Maureen and Bob McDonnell’s ‘partnership’ a portrait in inequality

August 21

Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell arrives at federal court with her attorney William Burck in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell took the stand in his own defense on Wednesday and is expected to continue Thursday. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

So former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, are – or were – “partners.”

That’s at least how he described their marriage as he took the stand on Thursday in the couple’s 14-count public corruption trial, before going into excruciating detail about what a stressed out, mean, unhappy, unbalanced – unhinged even – angry and frustrated woman she had become in the governor’s mansion.

Partners. Really?

The cheerleader and the football player.

The rising political star and the dutiful at-home wife with five kids, doing it all at home while he was away for months at a time occupied with more important business.

And now, according to McDonnell’s testimony, the virtuous public servant duped by his greedy, grasping, needy wife who had a crush on a businessman who paid attention to her.

Some partnership.

But it is a partnership that, sadly, is hardly unusual.

In the United States, even today, when the majority of women and mothers work for pay, it is still the man’s education and career that tend to take precedence.

Don’t believe me? Time-use studies show men still spend more time working on the job, making connections, tending to their careers, while women spend more time on housework and child care, even when they work full time.

Few women make it beyond middle management. Few women make it into politics and stay.

Women are still, by and large, the “trailing” spouse, the one who sacrifices to follow the other with the bigger and better job prospect. Women are still the ones who “flex” their work, put themselves on the “Mommy track,” or opt out altogether when the demands of the workplace make it impossible for both parents to keep up hectic schedules – at least if they want to see their kids.

Still don’t believe me? Older, divorced or separated women have dramatically higher poverty rates than widows and most other Social Security beneficiaries.

As the McDonnell case illustrates so clearly, women agree to these kinds of lopsided “partnerships” often at their own peril, said Joan Williams, a law professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

“It’s always been that the man’s career is the important career, and the woman does what she needs to do to help him accomplish that,” Williams said. “The old deal was, ‘Well, that’s just the way women and men are.’ But now we have this weird instability. We have the old pattern where the man’s career still takes precedence and women still make sacrifices for it, but we use the language of equality – that it’s the family’s ‘choice.’ And women, overwhelmingly, still get the short end of the stick.”


Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell leaves the federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., Monday, Aug. 18, 2014 where the federal corruption trial against him and former first lady Maureen McDonnell enters its fourth week. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown)

In testimony Thursday, Bob McDonnell outlined their partnership: She waited tables while he applied to law school. She typed his papers and nursed babies while he got a degree. For 30 years, she sold vitamins out of their house to help support their five kids. She went door-to-door campaigning for him when he ran for state delegate in 1991, while she was pregnant with twins. She manned the fort with the kids solo while he was away for months politicking as rising star in the GOP, and becoming, as he confessed on the stand, emotionally distant.

Then when he was elected governor, he told her it was time to put her vitamin business on hold.

“I just didn’t think the first lady of Virginia ought to be doing this kind of business,” he testified.

When asked by defense attorneys what his wife thought, he said:

“I would say she understood. But this was her 30-year passion,” McDonnell testified. “She understood, but she was not that happy about that instruction.”

Then, he testified, he put the marriage “on hold.”

Although the couple initially arrived at court holding hands and putting on a good front of solidarity, McDonnell said he’s now staying with his parish priest. The two arrive separately, with a phalanx of cameras, attorneys and supporters, and barely make eye contact, according to my colleague Petula Dvorak.

And when it comes to the defense strategy – blaming Maureen McDonnell for a strained, incommunicative marriage and the mess getting mixed up with Jonnie Williams and his nearly $200,000 in loans and gifts to the couple – Maureen may be sacrificing the only thing she has left, her personal dignity, for her husband and his career.

“Partnership?” Joan Williams asked incredulously. “It’s a perfect portrait of inequality in the 21st century.”

And like any good, self-sacrificing partner, Maureen McDonnell will let Bob McDonnell do all the talking. She is not expected to take the stand.

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