Gendering the Elites: An Ethnographic Approach to Women's Lives and the Production of Inequality in the Alpha Territories
Elite studies are strangely abstract and somehow disembodied, concerned as they are with men and their networks, their connections to each other and the elite institutions that ‘make’ them and are in turn shaped by them (Mizruchi 2013). Little thought is devoted to how these men are constituted as social beings, how their high powered bodies and personalities and habitus come into being in material, emotional, social and embodied ways. Not much is said about how families produce and reproduce these beings, while at the same time Piketty’s (2014) work dominates the headlines with his focus on the fundamental importance of inheritance and accumulated capital in modern capitalism.
Currently, wealth advisors estimate that the biggest wealth transfer event in recorded history will take place between 2007 and 2061, and will consist of $59 trillion to be transferred and divided amongst heirs, charities and foundations– and that is in the US alone (Rosplock and Houser 2014). Successful wealth transfers, wealth preserved within families, are the main preoccupation of wealthy individuals, according to those who advise them (Wealth-X and UBS Ultra Wealth Report 2014). Transfers between generations are a key driver of social inequalities, ensuring that wealth is not redistributed, but accumulates in the hands of a few wealthy families. It is therefore crucial to understand how this accumulated capital is socialized and passed down the generations, through a labour that I argue is gendered in nature and currently heavily under-researched.
This paper addresses this gap in the literature by reflecting on the realities of elites’ everyday lives from the vantage point of gender, and specifically of the women, whether they are full time mothers and wives responsible for the biological, social and educational production of the family, or whether they are the ‘girls’ that facilitate socializing by providing the appropriate backdrop of young pretty flesh that is the main currency of Mayfair by night. I address the role of women as carers of bodies and souls, molding female elite bodies into the thin, smooth and flawless shapes that elite spaces expect. Finally I look at examples of women who have been accepted as ‘honorary blokes’ and sit around powerful tables and whose counsel is listened to and respected because of their career’s trajectories.
Through a novel approach and detailed ethnographic analysis I show how gendered, embodied identities and performances are crucial in ensuring the transformation and transfer of capital and how fundamental these transformations are if we want to truly understand how inequality is produced and reproduced.