Economy of Marriage
LABOR OF LOVE?:
MEDIA, MYTH, AND THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF MARRIAGE IN WENDT V. WENDT
Running Head: Media, Myth, and the Political Economy of Marriage
Submitted April 1, 2003 to AEJMC Convention
Critical Cultural Studies Division
Sarah Burke Odland
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242
1015 West Benton #64
Iowa City, IA 52246
[log in to unmask]
In 1997, the divorce trial of a General Electric executive and his
homemaker wife captured the attention of the nation. Featured on 20/20,
discussed by Oprah, and covered by every major news outlet in the country,
the story of Gary and Lorna Wendt "launched a thousand cocktail-party
conversations and struck fear in the hearts of primary breadwinners
everywhere." Rejecting her husband's initial $10 million dollar offer,
Lorna argued that as an equal partner in the couple's 31-year marriage, she
was entitled to half of the couple's fortune, estimated between $50 and
$100 million dollars. Gary Wendt disagreed. During the trial, he dismissed
Lorna's contributions as a wife, mother, and corporate hostess, stating
simply, "I've worked hard. She didn't." Lorna fought back, citing her
financial support of her husband through business school, her coordination
of the family's multiple moves, her responsibilities as a corporate
hostess, and her role as the primary caregiver as evidence of her
contributions to the marriage. As Lorna explained, "We earned this
together. He brought home the bacon, but I shopped for it, cooked it and
cleaned up after it." She added, "If marriage isn't a partnership
between equals, then why get married?"
In fact, it was this very principle of marital equality that emerged as
the pivotal issue during the trial and its surrounding media frenzy. As Ann
Crittenden explains, "The Wendt case posed the question for women who
devote much of their lives to raising their children: Is caregiving really
valued equally with moneymaking in marriage? Or, despite all the lip
service to the importance of family, is a wife an equal only if she
contributes an equal amount of money to the partnership?"
With fewer than five percent of divorce settlements ever brought before a
judge in a public courtroom and an even smaller number garnering national
media exposure, an analysis of the extensive media coverage of the Wendt
case and its Dynasty-like property dispute provides a unique opportunity to
explore the media's underlying cultural assumption about gender roles in
marriage. Referred to by the New York Times as a "landmark test of women's
rights,"  the Wendt case challenged the myth of the self-sacrificing
wife and mother whose work on behalf of the family is understood as a
"labor of love," and is therefore exempt from economic consideration. In
this paper, I will examine the media coverage of the Wendt case to explore
the cultural assumptions about women's roles as wives and mothers in
marriage. I propose the following research question: How did the news
discourse of the Wendt trial interpret and construct cultural conceptions
of gender roles within the institution of marriage?
The conception of gender identity is central to this paper. As one of the
primary organizing principles around which social life revolves, gender is
a powerful force in shaping the lived experiences of men and women. The
gendered organization of society patterns social relations, assigns people
to activities, and develops social structures in terms of general ideas
about masculinity and femininity. While historically the gendered
organization of society has been understood as somehow natural and
inevitable, the logical extension of the fixed biological differences
between the sexes, scholars have increasingly called this essentialist
interpretation into question. Rejecting modernist notions of identity as
essential and fixed, Stuart Hall understands identity as socially
constructed and fluid. He argues that identity should not be thought of as
an "already accomplished fact," but as "a 'production' which is never
complete, always in process."  Judith Butler expands upon Hall's notion
of identity as fluid and constructed, arguing that gender identity is a
performative accomplishment in which the repetition of stylized acts
constitutes the appropriate presentation of a male or female identity.
Yet despite the acceptance of gender as a fluid, socially constructed
identity in academic and activist circles, culturally dominant views of
gender continue to emphasize it as an identity that is natural and
biologically fixed. Differences between men and women are explained in
terms of their bodies, their biological roles in reproduction, and their
hormonally patterned mental and emotional aptitudes. Women are understood
to be intuitively emotional, caring, and pliable while men are understood
to be intuitively inexpressive, unemotional, and in control. Evidence
of the cultural prevalence of this perspective is found in the best-selling
book, Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, in which pop-psychologist
John Gray argues that women not only communicate differently than men, but
that they also "think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and
Within the context of marriage and family, these essentialist
interpretations of men and women are reified. Sociologist Michael Kimmel
explains that families are "gendered institutions" that reproduce gender
differences and inequalities. And while the "traditional" family,
comprised of homemaker wife/mother, breadwinner husband/father, and 2.5
happy and well-adjusted children is the empirical reality for less than ten
percent of all households today, it nevertheless remains the cultural ideal
against which contemporary family are measured. 
Political Economy of Domestic Work
The cultural ideal of the gendered nuclear family has its roots in the
late 18th century-early19th century triumph of the market economy and the
subsequent division of life into two distinct spheres--one public and one
private. As production left the home and entered the factory, the
productive work of women--textile manufacture, garment manufacture, and
food processing--became the domain of men, leaving women with only the most
personal biological activities--eating, sex, sleeping, [and] the care of
small children. The colonial wife, who had actively participated in the
material production and maintenance of the household, was "replaced in
popular mythology by the 'angel of the hearth,' a moral exemplar who tended
to the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of her brood," leaving the
material aspects of life to her husband.
