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The Separate Worlds of Bill and Melinda Gates

  • May 08, 2021

To many who saw the couple only in the professional setting of the foundation, it was more surprising. “People just seemed shocked. They’re speechless. They’re really blindsided. After such a difficult year of people working so hard it just feels like more whiplash,” a former longtime foundation executive said. The question everyone is asking now is how it will affect the foundation moving forward. “There’s already these divisions, how are they not going to be more reinforced?”

In the annual letter for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr. Gates became accustomed to recapping the past year and setting the agenda for the next. In late 2012, following some especially formative travels and a global conference on family planning, Ms. French Gates asked to write that dispatch with him.

“I thought we were going to kill each other,” Ms. French Gates, as she now prefers to be known, wrote in her book. “I felt, ‘Well, this just might end the marriage right here.’”

The heated dispute paved the way for a fuller public partnership, but that didn’t come instantly: In January 2013, Mr. Gates’s signature still stood alone, with their compromise being a short piece on contraceptives by Ms. Gates that accompanied his letter.

“I told him that there are some issues where my voice can make an impact, and in those cases, I should be speaking — separately or along with him,” she wrote. “It got hot. We both got angry. It was a big test for us — not about how you come to agreement but about what you do when you can’t agree. And we took a long time to agree.”

Following their divorce, how the couple will collaborate on joint projects like their annual Goalkeepers report, the Giving Pledge and the foundation’s major communications, are open questions.

When the Gates Foundation was formally established more than two decades ago, Ms. French Gates took on a bigger role in running it than her husband did, because of the demands of his work at Microsoft. In spite of that, she initially shied away from a public role, leaving speeches and appearances to him. “I wanted to work behind the scenes,” she wrote, noting she had wanted to guard her privacy.

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