The Military Spouse Dichotomy
Yesterday I had lunch with a veteran that works in my department. He asked me when I would see my husband again. I explained that it was difficult to say, not because my husband is deployed, but because his CO made it explicitly clear that “if you want to see your wife, you should have made her quit school and her job and move here.” The veteran’s response was indifferent. He explained that I just needed to understand that the military is a lifestyle to which I need to adapt. The comment crystallized the conflict I have been in for over 8 years now.
Military spouses are caught in a constant dichotomy. On the one hand, we are expected to give up our own lives, goals, dreams and desires to support the military. We are encouraged to believe that being a military spouse “is the toughest job in the [insert branch designation here].” We are taught that there is a hierarchy among spouses (while not official). This is why Command Officer’s Wives (COW; BTW, what self-respecting woman would willingly refer to herself as a COW?) obsess about whether they still have a “role” mentoring young military spouses as to the military’s expectations of them in today’s internet age. It is why Mrs. Dempsey and Mrs. Mullen are interviewed extensively about military family issues. Unofficially, they are the higher echelons of military spouses. It is why articles abound at BaseGuide and SpouseBuzz (though SpouseBuzz does sport occasional moments of rational thinking that make it somewhat worthwhile) about the importance of the traditional roles of spouses in military families.
On the other hand, when women seek to obtain or maintain power and authority, specifically when it threatens the dominant paradigm, the military and other military spouses are quick to counsel that spouses are “civilians” and “have no rank.” This is a particularly important way of making it clear that spouses are simply not as important or powerful as any service member, regardless of how low ranking that service member may be.
Together these potentially competing images of military spouses as the can-do “silent ranks” and the “rank-less” civilians allows the military to effectively avoid dealing with the very real fact that military spouses are in fact civilians in the true sense of the word, meaning that technically the military cannot violate a spouse’s sovereign rights to choose to live as s/he pleases. While service members have been “broken down” and reassembled in the military’s image of who they should be, the military cannot directly force a spouse to do anything s/he does not want to do. They cannot order us to show up at a specific place, at a specific time, to perform a specific function.
In order to circumvent the very real power military spouses have to define themselves in the world, the military manipulates spouses. They reward spouses who play by the appropriate rules (giving up one’s personal lives, goals, dreams, and desires in order to put the military front and center in their lives). These rewards come as positive accolades for the spouse and positive references about the spouse to the service member. They support defining an unofficial ranking system among military spouses. Hence the term “COW” and the frequent selection of senior spouses as Family Readiness Group Leaders. Additionally, military spouses are feminized regardless of gender. For example, when Jeremy Hilton was named Military Spouse of the Year, the announcement from Military Spouse Magazine read “It’s a HE!” (somehow this is shocking and worthy of denoting gender) and Fox News stated that he had given up his career in the Navy to “take care of his Air Force wife,” despite the fact that this is not factual (Notice that they are making it clear that they view his role is to “take care” of his service member…not unlike the laundry story cited earlier.).
In contrast, they make it plain, through back channels, that military spouses who refuse to obey the unofficial rules and accept their place put their service members’ careers in danger. They make comments about “controlling your spouse” and using pregnancy as a means of asserting that control. In this way sex, which is a precious commodity in a military family, can be fashioned into a weapon of manipulation and control. And then there is using time as a weapon, as in the case of my husband’s CO (They already suggested sex, but I trumped them with birth control…which of course is why birth control is such a huge national issue).
Control is the cheapest way to deal with military spouses. If they can control us through soft measures (controlling access to friends, resources, family, education, etc.), then they can effectively make us “dependent” on the continued paycheck the military provides and thereby create a stable military workforce. However, the military realizes that modern military spouses grow up with much different values than those spouses from the 1950s. We initially believe in the importance of our own work, our own contributions to society. The goal then is to manipulate and control how we perceive these values. For this reason we have seen MyCAA restructured so that education for a useless career like “dog training” is supported by the military and government programs, but getting a 4-yr degree in nursing or education is not. Similarly funding for graduate level work has evaporated, despite the growing needs for trained social workers, psychologists, and doctors for military families.
Military spouses who contribute their time to unpaid labor in support of the military are rewarded with notoriety for their efforts. However, working spouses, even when their jobs create positive outcomes for the military, are seen as natural challenges to the order of the system and evidence of the service member’s “lack of leadership.” In order to reclaim some of their ceded power, many military spouses have begun to join the Reserves to obtain the power derived from the uniform. Some still see themselves largely as spouses who are supporting their service member, while others use their dual status to obtain rank over other military spouses.
So what? After all, this is just the way the organization functions, right? You can’t fight it. You need to embrace the lifestyle, right?
No. I don’t think you do, not unless you want to be facing the same disregard in a decade that you face right now. The truth of the matter is that military spouses matter. They are the key to their service members’ retention. The key to accessing and exercising power and authority all military spouses have as civilians is education. The fact of the matter is that as long as military spouses are satisfied with “jobs” instead of careers, with defining themselves as “spouses” instead of by their very real contributions to society, they will continue to be walked all over by the military. The military knows that until a woman has obtained the education and experience necessary to command significant earning potential, the spouse will play ball as a financial survival tactic, particularly in uncertain times.
This is one of the things I have learned as I have moved up the ranks in the civilian world. And in one regard, the veteran I spoke to was right, until military spouses embrace their power to live by their own rules as civilians and control their own bodies, their own minds and make their own choices about what they value and how they want to be individually and collectively perceived in the world, the “dependent” status of military spouses will persist. Many military spouses have already transitioned or are working to transition beyond the dominant paradigm of being a military spouse. However, they are doing it quietly, without fan-fare, without drawing attention to themselves lest their service members pay the price. The challenge is for these men and women to be open and honest about their empowerment and encourage other military spouses to join them in this transcendence. In so doing, I believe military spouses will be able to regain many of the benefits they have lost, most importantly self-determination. They will transcend the predatory nature of many online schools and MyCAA. They will assert who they are and what they stand for in every arena, instead of worrying whether or not they are doing enough to please the military and its agenda.
Most importantly, the “silent ranks” will no longer be silent and unseen, outside of the dominant paradigm the military holds up (aka senior officer spouses). Instead they will vocally explain who they are, what they need, and what they don’t. They will lobby for and address real issues (like military spouse suicide) and explain that we are more than simply the laundry machine for the US military, we are strong contributors at every level of US society. They will challenge the broadly accepted negative stereotypes of military spouses, which are rooted in our perceived desire for being “dependent.”
I believe that if we want Americans to take us and our issues seriously, we must present ourselves as the civilians we are and explain the sacrifices we make every day that we did not, in fact, sign paperwork indicating we would perform. We need to explain that we are the same as our neighbors, we just give more, because as long as we rely on the image of “military spouse: toughest job in the military,” we allow the military to control the discussion of who we are. We allow civilians to discount us as “silent ranks” who signed up for whatever treatment is dished out at us. We allow feminist theorists to lump us as “camp followers” and in the throes of patriarchy.” We give up our power to every sector of America, and I would argue make ourselves less employable because we are perceived as powerless.
The question is whether military spouses want to continue with the status quo “lifestyle” or whether they want to move forward to create a new vision of an empowered civilian spouse of a service member.