Publication About "Invisible" Women Achieves High Visibility

The title of a recent report by RAND analyst Meg Harrell belies the high level of visibility that the report is currently experiencing. Harrell's groundbreaking publication, Invisible Women: Junior Enlisted Army Wives, tells the story - three stories, actually - of what it is like to be the wife of a junior enlisted soldier in today's army. Invisible Women has garnered favorable reviews from The ArmyTimes, the National Military Family Association, the United Armed Forces Association's publication The Communicator, the Midwest Book Review, and informational sites such as Jill McCaffrey, wife of General Barry McCaffrey, commented that, "These stories will be important in assisting the Army in finding the way to keep them on active duty, along with their Army brothers and sisters...(the book is) a 'must read' for all commanders and NCOs and their spouses." In early May, Harrell addressed spouses of two-star generals at a conference at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and on June 6th, she briefed staff from the offices of the California congressional delegation sponsored by Congressman David Dreier, recently elected chairman of the California Republican delegation, and Congressman Sam Farr, Chairman of the California Democratic delegation, about the book.

Invisible Women focuses on individual stories rather than quantitative data and thus differs from the usual RAND report, perhaps because it wasn't produced from a RAND research project. These stories were excerpted from Harrell's dissertation research, which involved taped and transcribed interviews with over 100 Army spouses and extensive discussions and time spent with Army personnel and civilians who work in the Army community. Although told by individuals and highly personal, the stories in Invisible Women extend beyond the three women who tell them and, as the author explains, capture the experiences of many other junior enlisted spouses that she interviewed during the course of her research.

The author describes a pervasive stereotype of the junior enlisted spouse as being lower class, and thus uneducated, less intelligent, and reproductively and financially out of control. Harrell selected the three interviews in the book for both their similarities and dissimilarities to the common stereotype. Two of the three women interviewed reported that their families suffered significant financial problems. All three couples have acquired or currently receive financial assistance. None of the women completed college directly out of high school. The author argues that pigeonholing these women into the conventional stereotype, however, neglects the systemic contributions to their situation. None of these women engage in extravagant indulgences. All three are committed to their marriages and their husbands' careers. All of the women work or have worked to contribute to the upkeep of the households.

As Harrell says in the book, "Understanding their situations provides a deeper understanding of the inadequacy of the stereotype to explain the problems military families face." Harrell found that financial difficulty is the biggest hardship with which most enlisted families struggle. Army posts are often located in depressed areas where spouses have difficulty finding employment. The irregular schedules of soldiers make it harder for spouses to find work. While soldiers are deployed, spouses who have children find it exceptionally difficult to work and care for families.

Getting past traditional stereotypes also allows the military to consider the policy implications of these problems. Pay increases are not necessarily the best way to solve the problems of enlisted families. The author states that military leadership and policymakers should be aware that the experiences of military spouses differ considerably by rank and should strive to consider the views of junior personnel when establishing policies. While the author offers potential solutions, such as steady and dependable separate rations to help families avoid crisis while the solider is deployed, and eliminating allotment payment agreements that encourage debt, she acknowledges that determining the most appropriate role for the military in addressing issues like those raised in the book is difficult. In any case, as the attention Invisible Women has received shows, the report is opening a dialogue about and contributing to an understanding of the problems of junior personnel and their families, which was the author's original intention.