, and I’ve never once visited Martha’s Vineyard. This was partially a conscious choice, based on all the things you talked about here. The Vineyard (and Nantucket, for that matter) has a reputation for being really class-conscious, in a not-so-good way.

  3. August 12, 2009 9:38 pm

    Wow. This was a pretty thought-provoking post. I’d assumed pretty much the same as you, but I can see how if the male partner is the primary provider of income (albeit a very large income) there could be a reversion to more restrictive gender roles, the same as in low-income partnerships where the male makes more money.

    Thanks for writing this.

  4. missincognegro permalink
    August 16, 2009 5:53 pm

    As a Black woman who recently visited MV for the first time with my Dear Brother, neither he nor I observed such behavior. Then again, we were there for only two and a half days. Still, we were out and about for much of the time there, and, did not observe what you describe. We did, however, observe a lot of women, namely White women, sans spouses, and in the company of lots of children, and young children at that. I am going to assume the husbands were working elsewhere for the week, while the wives and children did their thing in their absence. We often observed groups of women and children together.

    Having said the aforementioned, we noticed a definite upper middle class stance virtually everywhere we went. Of course, one needs to be of a certain degree of privilege to afford MV, or, have spent an entire year saving!

    Dear Brother and I actually liked MV very much, and it may become a regular vacation spot. We felt very comfortable there. Perhaps unlike other parts of the Cape, there is a Black enclave there. Speaking of which, we found some of the Black folks rather snobby, i.e. didn’t acknowledge us when we passed by. Not all, but some. On the other hand, we found the White vacationers to be very friendly.

    In any event, it won’t be our last visit to MV.

  5. August 17, 2009 12:19 am

    I’ve never been to Martha’s Vineyard – but I live in Manhattan, and I travel through the Upper East Side and Soho all the time – and I work installing trade show exhibits. Consequently, I know a little bit about the behavior of the upper classes, since I have spent some time around them.

    Based on that, I make the following assumption

    Could these submissive women be trophy wives?

    Or, if they are the “starter wife”, perhaps they are the type of woman who went to college for an “Mrs degree” and has never had a job, while the husband is making a six or seven figure income?

    In both cases, if the man is “the breadwinner” – and he “wins” lots of “bread” – and the wife is a dependent, economically in the same category as the children, I could see how these men could end up treating these women like they treat “the help”.

    Think about it – these are rich men, they supervise subordinates at work and they are used to treating other people who are “beneath them” economically like servants and/or objects.

    Why wouldn’t they view their non working wives with the same contempt?

    Remember, money is power – if the man has all the money, he has all the power!

    Another good argument for the idea that all adult women should stay in the labor force, rather than quitting their jobs when they have kids and becoming a dependent on some guy.

    Dependency breeds contempt – and it’s kind of obvious how those men view their wives.

    As for Miss Incognegro’s observation about the women being in the Vineyard by themselves during the week – yeah, the husbands are probably back in New York or Boston at his office doing deals and making money.

    And, at night, a lot of those guys go to high end strip clubs (the kind with $ 1,000 lap dances) or with escorts or with their “Natashas” (mistresses) – while wifey is on the Vineyard with the kids.

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