The increasing sentimentalization of the home had detrimental consequences
for women. As Crittenden explains, "The moral elevation of the home was
accompanied by the economic devaluation of work performed there." "Work"
and "labor" became increasingly synonymous with a wage and men's work,
while women's family labor was "sentimentalized as a labor of love."
Remuneration of women's work was seen as unseemly; a "true woman" was
"never to ask for any monetary compensation for her labors." Informed that
their moral and domestic authority compensated for their lack of political
and economic power, women became "embedded in the family, permitted no
identity apart from their biological relationship to others."
Biologically and psychologically, the construction of women contradicted
the principles of the market and became what one nineteenth century New
Hampshire gentleman described as the embodiment of "'pure, disinterested
love, such as is seldom found in the busy walks of a selfish and
In contemporary culture, this split between public and private manifests
itself in the unequal division of labor within the home. While more than 60
percent of women are now in the paid labor force in the United States, they
continue to perform the majority of the productive work of the
household—cooking, dishwashing, cleaning, laundry, child care, and the
coordination of family members' schedules. Studies estimate that women
still do 80 percent of the child care and two-thirds of the housework,
while men have increased their household participation only marginally.
In an effort to theorize the devaluation of domestic work within a
capitalist system, social feminists have characterized household
production as having "use value" and marketplace production as having
"exchange value." While goods and services produced for their use value
provide invaluable contributions to family life, they are not exchanged in
the market and are therefore not assigned a value in a capitalist
model. Despite estimates that women's household labor is the single
largest item in any society's gross domestic product, economists are
uncomfortable—even resistant—to the notion that domestic work is
economically important. As a result, the unpaid labor of caring for
children and home is excluded from the GDP and not considered legitimate
"work." Margaret Benson argues that this devaluation is the material basis
for the inferior status of women, explaining that in a society in which
"money determines value, women who do this valueless work can hardly be
expected to be worth as much as men, who work for money." In demanding
that her domestic work be recognized as equal to her husband's corporate
responsibilities, Lorna Wendt challenged the framework of the capitalist
economy, troubling the gendered divide between the public and the private.
Myths of Femininity
The devaluation of women's economic contribution is intimately tied to
prevailing ideologies of femininity. The division between the public and
the private domains "mark the boundaries between historically specific
forms of masculinity and femininity," leading to the association of
different values and ideals for men and women. While masculinity
encourages displays of mastery and confidence, femininity reflects an
economic and emotional dependency that is considered "natural," romantic,
and attractive. Susan Brownmiller, who defines femininity as a "romantic
sentiment, a nostalgic tradition of imposed limitations," argues that
femininity's emphasis upon vulnerability and the need for protection
pleases men because it makes them appear more masculine by contrast.
Femininity, then, becomes a powerful aesthetic "built upon the recognition
of powerlessness."  Stripped of its power and agency, the feminine
ideal promotes women's domestic and maternal responsibilities as "natural"
and therefore not in need of economic consideration. Understood as
intuitively empathetic and caring, women sacrifice for their family because
it is what the dominant ideology of femininity demands, and to fail at
femininity is to appear not to care about men, to risk the loss of their
attention and approval, and to fail in one's core sexual identity.
The ideological normalization and naturalization of social beliefs about
femininity can be understood as "myth," in the sense defined by Roland
Barthes. Barthes conceptualizes myth not as a fable or untruth, but as
"ways of conceptualizing a subject that widely are accepted within a
specific culture and historical period, despite have little necessary
connection to history." In Barthes' formulation, myths circulate in
society through a variety of discourses, serving to naturalize ideas that
are socially constructed and imposed. With the origins of myth obscured by
their widespread ideological reinforcement, myths become entrenched in
people's belief systems, ultimately serving the interests of the dominant
classes through the reinscription of power hierarchies.
The ideological essentialism of gender is a clear illustration of a
Barthesian myth. As John Fiske notes, "There is a myth that women are
'naturally' more nurturing and caring than men, and thus their natural
place is in the home raising the children and looking after the husband,
while he equally 'naturally,' of course, plays the role of the
breadwinner." By presenting these gender relations as part of nature, myth
"disguises their historical origins, which universalizes them and makes
them appear not only unchangeable but also fair." Performing the
ideological work of the dominant class, myth reinscribes traditional gender
While this myth of the feminine, with its celebration of sacrifice and
restrictive codes of behavior, conjures images of the Victorian era and the
cult of true womanhood, it remains a powerful ideological force in women's
lives today. Despite having gained access to the paid labor of the public
sphere, women remain the primary caretakers of children, and continue to be
valued for their instinctual roles as nurturers and caregivers. The
conventional version of the breadwinner father and the homemaker mother
retain their cultural currency, and work traditionally associated with
women--caregiving and housekeeping--remain unpaid when they are performed
by a woman in her own home. As a result, the reigning family myth--that men
"support" women as well as children--prevents many women from "seeing
themselves as valuable economic players and equal marriage partners."
