Feminism, Evangelicalism, and Social Welfare in Ronald Reagan’s Military: Part II of Jennifer Mittelstadt and The Rise of the Military Welfare State

Ronald Reagan, Official White House photo, 1981, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Ronald Reagan, Official White House photo, 1981, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Ronald Reagan, Official White House photo, 1981, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[Editor’s note: This is part II of ToM’s three part series on the AVF via Jennifer Mittelstadt’s recent work The Rise of the Military Welfare State. Part I can be read here.]

Even as governor of California, Ronald Reagan had celebrated military service. He held up the Vietnam War as “a noble cause,” wrote Edmund Morris in his biography of the president, “every returning serviceman, dead, alive, or drug addicted, a hero. He held prayer breakfasts for them, and celebratory receptions for as many as he could crowd around his hearth.”[1] Moreover, like Milton Friedman and others, he questioned the validity of the draft. “Why can’t we evolve a program of voluntary service? I don’t want the uniform to become a symbol of servitude,” he would tell listeners.[2]

As noted at the outset, Reagan threw his political weight and federal budget behind the all volunteer force. “Reagan revived militarization by deploying the military as the symbol of his politics; the military represented the United States and its soldiers its ideal citizens,” notes Mittelstadt. “Military spending under Reagan accelerated markedly, facilitating huge corporate mergers of defense contractors seeking higher profits.”[3]

In regard to Reagan’s role in reasserting the military’s role in American life, Mittelstadt builds on arguments made by Michael Sherry in his influential 1995 work, In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s. Though both authors rely on a War and Society approach to the subject, Sherry provides a more general overview of militarization in American history. In contrast, Mittelstad focuses more precisely on the AVF and the ways in which external social and political movements shaped the Army’s internal structure. For example, she describes two other processes at the heart of the 1980s army: the rise of a distinctly Christian influence in its social programs and the role of wives as advocates on the part of military families. If the 1970s demonstrates the intersection of austerity and a transformed military, the 1980s illustrates the military’s increasingly tight relationship with the New Right evangelical movement but also the influence of second wave feminism, no matter how muddled or disputed in meaning, on the spouses of male service personnel. Wives would become a potent political force internally even if many army officials viewed their efforts ambivalently.

At the same time that the Reagan administration helped to create a new G.I. Bill (having been allowed to expire in 1976), the wives of officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) drew upon “the atmosphere, if not the movement, of second wave feminism,” to demand better benefits for families. Reagan’s militarization might have created conditions ripe for such developments but wives drew upon their identities in society, the workplace, and home to carve a more substantial place in shaping army policies. Greater assistance in navigating the difficulties of military family life and a non-subordinate position in the scheme of the army hierarchy became central demands.[4] Still, class divisions within the army that separated officers’ wives from those of lower level enlisted personnel did exist. Officers’ wives were far more likely to embrace the feminism popular among civilian women than their lower ranked counterparts, who tended to support ideas related to women’s more traditional roles. In the end, no one version of feminism encapsulated the views of all female military spouses, but many endorsed at least a very limited feminist ideal that advocated for equal pay for equal work. [5]

In 1975, approximately 920,000 women were attached to the military through their husbands. In comparison to their civilian counterparts, they tended to be younger, and more than ¾ were under 30 years of age. Even if the army struggled to recruit men who had completed high school in this period, the same could not be said of wives. Most wives had a diploma and 40 percent of officer’s wives had attained college degrees.[6]

That wives might become an effective political force within the military should not be a surprise. Consider the limits placed on their professional fortunes that result from attachment to a military life. At Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, notes Catherine Lutz in her 2001 work Homefront: A Military City in the American Twentieth Century, the demands of a mobile armed services negated the skills and careers of wives by creating a “large transient reserve labor force of soldier’s spouses.” Though perhaps more true of officer’s wives, many women took jobs for which they were and are vastly overqualified: “The woman who sells towels at one Fayetteville department store was once an assistant city planner in a major city, while the person behind the cosmetics counter there has an MBA.”[7] In other words, the spouses of service personnel function as a reservoir of talent and advocacy when tapped, especially in the context of their own blunted professional lives.

