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Military Spouse Stereotypes: They’re no joke

May 6, 2012

We’ve all heard them: Military spouses are lazy; they sit on the sofa and eat bonbons while their kids run wild. Military spouses are dumb; they have no education or ambitions beyond collecting their spouses’ paychecks. Military spouses all bitch slap everyone with their spouses’ ranks. Military spouses are drunkards. Military spouses cheat the second their spouses are more than 10 ft away from them.

Stereotypes exist, in part, because there is some truth to them. Some people are crazy, or lazy, or drunks, or cheaters whether or not they are in a military family. The military is a subset of the great US population, after all. However, this does not mean all military spouses are this way.

I remember my 2nd year as a military spouse. I had landed a job and was in the process of getting a training certification with some other new hires. I forget what I was wearing one day that caused someone to recognize I am a military spouse, but it really tripped her trigger. She began going on and on about how military spouses are drunks and how we all cheat on our spouses. I was shocked. I told her that nothing could be farther from the truth, to which she replied: “Oh, yes it is. I was married to a Navy guy for 5 years in Japan and every time the ships left, my friends and I would go to the bars, get drunk and pick up guys.” Okay, well that proves she was a drunk and cheated on her spouse. That doesn’t mean everyone does, but it didn’t matter. She had activated that stereotype within the group we were working with and people treated me differently afterward.

Situations like this have cropped up frequently over my ~8 yrs as a military spouse. I have been openly discriminated against in the job market because I am a military spouse. After all, I will just leave the company when my husband gets transferred. I have had people in my husband’s commands repeated talk down to me because I am a military spouse. It doesn’t matter that I have far more education and diversity of life experience than they do. An Ensign once told me at an event that she didn’t have to talk to me because, “you’re not on the ship.” Apparently, in her mind I was not valuable because I had no rank next to my name. Probably the most famous incident occurred when I was at IVYU. I took a Women Studies class on Ecology out of curiosity. The instructors decided that it was completely acceptable to teach the stereotype of military spouses to the students as part of the course material. In their view ALL military spouses are in the throws of patriarchy and are too indoctrinated to realize it. I got a C in the class for contesting their viewpoints. This idea was derived from Cynthia Enloe’s writing on military spouses. After all, by contesting what they said, I was just proving how indoctrinated I was. To me this proved that civilians, even women who consider themselves feminists, rely upon reinforcing negative stereotypes on military spouses rather than recognizing and supporting the diversity of women in every arena, including the military.

As a result of these incidents have deeply informed how I conduct myself in the world, because I never know when I will be recognized as a military spouse and I want to be sure that I am upholding an image (which is my true self) that contradicts these negative stereotypes. In this regard, as a social class minority (1% of American families are associated with the military), I see myself as a public figure and recognize that when I do something it reflects on the entire class, not just myself.

For the record, I am not saying I want to be on the evening news. Nothing is farther from the truth. I prefer to be honest about who I am, but not define myself by it.  I want to be judged on my merits, not whom I married. However, we all know that if I did something stupid and/or noteworthy, it would be reported and repeated as “Ophiolite, Military Spouse, does something stupid and/or noteworthy.” I try to keep that in mind. For now I am tied to and identified with the military social class.

Right now I live in an area with few military spouses. I am not near a base. I am in the process of finishing my professional education and getting a job. I know from past experience how being a military spouse negatively impacts my job prospects because of the “military spouse stereotype.” I’ve lived it. As a result I have several very good reasons for exhibiting the highest level of professional conduct at all times, and in all things, and in all places.

I went to a year end party for our department, where by whatever mechanism (our department is incredibly gossipy), it got around that I had gotten falling down drunk at the party the year before. This is not true. I realize most people there looked at the party as “This is college” and thought nothing more about it. To me, it was a grave injury. I was there networking with the alumni looking for a job, for support for the club I run in the department, and of course as a military spouse. I had been named one of the University’s Women of Distinction for next year in part because I am actively working to break the negative military spouse stereotype that both civilians and military personnel enforce upon us.

I went to the source and confronted her because I know what damage this can do to my reputation and has done to me in the past and it was blown off by her as “a joke.” These issues are no laughing matter. On the internet, in print, and in real life military spouses are a social minority. There is significant prejudice against us and none of us can afford to take it as a laughing matter.

If we want to be more than “camp followers” and really come to realize our potential in the world of employment and elsewhere, we have to be openly speak up and combat these negative stereotypes. It’s not enough for the First Lady and Dr. Biden to say, “Hey, hire these men and women. They work really hard, they’re very dedicated and loyal.” We have to be willing to speak up, be counted, and show ourselves in the world for who and what we are.

