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Women and Power

To make this acquisition of the ruling group’s privilege and power more or less permanent, all women have to do is marry it. The method is simple, socially approved and sometimes even happy. Women have been doing it for years. Of course, this practice makes for June-January matches: figuring out a man’s power-potential when he’s still in his 20s isn’t easy, and an important older man usually expects a wife to be young and to look good; that’s her part of the bargain. (New York is full of this sort of marriage, from the short bald men and tall blonde wives in the Stage Delicatessen to distinguished lawyers and Vassar graduates on Sutton Place. Washington would be even fuller, if only politicians could get divorced.) Marrying for power is slightly more evolved than marrying for money and doesn’t get boring nearly as fast. The wife must have had some dim appreciation of her husband’s work, after all, in order to figure out how powerful he was in the first place. They may even be working together, though never on an equal basis. (Secretaries marry executives, students marry professors, researchers marry television producers; it’s a giant step, an Instant Promotion.) Only Helen Gurley Brown has grasped and openly written about the idea that office proximity is to the making of “good” marriages what social connections and dowries used to be.

The bargain, if both parties are clear about it, may work out well. The man gets the pleasure of a new and admiring audience for his power displays, and the wife has the exhilarating experience of being on the Inside; a place she would never be allowed by herself.

Moreover, she herself becomes a power symbol: youth and beauty well displayed. Sexually and even financially, her husband may view her that way. The sales people at David Webb, the jewelers who have a genteel air of having seen everything, nod solemnly at arguments like (one woman to another hesitating over $18,000 earrings). “It’s a wife’s duty to be a showcase for her husband’s power and success.”

Unfortunately, the man—believing the convention that women aren’t interested in power—may assume she loves him for himself. There isn’t much excuse for this considering that he has probably used power calculatingly in order to attract her. (It’s a standard part of the New York mating game for men to have girls pick them up at the office, whereupon they push every button and issue orders to every employee in sight. Lunch in executive dining rooms, police escorts on the way to the theatre, celebrities produced for all occasions, a personal wine cellar at one or several restaurants: all this heavy artillery may be brought out for the wooing.) But it still comes as an unpleasant surprise to many men when they produce three Broadway flops in a row and their wives’ affection cools; or when “the other man” turns out to be someone older, less attractive, but more powerful; or when they retire to long-¬anticipated lives of comfort and leisure, and their wives want a divorce.

They are even surprised, if not quite so unpleasantly, when their wives try to exert power through them. The simplest form is the marital “we” (as in “we just bought a big British company,” or “Bernstein is doing our symphony,” or “we knew we should have re-written the second act”), even though the wife has had nothing to do with it. This taking of unearned credit is as ridiculous (especially when spoken by the 22-year-old wife of some hard-working man) as it is popular.

A more combative form is two such noncontributing wives competing, with or without subtlety, about whose husband is the more powerful. The air at chic restaurants is thick with such gamesmanship every day when ladies lunch. (This bears a great unconscious resemblance to nannies and other servants who compete about their families’ wealth; except the servants have usually worked harder and deserve to brag more.)

Finally, there is the wife who tries to make her husband’s power her own, who wants to select the companies he buys, or the scripts he produces, or the political strategy he campaigns with. She is much more admirable (at least she’s trying to earn some of the credit she’s taking), but if ability doesn’t go along with desire to influence, she may be the most destructive in the end. There are always stories in New York of talented husbands who haven’t got this or that job because they come as a package with interfering wives. The name of one movie producer gets groans from directors. His wife insists on showing up to interfere at all production meetings.


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