In the deconstruction of dominant interpretations of an essential, natural
masculine and feminine identity, Judith Butler's theory of gender
peformativity offers an alternative conception of women's "natural" roles
as wives and mothers. Opposing the fixed masculine/feminine gender binary,
Butler argues that gender should be seen as fluid and variable. Asserting
that "gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social
sanction and taboo," Butler conceptualizes gender as "a stylized repetition
of acts" which "must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily
gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the
illusion of an abiding gendered self." If gender is not a "natural" or
"given" identity, but a social performance, then the categories of wife and
mother, like that of woman, can be understood as an "unwitting regulation
and reification of gender relations that furthermore attains stability and
coherence only in the context of traditional heterosexual matrix." As
Michael Kimmell explains, "If gender identity were biologically "natural,"
we probably wouldn't need such strong family structures to make sure that
everything turned out right." Using Butler's theoretical framework, the
categories of wife and mother becomes a constructed, performed identity
based on the questionable category of gender. And it is through the daily
performance of these gendered identities, compelled by social sanction and
taboo, that myths of gender and femininity are further naturalized and
reincscribed along the masculine/feminine, public/private divide.
Media and Myth
The proper performance of gender identity is learned in part through the
discursive environment. Identity, Stuart Hall writes, is "constituted
within, not outside, representation." The media, then, must be
understood as active participants in identity construction. Radio,
television, film and other products of media culture "provide materials out
of which we forge our very identities, our sense of selfhood." As
Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner explain, "The narratives of media
culture offer patterns of proper and improper behavior, moral messages, and
ideological conditioning." Durham and Kellner's use of the word
"narrative" is significant. The media must be understood not simply as
purveyors of information, but as makers of meaning, as storytellers who
employ narrative techniques of character, theme, and plot to create a story
that makes sense of the world through recognizable narrative accounts. As
Jack Lule explains, stories have a universal appeal because "storytelling
is an essential part of what makes us human." We need stories because "we
are stories." 
In the study of news texts, scholars have identified narrative structures
that reporters commonly rely on to interpret occurrences. Drawing upon
these formulaic story constructions, reporters cast new occurrences using
frameworks from the past. Lule understands this connection to the past as
the function of myth in news. Arguing that "daily news is the primary
vehicle for myth in our time," Lule explains that news, like myth, draws
stories from real life, thrives on the ritual repetition of stories, and
uses stories to inform and instruct. Micrea Eliade argues that myth
"supplies models for human behavior" and that the "foremost function of
myth is to reveal the exemplary models for all human rites and all
significant human activities—diet or marriage, work or education, art or
These "models for human behavior," however, are not free of ideological
meaning. Constructed by and for the dominant class, news as myth
participates decisively in the social order, affirming the status quo and
defending the prevailing social consensus. In their support and
articulation of the "knowledge structure of society," myths become "so
deeply embedded in consciousness" that they naturalize history by
presenting their meanings as "natural" and ahistorical." The stories
and the lessons of myth appear "transparent, obvious, unavoidable, and
inevitable." As a result, people begin to view myths as unchangeable;
they become the taken-for-granted way in which life is organized and lived.
In the study of gender, particularly women's roles within the family, the
"naturalness" of myth has important implications. By presenting women as
intuitively more nurturing, caring, emotional, and vulnerable than men,
myth supports and reproduces essentialist interpretations of women's
gendered roles within the home. Given the media's role in the perpetuation
of dominant cultural myths, this study proposes the following questions:
How did the news media discursively construct gender identity in its
coverage of the Wendt case? And more specifically, did the press evoke
myths of femininity and traditional gender roles in its construction of
Lorna Wendt as a wife and mother?
For this study, I examined twenty-two articles from national news and
business publications that reported on the divorce proceedings between Gary
and Lorna Wendt. I identified stories by conducting LexisNexis and EBSCO
Host searches using the key words "lorna w/1 wendt" and "gary w/1 wendt."
Using the trial period as a guideline, I limited my search to articles
published between February 1997 and December 1998. Because I am interested
in cultural attitudes toward femininity and gendered roles within marriage,
I selected articles from the top-circulating news and business magazines as
the focus of my study, believing their circulation figures and financial
success to be indicative of the publications' resonance with prevailing
cultural perspectives. My sample includes stories from the following
publications: Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, Money, the New York Times,
USA Today, Time, US News & World Report, and the Wall Street Journal.