As Military Spouse Appreciation Day is drawing near, it is a really great time to speak up against these negative stereotypes and be counted. In the words of another military spouse, “We have to take off our disguises and show ourselves as both heroes and humans; people who wait but also people who build communities.” By doing this we can combat the negative stereotypes thrust upon us, however innocently, and reframe the discussion of the contributions of the military community in general and military spouses in particular. In so doing, we create intellectual space for Americans to see us for who we are, not the negative stereotypes that persist about us.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2012 12:40 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful and articulate post! It is an interesting topic, because the public portrayal of the military community seems to be rife with stereotypes. I am fairly new to the role of military spouse, my husband has been in the Army since October 2011 and we are at our first station. We live off base, but within half an hour of both Fort Stewart and HAAF so no matter where you go, you run into a lot of military personnel and families.
    I have met a good smattering of military (mostly Army) wives, both as customers and co-workers, and keep hearing the same comment, almost verbatim, from each one: “Watch out for the other Army wives. They’re a bunch of bitches.” And yet, based on my experience thus far, I would not consider any of the ladies I’ve met to be “bitches.” If large portions of the milspouse community are labeling one another as such, it’s no surprise the outside world would view us that way.
    It’s good to see that there is a forum like this for military spouses to stand together and stand out and prove the stereotypes wrong,

  2. Lily Castillo permalink
    December 11, 2012 11:58 am

    Listen- I have been a military spouse for over 10 years. I am college educated and would consider myself open-minded to people and new experiences. I have found the majority of Marine wives to be abusive to their children, nosey and with below average intelligence. Not all are that way but 8 out of 10 are. My experience is that Army wives have the least intelligence and Navy wives are th biggest gossips and bitches. Mil-life sucks and we refuse to be part of the subculture.

    • December 11, 2012 9:15 pm

      Lily:
      Thank you for calling me a gossipy bitch. I want you to know that bitch is one of my favorite words and a usually when someone calls me a bitch, I know it really means, “Atta, girl! You’re doing it right.”
      In all seriousness, I am not sure why you would feel it is appropriate to degrade your fellow spouses in this forum. The ladies here at Left Face come from every branch of service; well I think we still need a coastie, but we’re close. We also come from diverse educational and family backgrounds. We are well educated as well. Your stereotypes are misguided and unfounded. It just goes to show all the college education in the world cannot combat bigotry.
      Most military spouses, regardless of branch, do not abuse their children. I am sure there are a few who do, just as there are some civilians who abuse their kids. Military spouses are NOT stupid. I know many military spouses with PhDs, JDs, MDs, MBAs, etc. In fact at least 25% of all military spouses have a bachelor’s degree and ~10% have an advanced degree (http://www.bluestarfam.org/Policy/Surveys/Survey_2012). You are not anomalous because you have a college degree. LAW, Brittany and Bette are all Army spouses and they are freaking brilliant. One of my favorite military spouse writers, now wounded warrior caregiver, is Kat Causey who may not have a BA under her belt yet, but she has written for PBS. Her eloquence is moving.
      Perhaps you should read some of my other blog posts here at Left Face, like this one: http://leftface.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/2191/. In it I explain how women hating women is the most important tool of patriarchy and how military spouses degrading one another feeds into this. This is what you have attempted to do in your remark here and it’s really inappropriate. You don’t know me or the other women here and you clearly don’t know military spouses. Trying to school me with your college degree and a little longer marriage isn’t impressive. It’s sad. I write here at Left Face to uplift military spouses who feel out of place and who are struggling as I have as a spouse. I want them to know that there are real reasons why they experience some things, like negative stereotypes and that we can flip the script. I want them to know that when I finish my PhD in May, I am not an anomaly or special but that they can do what I have done…if they want to and if they want to devote their life to something else, that’s awesome too. I am really sad that you chose to repeat and reinforce negative stereotypes rather than being part of the solution.
      Being a military spouse isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be a very empowering thing if you choose to use the doors it opens for you. It has helped me grow and develop in ways I couldn’t have possibly known and made me stronger and more resilient as I have faced challenges in my professional career. I hope that some day you will be able to see that military spouses are just people, just like everyone else, with pluses and minuses that are part of what makes us all human. In the end, I hope you can also see the good in your experience as well as the struggle.
      And please, pretty please, call me a bitch again. I haven’t gotten much positive reinforcement lately. This writing the dissertation thing is really soul sucking and I can use all the positive reinforcement I can get.

    • libarmywife permalink*
      December 11, 2012 9:34 pm

      Lilly, I almost didn’t approve your comment, but this is an open forum, so I did. But let me make something VERY clear. Your nasty, bigoted vomit isn’t what we like to see here. We don’t accept bullshit. In any form. Next time you try to share your narrowminded bigotry with anyone on this forum, we’ll make sure your bullshit is made note of – we’ll just disemvowel the trash that you want to publish, and make sure everyone can see how infantile and ridiculous you are. You don’t want to be part of our subculture? Well, that’s a big sigh of relief from this crew. We don’t want you either. ~LAW

  3. March 9, 2013 7:40 am

    Thanks so much for this post. I am an Army wife of just over ten years and have two graduate degrees. I had an unfortunate run in with some people last night who were displaying the worst stereotypes regarding military spouses. I was so disturbed by it that I went looking for some validation that there are others like me. By the time I was done reading this, I felt very relieved and happy to know that I’m not alone.

    For the most part, I have enjoyed being an Army wife, though my husband will retire next year. But I have run into the stereotypes, both on the part of the general public and other spouses and family members. There is some truth to many of the stereotypes, unfortunately, but they definitely don’t apply to everyone. Thanks again for the reminder, especially for people who really don’t know.

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