'Diabolical Lies': What NFL Player Harrison Butker (and Military Leaders) Get Wrong About Working Women

More than 50 employers participate in the Veterans, Transitioning Service Members & Military Spouses Career Expo at the Washington, D.C. Armory.
More than 50 employers participate in the Veterans, Transitioning Service Members & Military Spouses Career Expo at the Washington, D.C. Armory, May 9, 2024. (Master Sgt. Arthur M. Wright/U.S. Air National Guard photo)

This past weekend, Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker spoke at Benedictine College's commencement ceremony. His speech has drawn outrage on social media as well as a deluge of articles from media outlets regarding its contents -- and with good reason.

In his speech, Butker opined on the issues "plaguing" American society that he believes have eroded "traditional" Catholic values. Among many of those issues: "degenerate cultural values," the media, women who work outside the home, men who are too soft, cohabitating, the LGBTQ+ community, "Catholic birth control" and in-vitro fertilization.

Butker's jeremiad was directed at a very specific Catholic audience and probably would have gone unnoticed but for two reasons. First, Butker made the mistake of quoting Taylor Swift without actually using her name (referring to her as his "teammate's girlfriend"), a misstep that, of course, caught the attention and ire of both Swifties and the media outlets who chronicle her every move or mention. But second, and more importantly, Butker spoke about the vocation of feminine homemaking and child-rearing to an auditorium full of women who had just spent four years and thousands of dollars on degrees that Butker was labeling as essentially worthless.

Singling out women graduates, Butker said: "I want to speak directly to you briefly because I think it is you, the women, who have had the most diabolical lies told to you, how many of you are sitting here now about to cross the stage, and are thinking about all the promotions and titles you're going to get in your career." He went on to speak glowingly about his wife, Isabelle, and how her vocation as homemaker contributes to their relationship, their family and their household.

"Isabelle's dream of having a career might not have come true. But if you ask her today, if she has any regrets on her decision, she would laugh out loud without hesitation and say, 'Heck no,'" he said.

Butker's vision of a woman's one true calling is something that thousands of military spouses are currently experiencing. And for many of them, it's not idyllic.

We can ignore the hypocrisy and privilege of Butker's speech. He was raised by a mother who has been a medical physicist at Emory University for nearly four decades and holds a master's degree from Georgia Tech. Butker signed a $20 million, five-year contract with the Chiefs in 2019, which is plenty of cash to pay off any student loans his wife may have incurred when she attended and graduated from Rhodes College in Tennessee. We'll even ignore that while calling on women to abandon their career aspirations and raise families, Butker simultaneously railed against IVF -- a method of family planning that has brought eight million children into their grateful families in the U.S.

There's no denying that homemaking is a noble and necessary choice for many families. For every stay-at-home parent, there is a different reason why that option works for their family, and parents should be able to make the choices that are best for their families and their situations. But when it is a forced decision -- one made because there simply are no other options, as is often the case for military families -- homemaking is not a privilege or a choice.

Women collectively find themselves dealing with more obstacles when it comes to financial stability and career success. Women are more likely to live in poverty than men. Women hold two-thirds of the student-loan debt in the U.S., and they have less wealth and are more affected by systemic racism and sexism than their male counterparts. When women don't work, whether for personal reasons or societal ones, they lose earning power and compounding savings opportunities over their lifetimes in ways that men usually don't experience.

In the military community, spouses (92% of whom are women) are often kept out of the workforce due to circumstances beyond their control. Whether it's a lack of suitable child-care resources, inflexible workplace policies, increasing military ops-tempos, frequent PCSing or orders to a rural or overseas location, military spouses have additional stressors and considerations that remove options and choices from their career aspirations.

Many military spouses want to -- or have to -- work outside the home and yet are unable to. Twenty-one percent of military spouses are unemployed, with an even higher percentage vastly underemployed, even though statistically military spouses have more education than their civilian counterparts. Military spouse Facebook groups are filled with desperate spouses seeking employment, asking for resources that might help them make it from paycheck to paycheck, and yes, even questioning whether becoming active on OnlyFans might be a viable option for bringing in extra income.

Indeed, military families are without an NFL payday to keep their families afloat. Most American families, military or civilian, need two incomes to maintain their households. We know that especially enlisted pay is not enough to sustain families in many markets, particularly in areas with high costs of living, such as San Diego. In the military community, food insecurity plagues military families -- nearly 20% struggle with keeping their families fed. Fifty-four percent of military teens have experienced food insecurity in the past month.

It's easy to brush off the content of Butker's commencement speech as an aberration. Perhaps he made a calculated decision to rile the internet and media by being wildly controversial. Perhaps it's truly what he believes, and he felt justified saying it at a private Catholic school where many of the attendees might have shared his beliefs. Or perhaps he hasn't employed a PR professional to vet his public statements.

But the truth is, there are military community decision-makers who seem to share Butker's disdain for career women. We hear this in the old adage which is trotted out when spouses assert themselves: "If they wanted you to have a wife, the military would have issued you one." We see this in the many programs that are run on military spouse volunteering -- often because those same spouses cannot find jobs and are told to fill their resume holes with (you guessed it!) volunteering. Personally, I once sat on a hiring committee for a military-connected organization, and when I asked why we weren't entertaining any military spouses for the position, I was told that military spouses were too expensive and too much of a liability to hire.

Most recently, during a committee hearing on the READINESS Act this week (during Military Appreciation Month, no less), Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) brushed aside the necessity of this military spouse employment act, saying, "We cannot fashion our decisions on national security based on the individual needs of people that signed up of their own volition for a job that they wanted to pursue." Such a statement is the equivalent of the common refrain for military spouses: "Shoulda known what you signed up for!"

Frustratingly, Perry is a retired National Guard one-star general who should be more in touch -- or, at least, more empathetic -- with the career realities and financial stressors of military spouses. Yet, he continued: "We're happy that they want to sacrifice, but that's what comes with the territory. If that's not for you, we need insurance salesmen and we need people to clean pools and we need all kinds of things in America."

Those attitudes are dangerous for military families and for national security. Less than half of military spouses are satisfied with military life, just over half are supportive of their spouse's military career choice, and there's currently a much-lamented recruiting and retention crisis.

Ensuring that military spouses have the opportunity to pursue meaningful, long-term careers is just as important as ensuring that those who wish to work in the home are able to. Without both as realistic and viable options, military families will continue to be cheated by a system that expects so much from so few. We need leaders at all levels to recognize that military spouse employment is vital for the military spouse, the family, the military and the nation, build on the progress that has already been made by nonprofits, governmental entities and private organizations, and call out harmful attitudes and behaviors that continue to hold spouses back from achieving their career goals.

Want to Know More About the Military?

Be sure to get the latest news about the U.S. military, as well as critical info about how to join and all the benefits of service. Subscribe to Military.com and receive customized updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Story Continues