In my analysis of the articles, I have employed Sonja Foss' model of
ideological criticism, identifying the nature of the dominant ideology, the
interests of those who are privileged and repressed in the artifact, and
the rhetorical strategies used to create and support the dominant
ideology. Using this interpretive framework as a guide, I focused on
representations of Lorna Wendt as a wife and mother, paying particular
attention to how the mainstream understands the performance of wives and
mothers as they relate to setting, character, and action. To guide my
study of the text, I have developed a set of explicit criteria, which include:
• References to "wife" and "mother"
• Explicit and implied references to the responsibilities of wives and mothers
• References to the terms "work" and "labor"
• References to feminine myths (i.e., women as intuitively emotional,
Using these criteria, I conducted a systematic examination of the ways in
which traditional gender roles and myths of femininity manifested itself in
the pages of mainstream news and business publications. From my analysis,
three major themes emerged.
He Who Earns It Owns It
In an interview with the New York Times, Lorna recalls her shock at being
informed by one of her lawyers that she was not automatically entitled to
receive half of the couple's financial assets. Yet in only three
states--California, Louisiana and New Mexico--would Lorna have had an
unequivocal legal right to half of the family's assets. As legal
scholar Joan Williams explains, family income belongs solely to "he who
earns it." While the joint property laws of the 1970s and early 1980s
deemed all assets accumulated during a marriage to be jointly owned and
subject to division in the event of divorce, the joint property laws of
most states do not require an equal division of family property. In most
states, marital property only has to be divided "equitably," which in
practice can have a wide range of meaning. As a rule, the more financially
successful the marriage, the greater the percentage of family wealth the
breadwinner can keep as his own.  When a family's assets are valued at
more than $10 million, American courts have been reluctant to give the wife
half of the estate. This is referred to as the "enough is enough" rule.
Wives are entitled only to the amount necessary to meet their needs, while
no limit is placed on the husband's entitlements because they are
conceptualized as owners.
This principle of he-who-earns-it-owns-it is prevalent in the news and
business media's coverage of the divorce trial. In response to the judge's
statement that Lorna "did more than the normal entertaining corporate
wife," the New York Times asks, "But Mr. Wendt earned the money, didn't
he?"  The assumption is explicit: as the breadwinner, Gary Wendt has a
rightful claim to a larger share of the couple's financial assets. The
association of the wage earner with sole ownership of the family's property
also surfaces in the descriptions of Lorna's claim to the family's fortune.
Reporting that Lorna was "awarded half of her husband's current assets," US
News & World Report emphasizes the idea that the couple's assets in fact
belong to Gary, and that Lorna, the financial interloper, has been
"awarded" half of her husband's assets. The New York Times also
supports the logic of the breadwinner-as-owner when it writes that Lorna,
"a stay-at-home spouse, declared herself an equal partner." Emphasizing her
role within the home, the newspaper's choice of the word "declared" makes
it clear that Lorna's claim as an equal partner entitled to half of the
estate is not assumed; but rather, as a stay-at-home spouse she must
pronounce herself equal and then provide demonstration of her contribution
to the family's financial success.
The rhetoric of Gary Wendt as the rightful owner of the couple's property
is further supported by the media's portrayal of successful individuals as
exceptionally talented and therefore more deserving of receiving and
maintaining the financial rewards that accompany success. An article in
Business Week discusses the high-stakes trend in executive divorces,
arguing that a multi-million dollar executive had "good reason to expect
the lion's share" of the couple's estate in the divorce proceedings because
his career had been "nothing short of spectacular." The New York Times
echoes this sentiment in an editorial, stating that "artists and
professional athletes, for example, can argue that their earning power is
based on unique talents that have nothing to do with their marriages."
Extending this logic of unqualified entitlement to Gary Wendt and other
business executives, the Times goes on to explain that "some wage earners
might even argue that stay-at-home spouses too shy to socialize were
actually a drag on their financial well-being." While the article
grudgingly recognizes that Lorna may have affected Gary's business
performance "to some degree," Lorna's contribution is understood to be
limited. Within the capitalist framework, Lorna's domestic
responsibilities are stripped of their status as labor and rendered
inconsequential to the material well-being of the family.
The media's characterization of Gary Wendt as the exceptionally talented,
especially deserving proprietor of the couple's assets stands in sharp
contrast to the coverage of Lorna's familial contributions. Unwilling to
recognize the principle of marital equality, several of the articles
explicitly question the worth of a wife to the family structure. Time
magazine asks, "What's a wife worth, anyway? She's priceless, of course,
spiritually. But financially, we still don't know." In its inquiry into
the worth of a wife, USA Today questions the legitimacy of Lorna's claim to
a multi-million dollar sum: "A good wife may, as the Good Book says, be
'worth far more than jewels,' but is she worth $48 million?" Business
Week, however, offers the most direct challenge to the principle of marital
equality. Reporting on the dismay of executives shocked to discover that in
divorce court "their business achievements are valued the same as tasks
such as changing diapers, cooking meals, and chauffeuring the kids,"
Business Week, cites the calculations of Michael Minton in his book What
is a Wife Worth?, and determines the aftertax value of an executive wife to
As these examples illustrate, women's unpaid domestic labor is not valued
equally with the paid labor of men in the marketplace. With property
ownership conceptualized as the exclusive domain of breadwinners, the media
understand Gary Wendt as having a claim to the couple's financial assets
that Lorna does not. Lorna's contributions are understood as spiritually
priceless, but economically marginal. In its emphasis of Lorna's spiritual
contributions to the family, the news coverage evokes the myth of
femininity, in which Lorna as the intuitively empathetic and caring wife
and mother, must acknowledge her familial contributions not as work in need
of economic recognition, but as a labor of love, a reward in and of itself.
