MADISON, WIS. — Lorna Wendt never expected to find herself in the limelight. As a corporate wife, she was accustomed to watching quietly and supportively from the sidelines as her husband, Gary, chairman of G.E. Capital, played the starring role.
But all that changed when Mr. Wendt asked for a divorce after 32 years of marriage. He proposed a $10-million settlement. She rejected that offer, arguing that her contribution to the marriage entitled her to half his assets. By her estimates, his fortune is worth nearly $100 - a figure he insists is greatly inflated. She is also appealing a Connecticut judge's ruling awarding her $20 million.
"You enter into this relationship as equal partners, 50-50," says Ms. Wendt, of Stamford, Conn. "To get out, it's still 50-50." She adds, "All the dinners I cooked, the clothes I washed, the love and support I gave the children, are of equal value to the paycheck."
Because of the high stakes involved, Wendt's decision to contest the settlement catapulted her onto the nightly news. It also brought thousands of supportive calls and letters. "I had no idea that sticking up for myself would have such impact," she says.
Now Wendt feels a responsibility to broaden that impact by establishing the Foundation for Equality in Marriage. It advocates marriage as a partnership between equals; monetary and nonmonetary contributions carry equal weight.
"The need to clarify what we mean by marriage is so evident," Wendt says. She receives 900 e-mail messages a month. Her Web site (www.equalityinmarriage.com) received 4,000 hits in 24 hours after she appeared on a national television program. Even reporters from Australia, London, Ireland, France, and Italy have interviewed her - a measure of the international scope of the issue.
Although women constitute her prime audience, Wendt also hears from men who tell her that marriage is a partnership and encourage her to "stick with what you're doing."
In nine community-property states, family court judges now split marital assets equally. Wendt would like to see 50-50 property divisions become binding in every state.
Calling marriage "the largest social contract you'll ever make," Wendt advises couples to ask each other before marrying, "What will happen if we should divorce?" She also tells women: "All marriages are going to end in death or divorce. It doesn't matter what the size of your estate is. Know your finances. Don't just sign the income-tax form."
If divorce is unavoidable, she says, "My message is not, 'Ladies, get out there and fight.' Try to remain on good terms. Mediate." Wendt emphasizes that her demand for equity is not a matter of greed but of principle. "This is about fairness in courts," she says. "It's not male-bashing. It's respect for one another. This is an issue that affects everyone."
In an era when women's identities, like men's, are often tied to titles and paychecks, Wendt's case forces a new look at an old question: What is a wife worth? Whatever the outcome of her appeal, her reminder of the enduring value of homemaking and child-rearing might turn the adversity of her own divorce into new financial equations for others.