Interview: Wednesday Martin, Author Of 'Primates Of Park Avenue' In her new book, social researcher Wednesday Martin examines the sometimes puzzling culture of motherhood in that most exotic of locales — Manhattan's Upper East Side.
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Rich Housewives Go Under The Microscope In 'Primates Of Park Avenue'

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

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

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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

Wednesday Martin moved from downtown Manhattan a few miles north in search of a good public school for her son. And she found that she'd moved a short cab ride and a galaxy away from her old neighborhood. For one thing, the moms around her looked really different.

WEDNESDAY MARTIN: 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. They looked like they were ready to sit in the front row at Fashion Week, but they were doing school drop-off.

BATES: And that got her thinking.

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

BATES: We should explain. Martin is a trained social researcher with a doctorate from Yale. She studied anthropology and motherhood across the world. So she aimed that scientific 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 sat down with me to explain what was so interesting about these wealthy Manhattan mommies.

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

BATES: Talk about the wife bonus for a minute, because when I say those two words, eyebrows just shoot up skyward.

MARTIN: Mostly they 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 and should be compensated for working in the home, about whether choosing to stay at home is actually a choice.

BATES: You've got to tell us about getting banged into by several Hermes Birkins, a bag that I will admit that, you know, if I found on my front doorstep - it might be hard to say no to a $12,000 calfskin handbag - yes. But these women were using it as a sort of heads up for people they considered their lessers. What were they doing with the bags?

MARTIN: That's right. These are status markers, and they were used in that way to assert and establish dominance on the sidewalks. And 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. And I realized that that was exactly what this woman had done with her bag.

You know, 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, you know, in that world, relationships between women are rife with power dynamics.

BATES: About two thirds of the way through your book, you admit that you had slowly become one of the people you were studying or one of the group that you were studying. Can you explain that and what precipitated that realization?

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

BATES: Are there lessons for the rest of us in the other 99 and one-half percent?

MARTIN: I think that these mothers wanted to advocate for their children the best ways they could. It's just that the resources that 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 almost a modest contribution to the literature on motherhood.

BATES: Social researcher Wednesday Martin talked to us from our New York bureau, which we should note is on Manhattan's East Side, although it's too far downtown to be considered chic. Thanks, Wednesday.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

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