She Got Plenty
The media's skepticism of Lorna's claim to an equal share of the couple's
estate is exacerbated by what they perceive as her greed. Who, after all,
"needs" more than $10 million? Characterized as extravagant and frivolous,
Lorna's fight for the principle of economic equality in marriage garners
little sympathy from the media. Embracing the legal ideology of "enough is
enough," Money magazine remarks, "True Gay Wendt wound up with most of his
company stock and long-term performance awards. But that's because the
judge felt that the investments, real estate and fat alimony his ex got
were plenty to keep her off the streets in old age." Questioning
Lorna's refusal to accept her husband's initial settlement offer of $10
million, Time comments that "it's hard to feel sympathy for someone asked
to scrape by on a mere $10 mil," while USA Today remarks that "few wives of
course will ever have Lorna's luxury of turning down ten million to fight
for fifty." When Lorna fails in her bid to receive half the couple's
estate and establish a precedent of marital equality, the New York Times
comments that while she "did not get 50 percent of the assets in her
marriage to Gary Wendt, she did not do badly either…$20 million is a grand
sum." These articles, of course, miss the principle of Lorna's
challenge. As Lorna herself explained, the lawsuit was not about money, it
was about fairness and partnership in marriage. "I never said that [$10
million] wasn't enough. The issue was we were partners. When he offered me
10 percent, that was a real personal affront. I gave 100 percent or more to
this partnership. If he wanted to dissolve it, I expect to be compensated
for the years as a partner and that to me is 50-50."
Uninterested in exploring the gender inequalities of modern marriage, the
media instead focuses its attention on what it perceives as Lorna's
extravagant spending habits. US News & World Report explains that the
"enough is enough" standard has enabled tycoons to keep more than half of
their assets as long as their spouses have been given "enough" to maintain
their affluent pre-divorce lifestyles; yet even this amount, the article's
author bitingly remarks, "would have been no trivial sum for Lorna Wendt,
who spends $120,000 a year on clothes alone." This focus on Lorna's
frivolity also appears in a USA Today article which reports that the
court's ruling on the divorce settlement awarded Lorna "two houses, two
country club memberships and the Macy's credit card that comes with a 45%
discount." By emphasizing the frivolous--the country club memberships
and a Macy's credit card--rather than the court's substantive monetary
compensation to Lorna, the articles reinforce the image of women as being
concerned with little more than socializing and shopping. The New York
Times, indignant that "Mrs. Wendt, whose $20 million settlement presumably
makes her more able than many Macy's shoppers to pay full price, will
receive the 45 percent discount off the price of the day—full price or sale
price—on any goods she buys," portrays Gary Wendt as above such material
frivolity. The article reports that when Lorna asked for the card during a
court session, Gary was happy to honor the request: "Mr. Wendt just laughed
when he heard it," the article quotes one of Gary's spokespeople as saying.
"He just sat there and said, 'If Macy's wants to give her a credit card,
why should I care?'"
In emphasizing what it views to be Lorna's extravagant, frivolous
lifestyle, the news coverage depicts her as a silly woman, whose
spendthrift habits only serve to reinforce the belief that she is
undeserving of an equal portion of the couple's estate. Failing to
recognize the principle of marital equality, the media castigate Lorna, and
in the process, reify the dominant myth of women as impulsive, frivolous
shop-a-holics, never satisfied with what they have. Frustrated by the
implication that "she got plenty," and the question of why she needs more,
Lorna retorts, "Well, what does he need all that money for?" It is a
question the media never attempts to answer.
Corporate Wife vs. Housewife
Throughout the coverage of the trial, Lorna's identity as a "corporate
wife" is repeatedly referred to by the media. A Wall Street Journal article
announces: "Corporate Wife Gains in a Divorce Ruling; a New York Times
story reads: One Word from a Corporate Ex-Wife: Half"; and a USA Today
article reports: "A Corporate Wife Earns Her Share of the Profits." The
message is clear: Lorna is not simply a wife and mother--she is a corporate
wife. And for the media, this is a critical distinction.
Minimal coverage is given to Lorna's responsibilities as a mother. It is
only noted in passing that she served as the primary caregiver for the
couple's two children. Moreover, little attention is given to the
relationship between Gary and Lorna and the emotional bonds that sustain a
32-year marriage. Instead, the media treat the marriage as a business deal
gone wrong, emphasizing Gary's buy-out of his corporate employee. In
chronicling the expenses of a high-stakes divorce, an article in Business
Week captures the tenor of the press coverage: "For executives, the overall
message is unmistakable: Marriage is one of the most important business
decisions they'll ever make."
