Policing Sex and Marriage in the American Military: The Court-Martial and the Construction of Gender and Sexual Deviance, 1950-2000

Policing Sex and Marriage in the American Military: The Court-Martial and the Construction of Gender and Sexual Deviance, 1950-2000

by Kellie Wilson-Buford
Policing Sex and Marriage in the American Military: The Court-Martial and the Construction of Gender and Sexual Deviance, 1950-2000

Policing Sex and Marriage in the American Military: The Court-Martial and the Construction of Gender and Sexual Deviance, 1950-2000

by Kellie Wilson-Buford


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The American military’s public international strategy of Communist containment, systematic weapons build-ups, and military occupations across the globe depended heavily on its internal and often less visible strategy of controlling the lives and intimate relationships of its members. From 1950 to 2000, the military justice system, under the newly instituted Uniform Code of Military Justice, waged a legal assault against all forms of sexual deviance that supposedly threatened the moral fiber of the military community and the nation. Prosecution rates for crimes of sexual deviance more than quintupled in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Drawing on hundreds of court-martial transcripts published by the Judge Advocate General of the Armed Forces, Policing Sex and Marriage in the American Military explores the untold story of how the American military justice system policed the marital and sexual relationships of the service community in an effort to normalize heterosexual, monogamous marriage as the linchpin of the military’s social order. Almost wholly overlooked by military, social, and legal historians, these court transcripts and the stories they tell illustrate how the courts’ construction and criminalization of sexual deviance during the second half of the twentieth century was part of the military’s ongoing articulation of gender ideology. 

Policing Sex and Marriage in the American Military provides an unparalleled window into the historic criminalization of what were considered sexually deviant and violent acts committed by U.S. military personnel around the world from 1950 to 2000.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496208705
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2018
Series: Studies in War, Society, and the Military
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 354
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Kellie Wilson-Buford is an assistant professor of history at Arkansas State University.

Read an Excerpt


Engendering Military Marriages

In 1959 U.S. Army sergeant H. Woolridge was court-martialed for forging his wife's signature on four of her allotment checks without her permission. W. Woolridge, upon marrying the defendant in 1942, received a monthly class Q allotment from the army for basic necessities of life including food, clothes, and maintenance of the family home. When her husband transferred to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, W. refused to accompany him for undisclosed reasons, though the trial transcript mentions that Sergeant Woolridge likely used the money to "sustain an extramarital relationship." W. chose to stay in St. Louis instead, where she had established a career. Following the precedents established in both civil and military courts protecting the wife as an injured party when a husband's forgery was involved, the original U.S. Army Board of Review (ABR) convicted Woolridge of forgery in violation of Article 123 on the grounds that the allotment checks were strictly his wife's property and that she suffered injury to her personal rights when he cashed them. Dissatisfied with the outcome, Woolridge appealed his case to the Court of Military Appeals on the grounds that the law officer committed prejudicial error by violating his right to the husband-wife privilege, or the long-standing common law practice of preventing one spouse from testifying against the other except in cases where the witness-spouse sustained personal injury.

In a stunning reversal of both civil and military precedent, the CMA overturned the decision. It reasoned that "the husband [Woolridge] is still head of the household, and he is entitled to establish a new place for the family domicile. ... As a person having an interest in the check[s], the accused had implied authority to change the check into cash and to use the proceeds for the establishment and maintenance of a home."

In no uncertain terms, the military high court ruled that in cases where wives voluntarily chose not to join their husbands (and thus failed to uphold their obligations as homemakers and helpmates who received financial support from the military), service husbands could legally withhold and endorse their wives' allotment checks without their permission. Not only did this precedent deprive military wives (and, by extension, their children) of critical financial support without regard for the reasons that motivated them not to relocate to new duty stations with their husbands (in the court-martial transcripts of this era, adultery was the most commonly cited motivation for military wives' refusal to move with their husbands), but it also decriminalized forgery in all cases where military wives chose not to domicile with their active duty husbands. More important, the Woolridge case illustrates how court decisions about justice and criminality were inseparable from gendered ideas about what constituted respectable military wives and service husbands.

In the post–World War II era, U.S. political, legal, and social institutions idealized nuclear families as the antidote to political and sexual radicalism. Insecurities abroad motivated many Americans at home to seek stability and happiness through marriage, parenthood, and traditional gender roles. Validated by a political culture that idealized the nuclear family and contained sexual expression within the safe confines of marriage, many Americans conformed to this domestic ideology of containment in further pursuit of the American dream. Conservative politicians played on the anticommunist hysteria to control and contain sexually deviant behavior that undermined the nuclear family and threatened to unravel the nation's moral and social fabric. This domestic ideology provided a buffer against those disruptive political and sexual tendencies, and it served as a response to Americans' concerns about national security beginning in the home.