Several scholars have explored the ways in which the military has long depended on the unpaid labor of wives. Donna Alvah documented not only ways in which the military depended on the physical and organizational labor of wives abroad during the Cold War in places like Europe and Asia, but also their “soft power.” According to Alvah, officials realized that interpersonal contacts between servicemen, dependents, and wives with Germans and Japanese provided another means of inculcating American ideals. “[B]y showing sensitivity toward and an understanding of local peoples, military personnel were drawing upon a feminine dimension of power in interpersonal international relations,” she writes.[8] The larger point here is that well before and well after the AVF, the military drew upon wives for all kinds of labor along with a certain deft political acumen, both symbolically and practically.

For instance, the Army Community Service, created in the mid-1960s, depended heavily on the volunteerism of wives such that by 1979, its 5,667 volunteers donated 791,523 hours of service to its 162 related projects. Within four years both categories increased to 7,822 and 1,827,451 respectively.[9] They worked in anti-domestic violence and child abuse programs, childcare facilities, financial counseling operations, literacy projects, and other aspects of the army’s burgeoning social welfare systems.[10] Their numbers dwarfed the number of professionals hired to administer and run the same social welfare programs.

Carolyn Becraft via wikipedia
Carolyn Becraft via wikipedia

Under the leadership of Carolyn Becraft, who joined the influential Army Officers’ Wives’ Club of the Greater Washington Area (AOWCGWA) in 1980 and played a key role in bringing the first and extremely influential Army Family Symposium into existence in the same year, wives redefined their relationship to the Army and forced it to create greater numbers of programs to meet the needs of families. Wives would no longer be “passive nor dependent extensions of their husbands or the army itself,” notes Mittelstadt.[11]

The work of Becraft and other wives would spur “the largest growth in the army’s history of social programs for soldiers, their wives and families.” Becraft herself eventually worked in the Pentagon, focusing on family issues from 1993 to 2001; she spent her final three years there as assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs.[12] Despite these obvious achievements, over time the army resisted and tried to limit the power of wives. Many critics argued the military’s new family programs and supports threatened to “feminize” service by making the armed services a bastion of “social welfare provision.”[13] These concerns would resurface in the 1990s following the first Gulf War.

Gen. John A. Wickham, USA
Gen. John A. Wickham, USA

If some form of feminism encouraged wives to push for changes in army policies, evangelical Christianity also exerted an influence and in ways embedded messages within the army’s social programs that one could argue undercut the agency of wives. Though Army Chief of Staff General John Wickham Jr. in many ways embraced aspects of this new family orientation during the 1980s, he and the institution did so through the framework of conservative evangelical Christianity. The new family programs featured “Christian right models of family life that resuscitated conservative ‘traditional’ gender roles for women,” asserts Mittelstadt.[14]

To be fair, evangelical Christianity never really affected the distribution of basic benefits such as childcare or housing. In addition, conservative Christians dating back to the 1960s had established small but influential footholds in the army. However, leaders like James C. Dobson and others created connections between the burgeoning Christian right and the military’s expanding welfare system during the 1980s. “Decades before President George W. Bush pressed faith based social welfare programs, Reagan and the Christian right stamped them onto the growing military welfare state,” argues Mittelstadt.[15] The president’s own cabinet featured a number of prominent evangelicals, including Secretary of Interior James Watt, Attorney General Ed Meese, and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.[16] Their views sometimes pervaded implementation of policies. For example, Watt’s belief in the coming rapture proved so salient that he once told a House Committee that conservation would be a failed policy since “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord comes.”[17]

Under Wickham, the Army purchased videos to be used in its family programs produced by Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the most notable being Where’s Dad?, which emphasized the centrality of a father’s leadership in the functioning of family life. Greater numbers of chaplains within the service, particularly those given leadership positions in family life programs, hailed from “conservative, nonliturgical, charismatic, even fundamentalist” religious backgrounds rather than more mainstream Protestant or Catholic devotions.[18]

Even if many military families struggled to live up to familial ideals embodied by conservative Christianity, evangelicals kept the faith. Admitting one sinned was as important as sin itself. General Wickham never shied away from some of the tougher realities related to military family lifestyles, thereby acknowledging “serious problems of divorce, desertion, or abuse among army families.” Rather the army established an ideal and a path for reaching that ideal. “That all or even most families did not meet them did not diminish the virtue of the army carrying the banner for a conservative Christian ideal,” writes Mittelstadt.[19]