Within this frame of marriage-as-business deal, the press gives
considerable attention to the role and responsibilities of a corporate
wife. In a cover story on the Wendt case, Betsy Morris of Fortune magazine
lists the traits of a good corporate wife: let nothing come between a
husband and his work, shield him from the tedious and distracting details
of domestic life, raise beautiful, well-mannered children, maintain a
beautiful, well-appointed home, work the charity circuit as the belle of
the ball and its unpaid CEO, and smile through scores of business dinners.
The bad corporate wife, in turn, can "hurt an executive by being 'uppity,"
by doing too much shopping and social climbing."
By all accounts, Lorna seemed to fit the model of the good corporate wife.
In fact, a New York Times article describes her as "the ultimate corporate
wife," reporting that even after she discovered Gary's secret plans to
divorce her, "she played the dutiful hostess at the corporate Christmas
party." Other articles highlight her financial support as a music
teacher while Gary attended business school (for which she received her
PhT—Putting Hubby Through from the dean's wife), her preparation and
organization of dinner parties for clients and co-workers, and her
companionship on business trips as evidence of her commitment to the role
of faithful corporate wife.
Lorna and her attorneys also adopt the title of corporate wife. A USA
Today reporter recounts informing Lorna's lawyer that she wanted to write
about the "$48 million housewife," only to be informed that Lorna "won't
like to be portrayed as just a housewife." Explaining that "for at least
the last ten years she did very substantial travel and was really a
corporate wife," Lorna's attorney argues that "to characterize as a $50
million housewife sort of plays into this sort of derogatory
characterization of her."
For Lorna and for the media, the distinction between just a "housewife"
and a "corporate housewife" is critical. From their perspective, a
corporate wife, by extending her domestic responsibilities into the
male-dominated public sphere, provides greater value to the marital
partnership than a housewife whose responsibilities remain within the
private realm of the home. While the contributions of the corporate wife
are not valued as equal to those of the wage-earning husband, she
nonetheless distinguishes herself from the housewife, whose work in the
home is assigned no economic value within a capitalist framework. In
choosing to emphasize her performance of the corporate wife, while
distancing herself from what she views to be the derogatory role of
"housewife," Lorna reinforces the devaluation of women's work within the
home. The news coverage, uncritical in its acceptance of the notion of a
"corporate wife," perpetuates the division between housewives and corporate
wives, reifying the myth that women's domestic responsibilities are not
"work," and are therefore not worthy of economic consideration.
By questioning the legitimacy of Lorna's claim to an equal share of the
couple's assets, by depicting her as extravagant, frivolous, and having
plenty, and by emphasizing her status as a corporate wife, the news
coverage minimizes the value of her contributions within the home,
stripping her work of its status as labor and reinforcing the myth of the
self-sacrificing wife and mother whose work on behalf of the family is
understood as a labor of love. Yet certain contradictions and ambivalence
do exist in the news coverage. Despite the failure of the majority of the
news and business publications to recognize the principle of economic
equality in marriage, Lorna and her cause succeeded in garnering some media
support. Fortune's Betsy Morris is perhaps the most outspoken in her
support for Lorna, instructing her readers to "get it straight on this wife
thing. If it's really important to have somebody home raising the kids,
then put your money where your mouth is. And if you don't, then don't any
longer expect her to keep smiling and act like a lady." Time magazine
also endorses Lorna's position, concluding that "Gary Wendt's decision to
spin off Lorna after 31 years should get her half and then some."
Yet even in these instances, culturally dominant and near-sighted
interpretations of women's work persist. Time attributes its support of
Lorna not to a belief in the equal value of domestic work, but to her
"superior performance" as a "selfless" corporate spouse. The implication is
that if Lorna had not exceeded the performance expectations for a corporate
wife, she would not have been deserving or entitled to half of the couple's
estate. Fortune, meanwhile, depicts Wendt, the stay-at-home wife and
mother, as an anachronism in an age when the majority of women participate
in the paid labor force. Referring to Wendt as "straight out of another
era," Morris implies that a more contemporary woman, with the benefit of
education and professional experience, would not find herself as vulnerable
as a woman in a traditional marriage. Yet as Crittenden points out, most
thirty to-forty-year-old mothers are "in the same implicit marriage bargain
as Lorna Wendt." The middle-class professional mother who has "done the
right, responsible thing," and cut back on her career for the sake of her
family "quickly discovers that when it comes to divorce, no good deed goes
unpunished." As the Time and Fortune examples illustrate, even
instances of media support for Lorna are ultimately subsumed within the
dominant ideological notions of the appropriate performance of gender and
labor within the structure of the family. Time's support of Lorna hinges on
her "superior performance" while Fortune, in positioning Lorna as an
anachronism, fails to recognize the broader application of the principle of
equality in marriage.