Ironically, at the same time that many Americans were "homeward bound" in the 1950s, the U.S. military began expanding its presence around the world. Fighting to win the loyalties of democratic allies in the fight to contain communism, American service members arrived in occupied countries not only with guns but also with their families as a sign of the United States' peaceful intentions. Service members and their spouses stationed overseas were not immune to the domestic containment ethos that pervaded the political and cultural discourses of the postwar era. To the contrary, official and unofficial military publications, regulations, and laws echoed the domestic containment ethos by establishing (and enforcing) gender roles for servicemen and their wives to perform while stationed overseas. As "unofficial ambassadors," military officials perceived this gendered performance as a critical component of winning the loyalties of war-torn countries. By showcasing nuclear family values as the moral bedrocks of the U.S. military and the nation it defended, military families sought to demonstrate that U.S. democracy was superior to Soviet communism.

U.S. military wives played a critical role in sustaining this domestic ideology through their adherence to specific gender-encoded habits of thought and action. These traditional gender roles were essential to constructing the image of democratic marriage as the antidote to immorality and as the bulwark of democracy. Embedded within the model of Christian marriage were socially acceptable gender and sexual expectations that ordered military society. The type of family the military endorsed was a specifically heterosexual union between a man and a woman in which the man was the head of household and breadwinner and the woman's role was rooted in the singular desire to please and assist her husband and care for their children. The military's model of heterosexual marriage, which promoted powerful masculinity and dependent femininity, was the sacred medium through which service husbands and their dependent wives transmitted cherished beliefs about morality, responsibility, and social obligation to younger generations of military children.

Service guidebooks targeting military wives idealized heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family by promoting exacting standards of behavior for women in the military community. From the beginning of World War II through the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. armed forces sanctioned the sale of prescriptive literature in their base and post exchanges around the world that instructed American service wives on how to behave so they would be supportive of both their husbands and the wider military community. Popular enough among military wives to warrant multiple editions, guidebooks periodically appeared in the Stars and Stripes (the U.S. military community's main international newspaper both historically and currently) in advertisements that showcased the latest editions. Educating wives on the details of achieving the domestic homemaker and helpmate ideal was essential to the success of military marriages; thus, behavioral guidebooks aimed to incorporate service wives into the military family by controlling and conditioning the affective realm of intimate husband-wife relations. Just as American consumers in the postwar economy gained acceptance in the dominant political culture by purchasing American-made products and embracing the domestic containment ethos, American service wives earned recognition as respected members of the global military community by embracing the quintessential homemaker and helpmate roles espoused in the prescriptive literature.

Regulating the behaviors of service wives was a critical component of the postwar military's attempts to police the private, intimate lives of service members and their families because, military leaders believed, a wife's misconduct could easily threaten troop morale, discipline, and ultimately the armed forces' mission. Wives who rejected these standards (and many did) faced public censure and legal or financial punishment (as in the case of W. Woolridge); thus, they served as infamous examples to the military community of what happened to women whose questionable conduct threatened the moral fiber of their families and communities. The most extreme examples were those military wives who were convicted of murdering their husbands in occupied Germany and Japan between 1948 and 1953. Characterized by domestic violence, extramarital affairs, financial difficulties, drug and alcohol abuse, and loneliness and despair, these cases revealed a darker side of military marriage that wives endured on overseas tours. Two of the five homicide cases ultimately worked their way to the U.S. Supreme Court and successfully challenged the constitutionality of the military courts' jurisdiction over dependent family members outside U.S. territory.

Homemakers and Helpmates: Constructing the Ideal Military Wife

In 1941 Nancy Shea — an experienced military wife and pioneering author of the first guidebook for service wives, The Army Wife: What She Ought to Know about the Customs of the Service and the Management of an Army Household — affirmed to doubtful military wives that they were "an important though silent member of the team." Setting the behavioral standard for service wives during World War II and the Cold War, Shea argued that service wives should be helpmates to their soldier-husbands and fulfill the dual roles of homemakers and career enhancers. Being a successful mobile homemaker meant that wives must be expert housekeepers, financial managers, and mothers. Good homemaking infused the wives' more public role as their husbands' career enhancers. Central to boosting their husbands' careers was the concept of feminine respectability, with the service wives' ladylike appearance, manners, and comportment improving their husbands' public image and morale.

Refraining from gossiping and complaining, participating in social functions and the obligations of wives' clubs, and accepting military protocol without question were also crucial aspects of wives' comportment to ensure their husbands' promotions. On overseas military bases after World War II, service wives took on the added role of unofficial ambassadors, modeling respectable American womanhood to fledgling democratic countries to enhance the appeal of democracy. In an era that witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of women who entered the workforce, service wife guidebooks generated a striking discourse about wives' domestic responsibilities that echoed Victorian era separate sphere ideology.

Fulfilling all these roles meant that service wives had to forgo establishing their own careers, enjoying sexual freedom, pursuing their own interests, and leading settled lives. Yet containing their behavior within the military nuclear family and the home seemed an appropriate way to incorporate new wives into the military community without threatening established gender roles and traditions. Guidebook authors pressured wives to conform to behavioral standards through censure, as Ester Wier illustrates in her comment, "Any cause you give for criticism or censure does both the Army and your husband a real disservice." Encouraging young service wives to seek male validation for all their domestic efforts, the guidebooks offered a cheap way to ensure that soldiers had silent, personalized laundresses, cooks, homemakers, and entertainers who provided sexual pleasure and emotional support while still remaining financially and emotionally dependent on their husbands. Controlling female behavior within the military community through guidebooks that pressured service wives to conform to traditional gender roles mirrored a broader containment ethos in the 1950s that both restricted women to their prewar domestic roles and reinforced heterosexual, monogamous marriage as the foundation of U.S. democracy.