In some cases officers openly touted their own family values as superior when compared to civilians. Likewise, evangelicals celebrated the army as an “enclave of virtue,” and President Reagan expanded aid to military families in the form of various social programs while cutting it to their civilian counterparts. Programs that would have been unacceptable to conservatives in the civilian world found great support from when applied to the military. “If aimed at nonmilitary single parents or nontraditional families, government programs were cast as downright dangerous,” notes Mittelstadt. “In contrast, families connected to the virtuous U.S. Army could be trusted with government support.” [20]

It’s worth noting as well, that some of Reagan’s attempts to reduce funding to those aspects of government the New Right viewed as wasteful occasionally negatively affected military families. For example, in cities and towns with military installations, the federal government provides what is referred to as impact aid. Since military properties are federally owned, they remain tax exempt. Large installations with significant numbers of service personnel and military households often live off base in local communities attending local schools and using other infrastructure. Without local property taxes, schools would have difficulty delivering education and resources to civilian and military attached students alike, therefore, the federal government through the Department of Education (DOE) provides impact aid to localities to make up for lost tax revenue.   Conservatives however, had long bemoaned the DOE and Reagan sought to curb its influence by reducing its funding. Between 1980 and 1982, the Reagan administration slashed impact aid expenditures, which in return resulted in millions of dollars in lost funding to school systems in places like Norfolk and Virginia Beach. From 1981 to 1982, the former lost over $2 million and the latter $4 million in school funding.[21]

“The cuts coincided with other reductions in Title I education spending, exacerbating local school issues and sparking a debate about taxation and military benefits that led some Virginia Beach residents to accuse military families of ‘free loading,’” notes one historian.[22] Across Virginia, localities including Virginia Beach sought to charge tuition from military households for attending local schools. While municipalities argued that they had never expected families to pay but rather the federal government, the controversy raised real questions about the place of military households in civilian communities. In summary, on the whole Reagan did much to aid military families, but some of the administration’s larger agenda aimed primarily at reducing federal spending and the perception of dependency among civilians did boomerang on military households as well.

During the 1970s, the transformation of the army collided with the political realities of austerity and economic retrenchment resulting in a failed unionization effort that nonetheless helped to secure greater benefits for service personnel. In contrast, the 1980s military intersected with broader societal trends, even if countervailing ones. Feminism and evangelical Christianity made for odd and perhaps unwitting bedfellows that while possibly negating each other still expanded the army’s social welfare net. However, in this case as in the example of the 1984 Montgomery G.I. Bill discussed in Part I, the enactment of the military social welfare state coincided with and in moments contributed to the contraction of similar benefits for civilians. In the 1990s, as will be demonstrated in Part III, even the army would have to embrace the increasingly deregulated, free-market, declining social welfare state of the civilian world.

[1] Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 383.

[2] H.W. Brand, Reagan: The Life, (New York: Doubleday, 2015), 154.

[3] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 9.

[4] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 121-22.

[5] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 132.

[6] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 122.

[7] Catherine Lutz, Homefront: A Military City in the American Twentieth Century, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 191.

[8] Donna Alvah, Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War: 1946-1965, (New York: NYU Press, 2007), 51.

[9] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 126-127.

[10] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 128.

[11] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 136-137.

[12] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 145.

[13] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 146.

[14] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 146.

[15] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 149.

[16] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 167-8.

[17] H.W. Brand, Reagan: The Life, (New York: Doubleday, 2015), 451.

[18] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 160.

[19] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 166.

[20] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 166-167.

[21] Ryan Reft, “The Metropolitan Military: Homeowner Resistance to Military Family Housing in Southern California, 1979 – 1990, Journal of Urban History, DOI: 10.1177/0096144215590582, 13; http://juh.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/06/17/0096144215590582.full.pdf?ijkey=2Pp0LF9YLH2Wghk&keytype=finite; see also Ryan Reft, “The Metropolitan Military: Navy Families and Housing in the American Sunbelt”, (PhD Diss, University California San Diego, 2014),


[22] Reft, “The Metropolitan Military”, 13.