In 1983, a widely circulated white paper titled The Army Family sent shockwaves through the United States armed forces. In its pages, Army Chief of Staff John A. Wickham, Jr. painstakingly outlined the centuries-long relationship between army officers, soldiers, and their dependents—and pledged to establish new principles and parameters for that relationship in the future. “Families have always been associated with the Army,” Wickham wrote, “[b]ut the Army’s willingness to acknowledge the critical role families play in its mission has moved from studied neglect, through ambivalent and selective inclusion of families in the military community, to a sense that the development of a family philosophy is an institutional imperative.” This new “family philosophy” yielded immediate, concrete results, spurring a massive expansion of the social welfare benefits allocated to army families, including the inauguration of the Army Family Action Plan (AFAP), a still-running initiative that, in its first decade of operation, generated approximately 200 new employment, childcare, housing, counseling, acclimation, and orientation programs. To better understand this outlay of funds and personnel—especially remarkable because, at this exact moment in the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration and a Republican-majority Congress were busy slashing government assistance for the broader civilian public—we must attend to the trajectory laid out by Wickham in The Army Family. And we must highlight the always-evolving, always-essential roles that army wives, in particular, have played in army policy and practice since the American Revolution, not only as primary recipients of key social welfare provisions, but also as volunteers, as support staff, as foreign policy actors, and as grassroots activists and reformers. This article will narrate a short history of U.S. Army wives, illuminating the gendered ideals underlying U.S. foreign relations, the status of the army as a social welfare institution, and the place of the military in American society.
From the Revolutionary War to World War II
Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, army wives worked alongside their enlisted husbands. Termed “campfollowers,” they journeyed from battlefield to battlefield and performed a variety of critical tasks, “includ[ing] cooking, sewing, knitting, assembling food baskets, providing forage for horses, cleaning barracks, providing medic services, supervising field hospitals, and even loading and firing muskets.” Even as they remained outside the official employ of the military, army wives earned partial rations for their labor—often a financial necessity, since enlisted soldiers’ wages were so meager that they could not support a family. In the early nineteenth century, the army began to provide “cash payments” to the wives and children of fallen officers, but that courtesy was not extended to ordinary soldiers. In fact, it was expressly to avoid that burden of financial support that the army deliberately de-incentivized marriage, as in 1847, when Congress passed legislation that rendered married men ineligible to enlist. As campfollowers, however, army wives could continue to live near their husbands while collecting money that they desperately needed to feed and clothe their children.
In the decades following the Civil War, the army continued to enact procedures designed to curb marriage, including “denying the right to separate housing (1883) and free family transportation (1887), and explicitly discouraging the reenlistment of married soldiers (1901).” During World War I (1917-1918), married draft registrants could receive deferrals from military service on account of their marital status—and army wives accustomed to campfollowing were not allowed to follow their husbands to their overseas deployments. Beginning in 1925, enlistees in the peacetime army were permitted to marry, but only with the written permission of their superior officer. Until World War II, one adage prevailed above all else: “If the Army wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one.”
World War II and the Cold War
Following the outbreak of World War II, however, the army rapidly adopted a new attitude. The threat posed by Hitler and the Axis powers was far too great for married men to be able to continue receiving deferments. But for the army to enlist and retain these heads of households, it needed to dramatically increase its provision of social welfare benefits. 1942 marked a significant turning point in this respect. In February of that year, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson instituted Army Emergency Relief (AER), a formal, private organization that would provide support to military families suffering from financial or emotional distress. Several months later, in June, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Dependents Allowances Act, which recalibrated enlistees’ salaries according to their number of dependents, adding, for example, “$40, if such enlisted man has a wife and one child, and an additional $10 for each additional child. Fighting fascism in a war of unprecedented scale, the army asked more and more of its soldiers—but repaid them in turn with policies representing a new credo: “The Army Takes Care of its Own.”
During the immediate postwar period, the army’s investment in its dependent families only intensified. At least in part, this was a function of numbers: as the army continued to deploy enlistees to military bases across Europe and Asia, their growing families came with them; by 1960, “over 600,000 armed forces personnel and 462,000 members of military families” lived overseas, often relying upon the army as their sole means of support. Army leaders were also guided by the new political forces of the early Cold War, which
positioned the traditional nuclear family at the heart of American freedom and democracy. In this cultural climate, military officials no longer discouraged marriage. On the contrary, they began to see army wives as vital assets who could improve “the military readiness of men” and positively sway “decisions of husbands to reenlist or make careers in the armed forces”—particularly critical tasks given that, almost without fail, civilian careers offered higher wages and a significantly lower risk of dying on the job.
Army wives were not only asked to boost reenlistment, however. In the 1950s and ’60s, they were also called upon to help realize concrete Cold War geopolitical objectives. Particularly in occupied Germany and Japan, army families became “unofficial ambassadors” for the United States and for American capitalism. According to historian Donna Alvah, whereas the army itself projected “hard power” through “overseas bases, uniformed personnel, and weapons,” army wives helped project “soft power” through “demonstrations of American sensitivity toward and cooperation with the residents of countries that housed U.S. bases.” Military officials anticipated that army wives’ ostensibly natural femininity, sensitivity, and generosity would enable them to challenge negative stereotypes about Americans, showcase Americans’ superior standard of living, and model their “more egalitarian” marriages. In this way, Alvah argues, army wives and army families became “cultural and ideological weapons against the spread of communism.”
