In this war, American women shed role as 'doves'

They back current military action as much as men do, erasing a traditional gender gap.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Call it the "home and hearth" factor - that instinctive, maternal impulse to protect one's own.

You can hear it on a playground here when Diane Fisher, a mother of one with another on the way, talks about her newfound support for defense spending. Or when Kristin Brady, who's pushing her daughter Julia on the swings, surprises herself with the conviction that a military response to Sept. 11 is appropriate. "I have a hard time saying that, but I do think there needs to be one," she says.

Similar women's voices are resonating across the country and doing away - for the first time in recent history - with the gender gap on many military issues. That gap, in which many more men support military actions, held steady through Vietnam, the Gulf War, and Kosovo.

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It is still evident when pollsters dig deeper and try to gauge support for, say, a protracted war with ground troops. But overall, 86 percent of Americans - regardless of gender - support the current military response.

When the terrorists struck at the heart of lower Manhattan, experts say women felt their families and homes were threatened, and they rallied to defend them.

"Gender gaps ... in politics widen and narrow, but on these fundamental military questions, they've tended to have been pretty robust and enduring," says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"What we're seeing is women expressing a desire for safety at home, rather than support for an adversarial foreign policy or a geopolitical policy," he adds.

The breakdown

In a recent Pew study, 47 percent of women and 53 percent of men supported higher defense spending. That's within the margin of error. Compare that with early September, when only 24 percent of women supported giving the Pentagon more money, compared with 41 percent of men.

The change is even more dramatic concerning support - among mothers, specifically - for the missile-defense shield. In early September, 53 percent of women with children at home supported the deployment of such a shield. In the poll done at the end of October, the number had jumped to 73 percent.

"Since we've been directly attacked, it doesn't surprise me," says Tomi-Ann Roberts, a psychologist who specializes in gender issues at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. "Women are no less likely to be violent or aggressive if their own children are threatened than men are. In fact, they're probably more likely to be aggressive."

But scratch beneath the surface, and women's traditionally more cautious response on military issues comes to the fore. In a recent Gallup poll, 80 percent of Americans said they supported the use of ground forces in Afghanistan. Eighteen percent were opposed. Of that group of "doves," more than half were women.

On the opposite end of the scale are the "hawks," the 22 percent who said they'd have supported military action, including ground troops in Afghanistan, even if the events of Sept. 11 hadn't occurred. True to traditional form, more men than women were in that category.

"When you really begin to talk about some of the costs and implications, the traditional gender gap reappears," says Frank Newport, director of the Gallup poll.

Some of those differences become evident even where the levels of support seem on the surface to be the same.

For instance, while Ms. Fisher is now an avid supporter of increased defense spending, she would like to see the money spent on fortifying security in this country, not necessarily for new tanks and fighter planes for engagements abroad.

Mr. Newport points out that a tome could be written about why men and women, while unique individually, still tend to respond in certain ways as a group.

The old, implacable debate of "nature versus nurture" continues to rage in academic circles. For some, primitive societies in which men hunted and women had children and made homes help explain why the female of the species today is still more oriented toward dialogue and diplomacy than picking up a rifle.

How kids are encouraged

But others support the "nurture" angle: that it's simply a question of how people are raised.

"I don't think the differences are innate," says Susan Basow, a psychology professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. "Boys are more likely to be encouraged to use force to cope, while girls are more encouraged to talk things out - and if they do engage in hitting, they're socially reprimanded for that."

Ms. Basow believes that women are as supportive of a military response as men, because they feel so threatened, and because anxiety levels across the country remain high.

"One of the things that happens when there are high levels of stress is that we become much more simple cognitively, because we can't deal with complexity," she says. "So there's right and wrong, evil and good. I think part of that is an immediate reaction to feeling so threatened - get the bad guys. I do think that will moderate over time for women, but less so for men."

Ms. Brady, mother of Julia, is already hoping that moderation will prevail across the board.

"I'm very nervous about casualties from famine and the inability to get relief. We have the winter coming," she says. "The situation was going to be bad anyway, but now it's going to be worse, and we're going to get the blame for it. I just hope now, we focus on development and relief efforts in the area."

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