Two days ago the Government’s Defence in the Media blog responded to the recent Barclays report, which explores the career barriers faced by military spouses as a result of their partner’s service (you can read their blog post here). The research by Barclays suggests that 1 in 5 military spouses surveyed felt that they face discrimination when applying for jobs, while a third claimed that they either had to reduce their hours or leave their job entirely as a result of their partner’s service.
Families, and in particular spouses, of military personnel are integral to the functioning of the Armed Forces (Cynthia Enloe’s book Does Khaki Become You is great for an overview on this). Military partners engage in countless forms of unpaid labour in service of the military and its ideals, ranging from domestic duties and solo childcare during deployment, to fundraising and ‘flying the flag’ for military charities that fill the gap in the provision of support for veterans and their families. The partners of servicemen and women even provide a level of emotional support and stability for their spouses that they usually do not get elsewhere, both of which are crucial to the very survival of the Armed Forces (see Denise Horn’s chapter on military support networks in Gender, War and Militarism: Feminist Perspectives). It is no wonder that Segal describes the military family as the intersection of two “greedy institutions”, both of whom demand commitment, loyalty, time and energy.
The findings of the Barclays report are troubling, but unsurprising. Over the course of my research with the Military Wives Choir in Plymouth, I heard a number of similar stories from women who had left their jobs, moved across the country or even across the world as a result of their partner’s military service (see Alex Hyde’s chapter in The Palgrave International Handbook of Gender and the Military for further reading on the mobilities of army wives). What groups like the Military Wives Choir offered these women was an opportunity to meet people who understand the lives they live, make friends, and have time for themselves. More than that though, as I discovered, the choir was often empowering its members to go back into education, start businesses and change career direction. One research participant said;
It has been very empowering, a lot of the girls have started to do things like they’ve started courses, so like for me I’ve wanted to train to be a counsellor for a while and going to the choir and doing the gigs and having the support and stuff I’ve finished my course. Other girls have started up businesses, other girls have changed jobs or gone for jobs that they’ve always wanted to go for, and I think it’s been really empowering for everybody to have this voice, that’s a big thing that the choir has given us. It’s given us this voice together but also individually, so like “OK I want to go and change my job so I’m going to change my job”.
We are beginning to see more support for the partners of servicemen and women when it comes to employment. The Armed Forces Covenant for example, alongside organisations like X-Forces, offer valuable support to veterans and military spouses in the development of their careers and business enterprises. In their response to the Barclay’s report, an MoD spokesperson said;
Service families are a vital part of the Armed Forces community and we encourage companies to support the careers of military partners through the Armed Forces Covenant. We have announced a new fund to step up access to vocational training and career development for military partners, and we’ve recently launched a review into the support for service families, to ensure they are not disadvantaged by their loved ones’ service.
But, it seems to me that groups like the Military Wives Choir also have an important role to play. What these kinds of organisations do, that more formal support networks perhaps cannot, is offer a safe and emotionally supportive space for self-reflection and empowerment. After all, it is undeniable that a significant challenge facing female military spouses in particular is that the gender roles in military families, which mark wives as homemakers and husbands as breadwinners, remain pervasive. Groups like the Military Wives Choir arguably offer a means of helping these women imagine their lives, and the roles that they play in them, differently. Seeing greater value attributed to these kinds of groups might therefore represent a positive step forward in reducing the disadvantage faced by military partners in the workplace.
You can read more about the findings from my research with the Military Wives Choir in a previous blog post, available here.
Published work from this research is forthcoming!