“The Strength behind the Uniform”: Acknowledging the Contributions of Military Families or Co-Opting Women’s Labour?


  • Leigh Spanner Centre for Social Innovation and Community Engagement in Military Affairs (SICEMA), Mount Saint Vincent University


Canadian Armed Forces, gender, gendered division of labour, heteropartriarchy, military, military families, military spouses


Since 2008, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has called the military family “the strength behind the uniform.” The contributions and sacrifices of military families, and in particular spouses, are now formally recognized as essential to operational effectiveness, such as the ability to deploy troops quickly and easily. This represents a departure from previous eras, which took for granted the “naturalness” of a gendered division of labour in military households in support of organizational goals. Making visible and valuing this work parallels recent efforts by the CAF to improve the wellbeing of its people and advance gender equality in the organization and on operations. This article considers the gendered labour and power implications of formally recognizing the contributions of military families and spouses to the CAF. What does recognizing the military family as “the strength behind the uniform” mean for women and the gendered labour relations in military families? By drawing on analyses of policies, programs, and institutional rhetoric, alongside interviews by military family members, the article argues that in formally recognizing the family’s contribution to operational effectiveness, the CAF is co-opting the labour and loyalty of women spouses in military families. The institutional emphasis on “taking care of its people” obscures the ways in which the service required of military families is gendered and relies on women being constrained by traditional gender norms. These findings have implications for the genuine wellbeing of military families and for assessing feminist progress, or lack thereof, within the CAF institution.


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Author Biography

Leigh Spanner, Centre for Social Innovation and Community Engagement in Military Affairs (SICEMA), Mount Saint Vincent University

Leigh Spanner is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Social Innovation and Community Engagement in Military Affairs (SICEMA) at Mount Saint Vincent University. At SICEMA, she is undertaking research funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant, which explores the gendered dynamics of the transition from military to civilian life in Canada. Her work examines gender norms and power relations in state militaries and Canadian defence and security policy, with a particular focus on how intimate lives and households are integrated into, and shaped by, national security objectives. Leigh received her PhD in Political Science from the University of Alberta in 2019. Her research has been published in International Journal: Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis and Critical Military Studies.






Special Issue: Gender and the Canadian Armed Forces