Ladies in Spite of Themselves



IN 1925, a handful of years after American women had won the right to vote, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy expressed his anxiety about their "seemingly insatiable desire to interfere in matters they do not understand."

"War," said Admiral Fiske, "they understand least and from it they instinctively recoil. There is danger in this situation. Women now have the vote and they outnumber the men. . . . In spite of themselves we must protect the ladies!"

As it turned out, the admiral needn't have worried his pretty little head about the ladies. In the fight for suffrage, many had argued that women voters would usher in a millennium of peace. But when military push came to shove in the 20th century, women and men expressed very similar attitudes toward war and peace. That is, until now.

This fall, a vast and deep gender gap has been unearthed in the Persian Gulf. Differences about the use of force had already formed a slight trench over Grenada and Panama. But now they are close to a chasm.

In one poll, 73 percent of women say they oppose a war to liberate Kuwait. Only 48 percent of men concur. That's a margin of 25 points. In another poll, women are 18 points less likely than men to believe that President Bush has tried hard enough to use diplomacy.

Polls are finding gender gaps of 18, 19, 24 and 25 points. Today American women are working side by side with men from Saudi Arabia to Sioux Falls. But their views are diverging.

It is possible, of course, that the pollsters are just tracking a new willingness among women to say what they always thought. There is hard evidence that women are no longer reluctant to speak out in disagreement with the men in their lives. They have gained the courage of their convictions.

But the more interesting questions are about the origin of these convictions. Why do women seem to be less directed toward war -- or at least toward this war at this moment? Is it the isolationism that seems particularly acute among older women and those with young children? There is a tendency among women, for better and for worse, to keep their focus close to home.

Is it the simple pop-female explanation that Woman the Nurturer is innately opposed to violence? That smacks of the old admiral's notion that women "instinctively recoil" from war and the lingering image of woman as peacekeeper. I don't see instinct on this battlefield of ideas. But there is surely rebellion at the thought of sending a child into battle.

What then about the official feminist explanation that we oppose this war because, as NOW's Molly Yard said, "Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are despotic, clan-run monarchies" guilty of gender apartheid. The argument seems almost cartoon-like in its simplicity. Yet questions about human rights are part of the larger doubt about the worth of this enterprise and these allies.

And what of the possibility that women are more reluctant to start a fight because of different experiences with conflict? In our daily childhood conflicts on playgrounds and in homes, do men learn they must confront a bully while women learn they can only maintain peace through negotiating? Such separate truths become part of a world view.

Any analysis of a gender gap risks a gender stereotype. There are men and women all across this war-peace spectrum, but the differences are now real. And strikingly little is known about the reasons.

As an amateur geologist sifting through this terrain, I see bits and pieces of all these reasons and add another. Men and women may assess risk differently. Men often see more danger in inaction; women in action. Men often think about winning; women about hurting. Surely the president's sudden emphasis on Iraq's atomic bomb potential is an attempt to make inaction seem more dangerous, to change the direction of the worry.

The old admiral said that wars were made to comfort and protect women even against their will. Last week, a different sort of admiral, William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Congress, "War is not neat, it's not tidy, and when you resort to it, it's uncertain and it's a mess."

The image from the polls is not of women as pacifists, but as wary citizens who require more and better reasons for war, who accept war only as the truly last resort. If that is true, perhaps we are not splitting from men, but leading them.

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