As this analysis demonstrates, the mainstream news media actively
participate in the reification of an ideological position that devalues
work performed within the home. Failing to consider or examine seriously
this devaluation of domestic work, the news discourse presents the unpaid
labor of housekeeping and caregiving as a natural and inevitable phenomenon
within a capitalist framework. In obscuring the historical and socially
constructed origins of the division of labor between the public and private
spheres, the media function as myth-makers, transforming history into
nature. As Barthes explained, myth has the "task of giving an historical
intention a natural justification." Emptied of its history and filled
with nature, the myth of women's domestic work as a "labor of love,"
unworthy of economic consideration equal to that of market work, is
reinforced in the news discourse. When coupled with prevailing myths of
femininity, manifest in depictions of Lorna as being concerned with little
more than socializing and shopping, the devaluation of women's work
acquires additional cultural resonance. Stripped of her value and
complexity, Lorna is reduced to the manageable feminine myth of the
frivolous, materially-obsessed housewife. These myths, expressed in and
disseminated through news discourse, constrict cultural beliefs and defend
the dominant social consensus. Disguising their historical origins while
operating ideologically, news as myth participates decisively in the social
order, marginalizing women's domestic work while making it seem both
unchangeable and fair.
As for Lorna, she survived the media uproar, and continues to battle the
myth that women's domestic worth is without value. Having established the
non-profit organization Foundation for Equality in Marriage with the money
from her divorce settlement, Lorna describes her new career as "devoted to
raising these topics and convincing the courts to examine the value of a
parent's love versus a spouse's paycheck."
Barrett, Paul M. "Corporate Wife Gains in Divorce Ruling." Wall Street
Journal, December 4, 1997.
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------. "Ex-wife sees what money can't buy. Relishes challenges after
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Morris, Betsy. "It's Her Job Too." Fortune, February 2, 1998, 64.
Morrow, David J. "The Card, At Least, Isn't Torn In Half." New York Times.
December 7, 1997.
Polk, Nancy. "Marriage and Divorce as 50-50 Propositions." New York Times.
August 30, 1998.
Schwartz, Adria. "Taking the Nature Out of Mother." In Representations of
Motherhood. Edited by. D. Bassin, M. Honey, and M.M. Kaplan. New Haven:
Yale UP, 1994.
Smith, Robert Rutherford. "Mythic Elements in Television News." Journal
of Communication 29 (1979).
"Spouses as Shareholders." New York Times. December 5, 1997.
Symonds, William C. and Peter Burrows. "Divorce Executive Style." Business
Week, August 3, 1998.
Vincent, Richard C., Bryan K. Crow and Dennis K. Davis. "When Technology
Fails: The Drama of Airline Crashes in Network Television News."
Journalism Monographs 117 (1989).
Whitman, David and Elise Ackerman. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Divorcing."
US News & World Report. December 15, 1997.
Williams, Joan. Unbending Gender. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.
Zelizer, Barbie. "Journalists as Interpretive Communities." Critical
Studies in Mass Communication 10 (1993).
 Betsy Morris, "It's Her Job Too," Fortune, February 2, 1998, p.64.
 Martha T. Moore, "CEO's ex-wife gets $20 million," USA Today,
December 4, 1997, p. 3A.
 Martha T. Moore, "Ex-wife sees what money can't buy. Relishes
challenges after corporate life," USA Today, December 5, 1997, p. 3A.
 Morris, p.64.
 Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood (New York: Henry Holt & Co.,
 Hubert Herring,"The Wendt Divorce: What's A Wife Worth In Court? Go
Figure," New York Times, January 25, 1998, sec. 4, p. 7.
 Crittenden, 138.
 Michael Kimmel, The Gendered Society (New York: Oxford UP, 2000).
 Stuart Hall, "Culture, Identity, and Diaspora" in Colonial Discourse
and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, eds. P. Williams and L. Chrisman (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 392.
 Judith Butler, "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay
in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory," in Writing on the Body: Female
Embodiment and Feminist Theory, eds. K. Conboy, N. Medina, and S. Stanbury
(New York: Columbia UP, 1997).
 Kimmel, The Gendered Society, 2-3.
 John Gray, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus: A Practical
Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your
Relationships (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 5.
 Kimmel, The Gendered Society, 121.
 Michael Kimmel and Amy Aronson, "The Gendered Family" in The
Gendered Society Reader, edited by M. Kimmel and A. Aronson (New York:
Oxford UP, 2000).
 Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years'
of the Experts Advice to Women (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 9.
 Ehrenreich, 8, 10.
 Crittenden, 49.
 Crittenden, 47.
 Ehrenreich and English, 18.
 Crittenden, 47-48, 52
 Joan Williams, Unbending Gender (New York: Oxford UP, 2000), 2.
 Crittenden, 77.
 Margaret Benston, "The Political Economy of Women's Liberation,"
Monthly Review 21:4 (1969): 16.
 Helen Crowley, "Women and the Domestic Sphere" in Modernity: An
Introduction to Modern Societies, edited by Stuart Hall, David Held, Don
Hubert, Kenneth Thompson (London: Blackwell, 1996), 346.
 Susan Brownmiller, Femininity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 16-19.
 Brownmiller, 15.
 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang), 1972.
 Myra Macdonald, Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in the
Popular Media (London: Edward Arnold, 1995), 1.
