Relationships

Why Bill and Melinda Gates’ Divorce Is Such a Shock

America had no idea this would be hot Melinda Gates summer.

Bill Gates and Melinda Gates seated next to each other onstage at an event at Lincoln Center in New York in 2018.
Bill Gates and Melinda Gates at an event at Lincoln Center in New York in 2018. Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Compared with some of his tech-mogul counterparts who work their labor forces to death, imperil democracy, and attempt to buy Hawaii, Bill Gates has often been perceived as a stand-up guy, someone who got out of the game early to settle down and give away his billions. The settling down was a big part of that myth: the “Bill and Melinda” of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation projected an image of philanthropic—and marital—stability, America’s technocrat aunt and uncle who were always ready to sweep in, drop surprising amounts of cash, and only occasionally say stupid things. Just a couple years ago, Bill tweeted a photo of the couple on the occasion of their 25th anniversary, with a note: “I can’t wait to spend 25 more years laughing together.”

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This is why it seemed like such a shock when Bill and Melinda dropped a bombshell on Monday: They will divorce after 27 years of marriage. This wasn’t supposed to happen. True, their onetime fellow tech power couple Jeff Bezos and Mackenzie Scott set a precedent with their breakup a few years ago, but Bill didn’t give off the sort of alpha, wild card energy of a Bezos in recent years. Bill and Melinda seemed like Al and Tipper Gore, or Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, or any other couple who seemed so ingrained in the culture that you might not even actually remember them splitting up. Maybe some of us erroneously thought the Lindy effect applied: Once you’re together that long, you’re probably just going to stay together, right?

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Accordingly, America has processed this news with some timeless, and some very 2021, priorities: First of all, how will they split their wealth, reported to be around $124 billion? (Not clear yet.) Was there a prenup? (TMZ says no, but the New York Times says there is “believed to be one.”) What will happen to their foundation, with an endowment of $50 billion? (They’re expected to continue to run it together.) Most pressing of all: Is Melinda ready for a hot vax summer?

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It really is Melinda everyone seems to have questions about. A divorce doesn’t automatically render Bill a Bezos-ian cad, nor does the end of a marriage constitute a personal failing. (He has plenty of those to spare.) But already, it seems like Melinda Gates is on track to be lifted up as something of a feminist folk hero, never mind the inherent contradiction of a billionaire folk hero. After the divorce was announced, jokes immediately starting flying about how Melinda was getting out of the marriage just in time: She and Mackenzie Scott could team up for hot girl summer. Either that or to end climate change. (Why not both?) Had Melinda watched the recent TV show Made for Love, about a woman escaping an abusive marriage to a tech billionaire, and been inspired? Were we just weeks away from Melinda being photographed with Hollywood’s current go-to male arm candy, Pete Davidson? (No, no, he’s busy with a certain newly single queen.)

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Prior to this week, Melinda Gates hasn’t held an especially big pop cultural footprint: She was best known as one half of the foundation. In my youth, I remember having the very enlightened thought, “That’s nice that he let her name be in there too.” (Their divorce announcement, notably to me, reversed the “Bill and Melinda” name order and was signed “Melinda Gates and Bill Gates.”) The story of their courtship is full of similarly slightly uncomfortable—or maybe, in their way, admirable?—details: Like the former Bezoses, Bill and Melinda met at work. In their case, it was at Microsoft in 1987, when she was a recent college grad and he was the CEO, a dynamic that would likely earn more raised eyebrows today than it did at the time. But with a degree in computer science and an MBA, Melinda was no trophy wife. And besides, Bill was not her first boyfriend with a boldface name: At Duke, Melinda dated chewing gum heir William Wrigley Jr., the Seattle Times once reported.

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When Bill first asked Melinda out, she turned him down: She didn’t like that he tried to schedule the date two weeks in advance. They ended up going out soon after, but didn’t become serious for a few years, and they tried to keep their romance a secret early on. All the while, Melinda was working and developing a good reputation at Microsoft. Before they decided to tie the knot, Melinda found a marriage pros and cons list Bill had made on a whiteboard, she remembered, laughing, in a recent documentary.

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Over the years, she has tended to be painted in this vein, as a humanizing force to offset his nerdy eccentricity. The two did get married eventually, in a million-dollar secret Hawaiian ceremony in 1994. Melinda kept her job until 1996 (where she used her maiden name, French), at which point she left to focus on starting a family. The couple raised three children together, the youngest of whom is now 18 and the oldest of whom is 25. Famously, the children will not inherit the lion’s share of the Gates’ fortune, which will instead go to the foundation (though each kid will get a few mill).

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As Bill has stepped back from Microsoft over the years, his charity work has taken on a bigger profile, but over the past decade, Melinda has also assumed a more public-facing role in the foundation’s work, positioning herself as an advocate for bettering the lives of women. In 2019, she released a book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, and did an accompanying media blitz. Both the book and the promotion cycle drew heavily from stories of the Gates’ marriage, and of course some of these tidbits that made for neatly packaged anecdotes in, say, a Nicholas Kristof column, read a bit differently now: For a few years, they fought over who got to write the foundation’s annual letter, which he had been doing without her input, one story went, but eventually they found balance. Did they, though?

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Already, there is speculation about how Melinda’s charitable activities could change once she is no longer tied to Bill: “You could imagine Melinda Gates being a much more progressive giver on her own,” one philanthropy-world source told the New York Times. The Gates divorce doesn’t have to turn into a First Wives Club–esque tale of revenge—maybe it really will be as equitable a divorce as they say their marriage was. But the Mackenzie Scott template, a proxy battle where progressive causes stand to reap the benefits, is fun to imagine too: Ugh, I swear, I really don’t think anyone should be allowed to be a billionaire … but girl power, right? Yes, Melinda, you out-donate his ass.

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