For service wives, conforming to the domestic homemaker ideal had its benefits. Accepting the domestic support role earned wives recognition, respect, and lifetime membership in the official military community. The service wives' membership in the official military community afforded them access to military benefits and a chivalrous society where they (ideally) felt honored, protected, and respected, all of which in turn were born out of their ability to maintain enriching, decorous homes amid a constantly changing environment. Embracing the transient homemaker ideal also gained them access to the underground sisterhood of service wives — "a world-wide fellowship of valiant and courageous women" — through which lifetime friendships and support networks were built. That military wives continue to publish (and that base and post exchanges on military bases around the world continue to sell) behavioral guidebooks illustrates their popularity and significance in maintaining gendered boundaries in the military community.

Despite discouraging women from participating in official military business, guidebooks legitimized the supreme authority of service wives in their households' affairs. Calling for a gender balance based on mutual respect and independence within their appropriate spheres, guidebook authors carved out an autonomous space for service wives in the home by granting them full authority in domestic decisions, including those involving financial affairs. Yet these guidebooks also conveyed contradictory messages: they called for women's independence in the home while still insisting they must seek their husbands' validation of their appearance and behaviors. Such messages exemplified the struggle military wives waged in the postwar era to fit into a culture that theoretically relied on women's subservience to men to sustain militarized masculinity yet required that wives be independent and adaptable enough to maintain the home front while their husbands were away at war. By cloaking their readers' domestic independence within a broader discourse that promoted feminine subservience to men, guidebook authors neutralized the potential threats to the military's gendered social structure, which depended on wives' conformity to traditional gender norms.

Transient Homemakers

In 1942 as American soldiers began traveling abroad to fight for the Allied cause, guidebook authors were pressuring soldiers' wives to study homemaking as though it were a business. Warning service wives that "your home is the way to ensure you keep your husband," Shea discouraged wives from seeking employment in order to retain their marital status. Working outside the home would not only annoy husbands who found a "slapdash sort of housekeeping" unacceptable but also rob service wives of the opportunity to make their homes "passionate reflections of [their] character."

Clella R. Collins, author of Army Woman's Handbook, expanded on Shea's homemaking argument in 1942 by suggesting that wives should take pride in providing a cheerful, supporting home environment for their husbands as the ultimate war contribution. For Collins successful mobile homemaking required owning a homemaking chest with essential items such as chintz curtains, scatter rugs, good linens, personal trinkets, and photographs for adding the "homey touch" in any living situation. In return for good homemaking, wives could enjoy "natural protection" against the vices of the civilian world, where newly liberated women struggled to earn legitimacy and respect in male-dominated workplaces. By accepting the homemaking ideal, wartime wives acquiesced to the military's desire to keep women out of men's public sphere. By the war's end, guidebooks across all of the military branches instructed service wives to "be good helpmates to the men they marry."

Throughout the Cold War, guidebooks echoed the homemaking directives established by World War II authors. In 1951, for instance, Shea instructed all air force wives to give their husbands "congenial, happy home lives" by being "gentle, understanding and quiet when it would be more fun to be sharp, questioning, and feline." Marine corps wives were encouraged to feel honored because their homemaking efforts kept their husbands' lives stable and secure. Then the 1960s saw wives' honorary homemaking roles infused with a sense of moral purpose. Mary Kay Murphy and Carol Bowles Parker, authors of Fitting in as a New Service Wife, captured this sentiment when they argued that good homemaking should be a service wife's top priority because it strengthens and stabilizes the family unit "amid all the chaos and confusion which the transient life often metes out."

As late as 1973 behavioral discourse emphasized the importance of dedicated homemakers to the military's mission. Heloise Bowles's Hints from Heloise: From the Air Force to Air Force Wives, which was published in 1973 to acknowledge officially the air force wives' contributions to their husbands' performance in combat, best exemplifies this focus on perfecting women's homemaking skills for the military's benefit. Aimed at providing household hints to ease the wives' home burdens so they would have "even more spare time to devote" to their husbands, this official gift from the U.S. Air Force echoed earlier messages that wives were useful primarily because their ability to "maintain the right kind of environment at home makes any man a better worker and more valuable in his job." By establishing homemaking as their primary responsibility both to their husbands and their country, World War II and Cold War guidebooks established a behavioral standard that circumscribed military wives' activities and influence to the domestic sphere and their thoughts and ambitions to the approval of their husbands.


Excerpted from "Policing Sex and Marriage in the American Military"
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Table of Contents

List of Tables
Author’s Note
1. Engendering Military Marriages
2. Policing International Military Marriages, 1950–75
3. Enforcing Monogamy
4. Normalizing Heterosexism and “Natural” Sex
5. Protecting the Public Morals
6. Policing Sex and Marriage, 1976–2000

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