Maggie Gallagher
What strikes cold fear into the heart of the most sophisticated and successful Manhattan matron? No, it's not the IRS or a sexual harasser. It's certainly not a husband's disapproval. As for Society, Mrs. Grundy has run off with the meter maid, and the heiresses of great fortunes compete with nice girls from Dubuque for the public position of leather-clad temptress du jour.

It is impossible, after Clinton, Giuliani, Jackson and now piece de resistance Mel Reynolds (whose exploits with under-age girls did not prevent a presidential pardon), to scandalize anybody. As a middle-aged married economic professor confessed to me recently, "Even if I wanted to transgress social norms, I wouldn't know where to begin."

No, today the figure whose potent disapproval frightens the pants off women is ... the nanny. The nanny? Yes, according to a New York Times expose. Otherwise strong, capable female executives live in secret terror of offending the woman who cares for their kids. Not unlike, come to think of it, husbands of yore.

Lyn Peterson of Scarsdale, N.Y., who offers her nanny all-expenses-paid ski trips to Vail, explains that when it comes to nannies, submissiveness is in this year. "You're so vulnerable," she says, using language of almost Victorian purpleness. "You just do whatever they want."

"All the mothers I know are intimidated by their nannies," said one Manhattan mother who shall remain anonymous. This mother, who by day is a powerful editor at a woman's magazine, fearlessly managing employees, is at home a figure who walks on eggshells. "You don't question where she's taking the child during the daytime because you don't want her to think you're infringing on her independence."

The threat, of course, is that the nanny will take it out on your kid or else leave and blacklist you with the new nanny network. "It's really intimidating," Francine Hermeline, a Tribeca mother, says. There's that word again.

"The nannies are often more exclusive than the mothers," chipped in one Upper West Side mother. Nannies today get showered with the sort of things that mistresses used to get -- money, stock options, trips, bottles of wine. One pouty hint from the nanny along the lines of, "Everyone else in the neighborhood has gone to see it!" and the New York couple fork over orchestra seats to "The Lion King."

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.