Women's Work Often Unrewarded

Labor economist and Professor at the School of Education at Stanford University Myra H. Strober spoke yesterday at the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute (RPPI) about the "invisible" work of women.

Strober's speech, the RPPI's fourth annual lecture on feminist economics, examined divorce settlements and corresponding entitlements to women who have chosen to manage households while their husbands filled the role of the breadwinner.

Strober, who has testified as an expert witness in five lawsuits involving housewives seeking fair compensation for their "unpaid, invisible work," cited the recent Connecticut divorce case of Wendt v. Wendt as example of an suit over entitlements.

In the Wendt case, the couple's marriage began at the University of Wisconsin with few assets. After 30 years, when Mr. Wendt asked for a divorce, the couples' assets stood at a value of approximately $100 million, Strober said.

"In 1995, after 30 years of marriage, Mr. Wendt [by then CEO of G.E. Capital in Stamford for nine years] asked for a divorce and offered his wife $10 million," Strober said. The husband claimed the money "surely was more than she `needed' to be comfortable," she said.


The problem, Strober said after her speech, was not the monetary sum, but the principle of the settlement itself. Mrs. Wendt, who sued for 50 percent of the household's assets, has, according to Strober, "gotten a backlash for what many have called greed, but is genuinely sincere in her quest for compensation for wives' work." Strober said she established the Institute for Equality in Marriages with this quest in mind.

In the context of her speech, Strober cited Mrs. Wendt's work in providing companionship, sexual partnership and emotional support, as well as caring for the couple's children, cooking, cleaning and taking care of other household responsibilities, as grounds for her entitlement to half of the couple's assets.

"The two methods economists generally use to value such unpaid work," Strober said, "are the opportunity cost method and the market replacement method."

The opportunity cost method estimates the homemaker's unpaid labor by assuming it is equal to the average earnings for women with the same educational level in the same educational field.

The market replacement method values unpaid work by determining the market value of the services the homemaker provided, such as cooking and cleaning, and car-pooling. Both of these methods, according to Strober, are "not appropriate."

Strober said she prefers to view marriage as a business partnership, evaluating the individual "investment" of the spouse in the economic arrangement of marriage to determine suitable settlements.

According to Strober, when a business partnership dissolves with no prior arrangement, the presumption is that the partners divide their assets 50-50.

The judge in the Wendt case, Kevin Tierney, awarded Mrs. Wendt $20 million plus $252,000 per year, neither on the basis of Strober's theory or either of the traditional methods used in divorce cases.

"The judge's decision not to rely on economic theory or methodology in making the awards was quite intentional," Strober said.

"He felt such a method would have the effect of objectifying both the husband and wife and their relationship," he said.

According to Strober, Mrs. Wendt has appealed the settlement.

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