Etiquette Guides and New Expectations, 1950s-1960s
If army wives achieved new recognition as Cold Warriors, though, their duties remained circumscribed by gendered expectations of their conduct and attitude as wives and mothers. In fact, the demands placed upon them only became more exacting as their stature within the army grew. Etiquette guides for military wives, for example, proliferated in the postwar period. The most widely circulated, Nancy Shea’s The Army Wife, was printed six times between 1941 and 1966. In each new edition, Shea instructed army wives “that homemaking was a full-time job, that caring for children was the job for which each wife was designed, and that the wife should not work outside the home if this would interfere with her home responsibilities.” Officers’ wives, in particular, were exhorted to join clubs with other officers’ wives and host frequent, formal and informal social functions such as coffee, tea, and brunch, each with its own specific dress code, invitation style, and seating arrangement. Perhaps most important, they were enjoined to raise children befitting an officer, who would “stand when adults enter the room” and “say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir’, to their fathers, and other men.”
Army wives were also encouraged to support their husbands—and the army—more directly. By creating a sense of community and boosting morale, military officials claimed, wives would themselves “contribute to military goals” and aid “in national defense and assistance to allies.” Army leaders employed the same language for soldiers and for their dependents: just like her husband, an army wife should “be a ‘good soldier’ for the army” and “uphold the virtues of duty, honor, and country.” In fact, her failure to do so might endanger her husband’s prospects for advancement. As the oft-repeated maxim proclaimed, “an officer’s success depends upon his ability, his conduct and his wife,” including her unconditional support of his career and her enthusiastic devotion to army life. Indeed, as magazines like Mrs. NCO, Mrs. Lieutenant, and Mrs. Field Grade instructed army wives, “‘When a man enters the service, the government has gained not one, but two—the man and his wife.’” In this period, the army wife became one half of a “two-person career.”
In the 1960s, the army’s dependence on the quasi-official “two-person career” only increased, as married enlistees grew to outnumber their unmarried counterparts, and soldiers’ wives and children grew to outnumber the soldiers themselves. Consequently, in 1965, the U.S. military created its first, internal “umbrella organization for family support”—Army Community Service (ACS), which grew to encompass “anti-domestic violence and child abuse programs, child care programs, financial counseling and literacy programs, and programs for disabled children and other family members.” The army hired few staff members to oversee these new programs, however; instead, ACS explicitly relied upon army wives’ voluntary labor. Though they were officially classified as “dependents,” army wives were in fact directly, primarily responsible for the social programs that the army provided to dependents. The assumptions underlying the “two-person career” system dictated that army wives maintain their own social support.
ACS still operates today. Check out its “Benefit Fact Sheet” here.
The All-Volunteer Force, 1970s-1980s
In July 1973, three months after the United States withdrew its forces from Vietnam, Congress ended the draft. Throughout the subsequent decade, the new all-volunteer force, struggling to sustain enlistment in the wake of an unprecedentedly unpopular war, further expanded welfare benefits army families in an effort to retain more and higher-quality soldiers. It was also in this period, however, that cracks in the “two-person career” began to appear. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, army wives launched a grassroots movement, insisting that the military better provide for their families—and, crucially, without mandating their unpaid labor. Indeed, at the first Army Family Symposium, held in 1980, army wives promoted two basic principles: one, that they “constituted neither passive nor dependent extensions of their husbands or the army itself”; and two, that “the decades-old Nancy Shea ‘two-for-one’ model of the army wife” was outmoded and unsustainable. Instead, army wives sought recognition for and acceptance of their own outside employment, even as such jobs would necessarily reduce the amount of time they could devote to volunteer work on the army’s behalf.
By and large, army leaders were receptive to the movement’s demands, as evidenced by Army Chief of Staff Wickham’s The Army Family white paper. Wickham averred that “the Army recruits individuals but retains families,” and acknowledged the army’s “moral and ethical obligations to those who serve and their families.” Republicans in Congress and in the Reagan administration, too, quickly came on board. In fact, just as conservative politicians trumpeted a new GI Bill, exclusively for military veterans, in order to justify stripping funding from programs like Pell Grants and Guaranteed Student Loans that helped “higher education programs for civilian youth” like Pell Grants, they championed welfare solely for military families, as a critical component of their effort to reduce government assistance for families who had not served their country. In effect, army wives renegotiated their relationship with the U.S. Army—challenging “the assumption that wives had to work solely for the good of the army” and stipulating the “reverse…that the army work for the good of army wives and families”—just as army programs grew increasingly distant from the policies governing broader civilian society.
Check out these additional resources
- The official Women in the Army website, including detailed timelines and historical summaries
- Women’s History Month at the Department of Defense
- United States Army Women’s Museum, the “only museum in the world dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of the contributions of women to the Army,” online and in Fort Lee, Virginia
- S. Army Heritage and Education Center, online and in Carlisle, Pennsylvania
- And for a fictional, contemporary take on these issues, don’t miss the six-season Lifetime drama Army Wives, now streaming on Netflix