Women and war
Thursday 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 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. 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".
Published in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/analysis/story/0,3604,554794,00.html.