Trailing Spouse vs. Accompanying Spouse: Semantics or Principle?

As long as expat homemakers are treated as nothing more than "extra baggage" in an international relocation, I will continue to refer to these unsung heroes as "trailing spouses."
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The term "trailing spouse" has elicited much debate and discussion since it was coined back in the 1980s in the dark ages of the global migration of the modern expat family. Most expat spouses of today take offense at the term "trailing spouse" and have opted out for "accompanying spouse," "accompanying partner," "STUDS" ([Male] Spouses Trailing Under Duress Successfully), or "STARS'"(Spouses Traveling and Relocating Successfully) -- the newest euphemism. Even those in the global mobility industry protest at the use of the word "trailing spouse," under the principle that it is antiquated and derogatory towards the modern day woman.

However, my usage of "trailing spouse" (in my blogs and elsewhere on the Internet) is not a slip of the tongue or in ignorance of the fact that the term implies that the expat wife is nothing more than an appendage of her husband; given no more consideration or appreciation than any other "article" included in the transfer of her husband's household goods.

No, my usage of the term "trailing spouse" is both intentional and accurate. My own personal experiences of late demonstrate that the expat wife and homemaker of today, in reality and practice, has no more rights in the home and family than did her mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother.

Much of this is due to the fact that the feminist movement of the past 50 years has concentrated resources and efforts on advancing women's rights within the workforce (equal pay, equal opportunity and sexual harassment) and reproductive rights (abortion, birth control and pre- and post-natal care). However, gender bias, discrimination against women and the all-too-prevalent attitude that woman are the "weaker sex" has not been eradicated in societies by a few decades of awareness campaigns and a handful of Supreme Court decisions on reproductive and women's labor rights.

What has been sorely lacking from the women's rights movement of the past has been the promotion of women's rights within the home, family and marriage. The principle (and most clear and pressing) of those rights is the right to life, security and pursuit of happiness within the home and marriage. While the past few decades have seen legislation criminalizing violence against women, justice systems have miserably failed to implement and uphold these laws. Family Courts in Crisis newsletters explore the many issues from a human rights perspective, examining the work of the United Nations, Amnesty International, Save the Children, and other such international organizations. However, the issues explored here are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of women's rights within the family.

According to Maria Angeles Duran, a leading sociologist in Spain on homemaker's contribution to the family and society, homemakers work an average of 30.5 - 61 hours/week; efforts for which they receive no pay or other financial benefits. These women are responsible for organizing and executing a wide range of tasks and jobs, which include childcare, housekeeping, cooking, shopping, chauffeuring, peace-keeping, team-management, financial-planning, budgeting and any other task that happens to pop-up; working 24/7 with no time off for vacations or holidays. Yet, they do their jobs with dedication, love, and a very high level of diligence -- a level of diligence one is hard-pressed to find in the "working world." So, they are understandably upset when told they "don't do anything" all day.

Nevertheless, in spite of all of these long hours, homemaker's work is not recognized as legitimate work by societies, family courts or governments for the simple reason that they do not receive any monetary compensation. However, as Janice D'Arcy reports in her article "A Homemaker's Real Salary" in the Washington Post, if women where paid fair market value for the work they do in the home, they would receive an income of $96,261 per year.

Additionally, as Maaike Deen states in her thesis The Expatriate's Spouse: an Influential Factor on International Assignment Success that "the importance of the spouse and their influence on international assignment success [has] been acknowledged in expatriate literature from the 1980's onwards". Jakob Lauring and Jan Selmer further explore the important role trailing spouse's play in their spouse's career and job performance in The Supportive Expatriate Spouse: An Ethnographic Study of Spouse Involvement in Expatriate Careers stating that "the spouses hold important resources that can be transformed (Bourdieu, 1977) and used constructively in different areas of the expatriate life including job performance, career development and adjustment."

Clearly, the "trailing spouse" plays a key role in caring for, managing and supporting her husband and children in their daily activities and challenges as the backbone of her family. Unfortunately, her efforts and contributions are not often recognized, with HR personnel all too often seeing her as nothing more than a do-nothing, pampered housewife. As one "trailing spouse" testimony in the Family Matters! Survey by Campbell International Relocation declares, "Although this relocation could have been a great thing for the firm, the US firm has behaved at every step as though they are doing us the HUGEST favour in the history of man... My feelings toward the US firm are so negative due to their treatment of us, that I would insist on going back."

It is not only the corporate world, however, that considers women who, by choice or circumstance, dedicate themselves to raising children, managing a home and advancing their husbands career as nothing more than freeloaders, living off their husband's hard work. Most of society, whether they be "working women," husbands, divorce courts, lawyers, judges, the list goes on, perceive the homemakers as "people who do nothing." During my own divorce, I was told that "[I] should be ashamed of myself for having stayed at home all of those years with my children, and not gone out and gotten a 'real job'," an attitude that was omnipresent even with my own lawyers and presiding judges.

This derogatory attitude towards the homemaker can in part be explained from a historical perspective. As Anne Braseby states in her doctoral thesis Adaptation of the Trailing Spouse: Does Gender Matter? "In the 19th century biological arguments were used to justify women's exclusion from the labor force; they were too weak, lacked strength, their brains were too small. So those who could, stayed home and looked after the children accepting the role of homemaker and mother."

So, as long as expat homemakers are treated as nothing more than "extra baggage" in an international relocation, I will continue to refer to these unsung heroes as "trailing spouses." And, when I have achieve my present goal -- recognition of homemakers rights in, and by, societies and the courts; then, I will, with great pleasure, refer to these women (and men) as "accompanying spouses," "accompanying partners," "STARS," "STUDS" or any other title that everyone can agree is "politically correct" -- noting that political correctness is always short-lived when it comes from semantics rather than reality.

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