Women and War
Madeleine Bunting, UK
September 20, 2001
Not for over a generation has an event so transfixed
the world. Everywhere, on buses, at corner shops,
offices, school gates and hairdressers, men and women
seem able to think and talk of only one thing—the
terrorist attacks on America. Yet, what is rapidly
becoming clear is that in a crisis like this, many of
the gender differences between men and women are thrown
into sharp relief.
The most striking of these is the different attitudes
towards a military attack on Afghanistan as revealed in
recent polls. The Guardian's ICM poll on Tuesday showed a remarkable consistency of attitudes across age and political affiliation; the one big gap was between men and women: 74% of men support air strikes and only 58% of women. Whereas 55% of men were prepared to
contemplate war, 32% of women opposed any military
action if it meant war.
This isn't a one-off. Polls in both the 1990 Gulf war
and the 1999 Kosovo war showed the same gap. In 1990,
61% of men and only 39% of women thought Britain should
agree to using British troops to get Iraq to withdraw
from Kuwait; nearly half of women (49%) opposed
military action. In Kosovo, the gap between men and
women narrowed after atrocities against Kosovan
Albanians were broadcast: 76% of men were in favour of
air strikes and 62% of women. A few days later, after
NATO mistakenly bombed a convoy of refugees, women's
support for air strikes fell sharply to 56% while men's
held steady. Equally intriguing is how women have been
wiped off many newspaper pages and television screens.
Despite significant advances in the number of women in the media, the crisis has exposed how many of them are in the "softer" areas of news such as features and
domestic stories. In a major crisis such as this,
virtually all the reporters have been men.
An analysis of the first five pages of five newspapers (the Sun, Daily Mail, Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times) on Thursday and Friday, September 14 and 15, bore this out. The Sun had no women writing on the crisis on either day compared to their writing about a third of the front of the paper on the previous Friday. Likewise, the Mail on the Thursday, but by the Friday, it had shifted to roughly 50/50 across the front pages and comment with a strong human interest emphasis. This was still a steep decline; in comparison the previous Friday was dominated by women reporters (2,703 words to men's 874) and comment pages were written entirely by women.
The Times and the Guardian showed a similar sharp drop in women writing; the former had no women in the first five pages or on the comment page on Friday and the Guardian had only one (1,215 words) which represented a sharp drop from the previous week, when women wrote 5,850 words. Only the Telegraph recorded little change in the number of articles—it was consistently low—although the word count doubled, almost all of which was accounted for by men.
This rough snapshot confirms what editors were becoming increasingly aware of, but attempts to find women to write were often frustrated. It wasn't just a shortage of female diplomatic correspondents—it was across the board. One female novelist, when approached to write a piece, said she was too upset to do so, but male novelists had no such hesitations. The consequence is a curious, lopsided, mutated version of the event in
which men have dominated the debate, shaping our
understanding of what happened, how it happened and
what should happen next. Women have been marginalised
in a way which would have seemed barely possible only
two weeks ago.
This is reinforced by the impression that virtually all the people involved in handling this crisis are men. It is men who perpetrated this violence and men who
organise the response. The power structure is exposed
at such times, as the token women slide into the
background, leaving war to men. Condoleezza (sic) Rice seems to be the one exception. Virtually the only female
faces in the media at the moment are the victims; women
are cast as passive.
The polls, the media coverage, the absence of major
women politicians in this crisis, breathe new life into
old debates. The polls seem to bear out some of the
oldest gender stereotypes about women's tendency to
nurture life rather than destroy it. It takes you back
to the long-running and unprovable theses about nurture
v nature: how little boys play war games and bomb their
Lego buildings while little girls look after babies.
Psychologist Oliver James argues that one persistent
difference between the genders across cultures is
attitudes towards violence. Women are less interested
in it and less likely to be violent, and he points to
the fact that while young women have caught up with
their male counterparts on a range of behaviour from
drugs to cigarettes, they are dramatically less violent.
While the media's response to the destruction in America has been deafening, the voices of women have grown strangely quiet. Women are far more likely to internalise anger in depression, from which they are twice as likely as men to suffer.
Also significant in explaining how men have dominated
the coverage, James believes, is the way men are
socialised to intellectualise the world, analyse and
objectify it, in a bid to emotionally distance
themselves and control it. Women, brought up to
empathise, have fewer such distancing techniques. As
Alice Miles in the Times suggests, for many women the "extent of the horror was in itself a bar to
certainty", while men have translated their "outrage
into concrete demands".
From The Guardian, Thursday, September 20, 2001.