Historical Milspouse Stereotypes: Enlisted vs. Officer Spouse Rankings

Stereotypes…they’re all around us and have been there since the dawn of time.

There are stereotypes that reference every aspect of a human’s entire existence…race, gender, sexual orientation, class status…you name it, there’s a stereotype attached to it, including military spouses. 

I’m sure by now you’ve heard of at least one stereotype about mil-spouses, if not a slew of them. Terms like ‘tag-chaser’ or ‘dependa’ have run rampant in our niche’ subculture for a long time…so how many times have you caught yourself saying, “Well I’m not THAT spouse”? WTH? Who set the bar on THAT one? But the REAL question begging to be asked is:

“Where do these Military Spouse Stereotypes come from?”

After all, they had to come from somewhere, right? I recently read an article from Psychology Today titled “Where Bias Begins: The Truth about Stereotypes”, where a prominent NYU Professor states,

it’s clear that the way to get rid of stereotypes is by the roots, by where they come from in the first place.”

So we’re doing just THAT. Through extensive research, we’ve delved into the history of military spouses to figure out exactly where some of these stereotypes may have come from in order hopefully to bust some of these myths for our modern-day military spouses.

Each month, we’re going to explore a well-known or obscure military spouse stereotype, get to the root of it, and shine some light on the dark side of our community’s traditions and culture.

First up on the list:

Officer Spouse vs Enlisted Spouse

While this particular stereotype is quickly falling to the wayside (thank GOD!), there are still some strong feelings and strong biases regarding the rift between officer and enlisted spouses. Depending on who you’re speaking to, the stereotypes range from ‘the snooty officer spouse’ to ‘the uneducated enlisted spouse’. We all know those aren’t true at their core, so you might be thinking “yea, I’ve heard about that…but what’s the difference besides the fact that officers get a bigger paycheck than enlisted?” Well, it all started back in the Revolutionary War and solidified itself within the rank and file of the Continental Army.

The military back then had no real cultural tradition and the only comparable organization was their rival, Great Britain. That’s when the ‘officer class began mimicking the aristocratic ways of their British counterparts to socially separate themselves from the enlisted or serving class (insert eye-roll here), and their spouses followed suit. The rank of the service member not only directly affected how the spouse was perceived, but also dictated where they lived and who their friends were. Back then, spouses (mostly wives) followed their husband’s out into the field and actually lived with them throughout the war…like legit, WHERE the war was going down! These women, officer and enlisted wives, were known as “Camp Followers”.

One historian sums up the relationship between the early officer and enlisted wives when she notes,

Although social contact between officer and enlisted wives was severely limited, it had become the custom of the service that a soldier’s wife could always come to the commander’s wife for counsel and advice on problems. It was also the custom that the officer’s wife would do her utmost to aid the soldier’s wife. Still, each wife knew and maintained her position in the hierarchy“.

I know what you’re thinking…”No she DIDN’T!” But back then, this type of hierarchy was expected and well known; as were the certain ‘perks’ that the officer spouses may have had compared to their enlisted counterparts.

The military didn’t technically ‘forbid’ military wives to follow their service members, but they certainly didn’t advocate it-(which is probably where the phrase ‘if the army wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one’ came from). At one point back in 1777, General George Washington himself began to get a bit ‘concerned’ about all of these wives hanging around…especially the ones who were pregnant or had children. He ended up ordering his officers at Valley Forge not to allow any additional wives in the ranks and to try and get rid of some of the ones who were there.

Well, ONE officer’s wife in particular, Mrs. Biddle (wife of Col Clement Biddle), decided she would subtly use her Jedi mind-tricks to protest this crazy directive that General Washington ordered. She decided to make dinner for the General and his staff one evening. When everyone was finished she stood up and mentioned that she heard about this new order that he had passed down. She then smiled and said that she was “certain that it didn’t apply” to her. Once General Washington realized he’d just been totally snowed, he said “Certainly not.

Even though there wasn’t a formally written rule book or any policies that established a legit class system, there were barriers and struggles on both ends of the officer/enlisted spouse spectrum. Sure, those barriers were invisible but the social separation that has been passed down from generation to generation since the days of Valley Forge, have ultimately given way to the stereotypical rift between enlisted and officer spouses that is being challenged and changed by BOTH sides today.

It would appear that, as it is today, when the proverbial ‘S*** hit the fan’, both officer and enlisted spouses closed ranks (pardon the pun) when they realized they were all in the same boat.

To close out this first edition of the Historical MilSpouse, we’ll leave you all with a quote from the wife of a Continental Army officer. We believe it rings just as true today as the day it was written:

“There was the solitude of . . . mutual existence — just a handful of people, so to speak, afloat upon an uncharted sea of desolation . . . and the daily perils they faced together.”

What stereotypes would you like to see us cover next month?

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