Joan I. Biddle
A military family is a kinship group which is “military” by virtue of the military occupation of at least one of the family members.
Military families come in all sizes, shapes, and ethnic mixes. Military families reflect the history, and the diversity of the people of the United States. A family that is “military” is a particular type of American family, living a particular style of life which incorporates the values of its American nation, while also generously blending the cultural practices of its people.
The person within the military family whose role seems to generate the most interest, and controversy, is the Wife, the Military Wife. The role of the Military Wife, and in particular, the Officer’s Wife, seems to fascinate those who give it any thought at all.
When the Call for Papers went out for the Special Issue on the Military Family, I expected all sorts of topics to be submitted. What came in were papers which dealt exclusively with the wives of service members, Military Wives.
I knew from my own experience that Military Wives were interesting people to study. I also remember that at one time, military wives, either as individuals, or as a group, tended to be overlooked, or completely dismissed as a topic for legitimate research.
In graduate school, when I first expressed my interest in army officers’ wives as the topic for my dissertation, my professors told me they could understand my interest in military topics, however, why would I want to study the wives? Their assumptions were that military wives were persons superfluous to the military, moreover, they were trivial persons who spent all of their time at Teas engaged in gossip.
Well, after being regarded as “just a wife” for a number of years, I’d learned that those assumptions might sometimes be correct, yet, more often, they were simply not true. The wives of military men were not superfluous to the military, rather, I learned that they are essential, integral, institutional participants. They are necessary institutional actors whose relationship to the military institution is extremely complex, and very emotionally charged. It seems that everyone from the smallest child of a service member, to the most senior officers and non-commissioned officers has some opinion about the wives, and seems ready to express it. You either love `em, or hate `em, and no one remains without an opinion.
So why are people so fascinated with military wives?
Military wives are simultaneously dismissed as being trivial, superficial beings, while being praised by their husbands’ commanders for their contributions to the command. Wives’ clubs are ridiculed as being outdated and non-relevant, while receiving praise for their philanthropic contributions to the military community. So then, why are the wives of military men the objects of speculation, and concern about their behaviors, thoughts, and even how they look? What makes the personal appearance of a military wife a topic for discussion? What makes her behavior such a matter for concern among her peers? Why is there speculation about the meaning of the appearance, or non-appearance of a wife at public functions?
The women who marry military men are subject to the scrutiny of the public, the press, researchers, the military hierarchy, and other military wives. They live their lives under the microscopic examination of public and private opinions. Military wives, more than anyone else in military families, occupy symbolic roles, in which they are expected to represent The American Woman at her very, very, best. A military wife is a symbol of “home” and “country”; she is the “ideal” woman who serves her man, and her country, while caring for her children single-handedly in his absence. She is brave, loyal. She is the symbol used by journalists to emphasize the military mission when the troops deploy. She represents America, and all Americans.
Despite the symbolism of her roles, Military Wives are also ruthlessly criticized as being tools of the government, as being women of egotistical concerns, as persons concerned only with social functions and social status. The positive symbolism and idealism which is associated with the roles that the Wives fulfill, is countered by views which diminish the women as symbolic figures, reducing them to mere individuals with human failings.
So where and why did all these divergent views originate? What should we believe? How do we discern the truth? In as much as the perceptions about military wives vary, so do the articles which appear in this Special Issue on Military Families, the first of two.
In this volume, the authors present intriguing insights into the history and character of women married to military men. While many of the readers of Minerva won’t have to be convinced about the importance of women in or with the military, others might be surprised to learn in the first article (Wang and Pao-Tao), for example, that Southern Song Chinese women fought alongside their husbands and even designed successful strategies for the army. These women served their military husbands and their Emperor with honor, and, in many cases, lost their lives. They were wives, and they were sometimes warriors.
In more contemporary times, women who are wives also serve their country and their husbands. In the second article (Alvah) we learn about the ideological importance of American families living overseas as tools of American foreign policy during the Cold War. Military families were regarded as implements of foreign policy and unofficial ambassadors of good will, symbolic representatives of the American Way of Life, providing a feminine face for the Occupation forces in Europe and Asia.
During much of the twentieth century, wives of service members were often relatively “silent” participants in their husbands’ careers. During the Cold War era, they began to be seen more publicly in roles that supported their husbands’ careers and American political agendas. Their roles were oriented toward social participation in the public and social spheres of their communities and toward making sure that their families were taken care of so that their husbands weren’t distracted from their duties. These women were regarded as either assets or detriments to their husbands’ careers, as persons whose social skills could either enhance, or undermine their husbands’ careers.
During the Vietnam Era, the military wives of the men who were sent to Vietnam, especially the wives who lived in civilian communities, rather than within military communities, seemed to be overlooked. In the third article (Brown) we learn that during the Vietnam era, there was a quite a bit of information published in the popular press whose target audience was the Vietnam wives.
In these articles, the wives were analyzed, criticized, and politicized. The drama of the war was played out through their eyes, the women becoming emotional surrogates for the nation, which was finding it difficult to cope with the complexities of this war which had emotionally divided, and emotionally drained, it.
Through the research of the authors in this volume, we have been presented with evidence that helps us to expand our knowledge, and our treatment of “military wives” as subjects of research. In particular, these authors present us with a picture of military wives that dispels stereotypes which portray military wives as persons who are superfluous to their husbands, and to the military institution. The wives do matter to their husbands, to the Armed Forces, and to their Nation.
Stay tuned for Volume II of the MINERVA Special Issue on the Military Family.
Joan I. Biddle, Ph.D., LTC, USAR (ret) (firstname.lastname@example.org), the Guest Editor for Volumes I and II, MINERVA Special Issue on the Military Family, is a sociologist with adjunct appointments at The New School University, New York City, and USA CGSC, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
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