The Importance Of Researching Expatriate Spouses

4 April 2019

Mathilde Bernard is a master’s student of Global History and International Relations at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Mathilde has been researching the Expatriate Archive Centre collection to support her thesis about Shell expatriate identity in Nigeria between 1955 and 1970. She has provided us with a sample of her thesis-in-progress to illustrate the importance of collecting and researching expat life stories.

From our collection: An expat spouse with a Hausa tribesman selling his wares in Owerri, Nigeria, in 1957


By Mathilde Bernard

The EAC’s history begins in 1992 with an initiative of a group of Shell employees’ wives who wanted, for the centenary of the company, to give some consideration to the contribution of expatriate families within the company. They started to collect hundreds of handwritten stories coming from all around the world. Thanks to these expatriate wives, today this incredible and unique archive centre exists to collect and preserve the life stories of expatriates worldwide for future research.

However, expatriate studies often lack to consider expatriates’ wives in their research as they tend to focus on the work experience perspective as the sociologist Anne-Meike Fechter deplores in her book about expatriates in Indonesia. However, a greater attention to accompanying spouses could bring new insights for historical researches especially regarding the process of acculturation and identity formation. That is why for my master thesis about expatriates’ identity in Nigeria between 1955 and 1970, I decided to have a special focus on the wives’ experiences. Indeed, if a first part of my thesis will be dedicated to the expatriates’ experiences and identities in a broader sense, the second part will be specifically centred on the women. In this paper I would like to introduce the problematic and some of the challenges that accompanying spouses had to face that will be explored in my thesis.

Human management studies have shown the crucial importance of accompanying spouses in the expatriation phenomenon. Most of the acculturation process relied on them since their husbands were working full-time. It has been shown that the overall success of an expatriate’s assignment abroad depended largely on their wives. That is why many companies had general policies to keep families together. Because of their full-time job, men often experienced a sense of continuity with their previous life. That is why, even if the lives of the husbands were changed in many ways, Fetcher argues that the ones who had their lives and identities the most challenged by the expatriation were the accompanying spouses. Firstly, they were often the ones the most directly confronted with the new culture on a daily basis. Secondly, the expatriation provoked from many women a certain loss of identity on several levels. Thirdly, in the case of corporate expatriates, their lives were to some extent tacitly restricted and controlled by their husband’s company. These are the three points that will be detailed in the next part of this article.

Firstly, for most of the expatriate wives, their main interaction with the local population was through their house staff. This was not an easy task and many women had to learn how to do it since they often did not have that kind of support at home. Here is what a German woman wrote about it to her parents while she was a new expatriate in Nigeria in 1966: ’The “boy” problem is now known as conversation subject and even became subject of jokes, but it really is a problem. I longingly think back of maid house when I had a maid who came once a week. From 1000 directions you get 1000 advices — and always new and different ones — how you are expected to act and behave, and still you never get it right.’ Further in the letter she explains that she has difficulties understanding them, not only because of the language but also because of the culture differences: ’I sometimes admire myself, but find myself sometimes unbearable as well when I get the feeling that I will never be able to deal with the servants  — they don’t show any emotions —and that is for us Europeans very difficult — in other words, we are simply not used to it.’ As one can see, the cultures’ differences were not always easy to handle and caused some daily adjustments for the expatriate wives.

Secondly, having staff in the family home non-stop could also cause a loss of identity. Indeed, in her study Fechter identifies three different losses of identity from which expatriate wives could suffer. One of them is the loss of the homemaker identity, which was often a big part of their identity previously. Having staff at home was usually part of the expatriation experience. As the last paragraph shows, it was not always something easy to deal with because of the cultural differences. But this situation could be also felt by the women as something more than a challenging situation. Another level explored by Fechter is their personal identity. As they were disconnected from their previous social networks, women could resent a certain loss of social references. This explains why club and women associations were often crucial for women since they provided support they often lacked. The third and last level she analyses is the professional level. Accompanying spouses often had to abandon their work. This is one reason why the corporate culture of their husband had often such an important impact in their life, as the next paragraph shows.

In the case of the corporate expatriate, an interesting point that could be further investigated is the consequences of the corporate culture on the wives. The anthropologists Hilary Callan and Shirley Ardener published a book in the 1980s called The Incorporated Wife. More than just describing how the corporate cultures can also influence the life of the women, the word incorporation refers also to the incorporation of the private sphere — often reserved for women — into the public sphere of their husband. The incorporation in itself can take several forms. As the authors wrote, it is more ’an available […] than an empirical category’. Nevertheless, this concept could allow historians to approach women’s experiences from another perspective.

Of course, these are only some of the new perspectives that could be investigated through greater attention of the accompanying spouses’ role. The archives contained by the Expatriate Archive Centre have plenty of sources that could be used for such a work.


Anne-Meike. Fechter, Transnational lives: expatriates in Indonesia (Aldershot, Hants, England ; Ashgate, 2007), 31, 43, 104,

Jennifer Teague, ‘Corporate Preparation for the Cross-Cultural Adaptation Experience of the Accompanying Expatriate Spouse’, Journal of International Business Research 14, no. 2 (2015): 1.

Expatriate Archive Centre: EAC 1.0048., p. 4.

Ibid, p. 5.

Hilary. Callan et al., The Incorporated Wife, Centre for cross cultural research on women ; 1 (London: Croom Helm, 1984), 1-4.