 John Fiske, Introduction to Communication Studies (New York:
Routledge, 1990), 88-89.
 Crittenden, 53.
 Judith Butler, "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay
in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory," in Writing on the Body: Female
Embodiment and Feminist Theory, eds. K. Conboy, N. Medina, and S. Stanbury
(New York: Columbia UP, 1997), 402.
 Adria Schwartz, "Taking the Nature Out of Mother," in
Representations of Motherhood, eds. D. Bassin, M. Honey, and M.M. Kaplan
(New Haven: Yale UP, 1994), 250.
 Kimmell, The Gendered Society Reader, 150.
 Hall, 392.
 Douglas Kellner, "Cultural studies, multiculturalism and media
culture," in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text Reader, edited by G.
Dines and J.M. Humez (Thousand Oaks, CA, 1995), 5.
 Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, eds., Media and
Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers,
 Jack Lule, Daily News, Eternal Stories (New York: Guilford Press,
2000), 12, 4.
 Dan Berkowitz, "Routine Newswork and What-a-Story," Journal of
Communication 42: 1 (1992). See also S. Elizabeth Bird and Robert W.
Dardenne, "Myth, Chronicle, and Story: Exploring the Narrative Qualities of
News," in Media, Myths, and Narratives: Television and the Press, edited by
J.W. Carey (Thousand Oaks, California, Sage) 1997, 67-86; Robert Rutherford
Smith, "Mythic Elements in Television News" Journal of Communication 29
(1979); Richard C. Vincent, Bryan K. Crow, and Dennis K. Davis, "When
Technology Fails: The Drama of Airline Crashes in Network Television News,"
Journalism Monographs 117 (1989); Barbie Zelizer, "Journalists as
Interpretive Communities," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 10 (1993).
 Micrea Eliade, Myth and Reality, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York:
Harper & Row, 1963), 2.
 Lule, 191.
 Richard Ericson, Negotiating Control: A Study of News Sources
(Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1989).
 Lule, 190.
 1997 circulation figures for the magazines and newspapers provided
by the Audit Bureau of Circulation and Newspaper Association of America
respectively. Business Week: 987,369; Forbes: 952, 933; Fortune: 867,781;
Money: 1, 992, 438; Time: 4, 109, 62, US News &World Report: 2, 086, 610;
New York Times: 1,097,180; Wall Street Journal 1, 857, 194; USA Today: 2,
 Sonya Foss, Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd ed.
(Prospect, IL: Waveland Press, 1996).
 Ana Garner, Helen M. Stark, and Shawn Adams, "Narrative Analysis of
Sexual Etiquette in Teenage Magazines," Journal of Communication 48 (1998): 64.
 Elisabeth Bumiller, "One Word From a Corporate Ex-Wife: Half," New
York Times, January 6, 1998, sec. B, p. 2.
 Crittenden, 6.
 Williams, 5.
 Crittenden, 133.
 Williams, 121.
 Herring, sec 4, p. 7.
 David Whitman and Elise Ackerman, "Lifestyles of the Rich and
Divorcing," US News & World Report, December 15, 1997, p.27.
 Nancy Polk, Marriage and Divorce as 50-50 Propositions," New York
Times, August 30, 1998, sec. 14CN, p. 3.
 William C. Symonds and Peter Burrows, "Divorce Executive Style,"
Business Week, August 3, 1998, p.62.
 "Spouses as Shareholders," New York Times, December 5, 1997, sec.
A, p. 30.
 Margaret Carlson and Andrea Sachs, "Divorce, Corporate Style,"
Time, February 3, 1997, p.38.
 Maggie Gallagher, "A Corporate Wife Earns Her Share of the Profits,"
USA Today, May 19, 1997, p.23A.
 Symonds, p. 62.
 Lisa Reilly Cullen, "A Headliner Divorce Teaches Your How to Get a
Fairer Share From Your Spouse," Money, February, 1998, p.20.
 Carlson and Sachs, p.38; Gallagher, p. 23A.
 "Spouses as Shareholders," sec. A, page 30.
 Polk, sec. 14CN, p. 3.
 Whitman and Ackerman, p.27.
 Moore, p. 3A.
 David J. Morrow, "The Card, At Least, Isn't Torn In Half," New York
Times, December 7, 1997, sec. 3, p. 11.
 Bumiller, sec. B, page 2.
 Paul M. Barrett, "Corporate Wife Gains in Divorce Ruling," Wall
Street Journal, sec. B, p. 1; Bumiller, sec. B, p. 2; Gallagher, p.23A.
 Symonds and Burrows, p.62.
 Morris, p. 64.
 Herring, sec. 4, p. 7.
 Gallagher, p.23A
 Morris, p.64.
 Carlson and Sachs, p.38.
 Crittenden, 139-140.
 Barthes, 142.
 Macdonald, 2.
 Judith Dobrzynski, "Judge Splits on Issues and Money in GE
Executive's Divorce Case," New York Times, December 4, 1997, sec. D, p. 1.