Does gender influence attitudes about combat?


January 17, 1991|By Mary Corey

When war broke out last night, Christina Lundquist wanted to hear her father's voice. She wanted him to reassure her that Americans were going to be OK and that terrorists weren't going to attack Washington. But when she talked to him, she was disappointed.

"He sees force as the only resolution to this conflict," says Ms. Lundquist, a 27-year-old hospital administrator who lives in White Hall. "His position was that we had to do it. It was inevitable. Intellectually, I understand his position. But in my heart, I still held out hope that the powers involved would work things out."

Ms. Lundquist also came away with a nagging sense that not only she and her father -- but men and women in general -- have fundamentally different attitudes toward war.

"I don't think that women would have taken the same approach," she says. "Women would have pressed harder to negotiate an agreeable solution."

The latest Louis Harris poll released before the war began yesterday confirms her suspicions. Sixty-four percent of the men interviewed favored committing American troops to battle, while only 49 percent of the women agreed. These statistics, however, are just the latest to demonstrate the historical gender gap that exists when it comes to opinions about war. In World War II, Korea and Vietnam, polls have shown that women are less supportive of military conflicts than men.

"When you ask people, 'Should we engage in war or should we allow more time for sanctions to take effect?' women are much more inclined to say, 'Let's not make a hasty decision,' " says John Barry, associate director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut. "Men are more inclined to say, 'There was a deadline. Hussein had time to react. He didn't. Therefore, it's time to act.' "

Psychologists attribute the differences to the way children are socialized and the messages they receive about handling disagreements.

"Men seem to be taught from childhood on to have a leader and a follower . . . a winning theory and one's that not. Women are conditioned to reach some kind of compromise where the thing that's best for everybody comes out," says Jan Sinnott, director of the Center for the Study of Adult Development at Towson State University.

"From the male point of view, you have wars because you want to decide who's stronger, who's better. For women, it's not as important to have a clear-cut winner. They're more likely to see there's a great deal of suffering, so there's more a sense of negotiating to keep the peace."

In the past decade, women have become more vocal about speaking out against war, says Molly Yard, president of the National Organization for Women. During this crisis, their support has been complicated by the way Saudi Arabia discriminates against women -- even the U.S. women stationed there, she adds. "Women there have no rights at all. They are as segregated as the blacks are in South Africa," she says.

Yet, on a basic philosophical level, Ms. Yard believes that women simply see war as counterproductive. "We think that war settles almost nothing," she says. "But men aren't supposed to say things like that. Men are supposed to go and defend their honor and the honor of their country."

Even the feelings men and women express -- or are conditioned to express -- about war can be startlingly dissimilar. Less than 40 percent of school-age boys said they were "scared" about the threat of war, while more than 70 percent of the girls expressed that emotion in a recent study conducted by Scholastic magazine, said Frederic Medway, professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, who analyzed the results.

"There's a tendency for males to describe war in more glamorous terms," says Dr. Medway. "We've been hearing the phrase, 'Let's go over and kick butt.' With younger males, it helps preserve their macho image and is reinforced in subtle ways by peers' laughter or a pat on the back. It's language that's generally considered socially acceptable for males but not for females."

Dr. Sinnott believes that this lingo serves a particular need for a young man who may be mustering the courage to do battle. "It's schoolroom fight language," she says. "It objectifies the opponent. It's easier to kill or maim something that's not like you. Women are less likely to do that. They're more inclined to think of themselves as preservers of life."

Yet, Jack Kammer, a local men's concerns activist, cautions against seeing men as the bad guys and women as the good guys in these circumstances.

"Men are socialized to feel certain responsibilities," he says. "They feel a responsibility for physical protection and part of that repertoire is physical resistance and physical force. . . . I don't think it's because of anything particularly warlike in men. It's more of a requirement men feel to fulfill this responsibility."

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