WASHINGTON — The war on terrorism, like wars in the past, is shaking up gender expectations.
Typically, war reinforces gender stereotypes, yet also opens opportunities for women. Since Sept. 11, the gender gap in public opinion on military force has narrowed dramatically, and American ideals of masculinity and femininity have become more traditional. But at the same time, women's fuller participation in US military forces is no longer a novelty, and Americans have embraced women's liberation in Afghanistan.
Historically, the gender gap in public opinion is widest on military actions that lack a strong social consensus or are in a controversial "gray zone." The present war follows suit. Right after Sept. 11, more men than women favored military action. Military action that could mean thousands of civilian deaths won support from 71 percent of men and 50 percent of women. By Oct. 8, after US forces had begun bombing Afghanistan, the gender gap had disappeared. Support was equal, at 87 percent from both genders.
A month later, as the bombing seemed to drag on with little progress on the ground, a small gender gap reappeared. The margin was much larger, 14 points, on the controversial question of extending the war to terrorists other than those responsible for Sept. 11.
Overall, both genders supported the war effort, though they held mildly divergent views on the nature and direction of the war.
As the gender gap closed and the country's unity solidified, discussions of gender ideals and gender conflicts shifted. Putting aside the traditional, divisive gender battles on topics such as abortion and affirmative action, media discussions addressed the accomplishments of men in traditional roles and women in nontraditional ones.
Conservative writers are celebrating the new respect for masculine males - the firefighters, cops, and special-forces soldiers who rush in when others are fleeing. John Wayne-style masculinity has looked particularly attractive to them, given the dotcom crash that had deflated Bill Gates-style masculinity. Meanwhile, liberal writers have celebrated women's roles in the US military and the liberation of Afghan women. The war has something for everyone.
The US military's gender-integration program, despite being a perennial target of conservatives, has held its momentum since Sept. 11. Some 200,000 women make up one-sixth of a professional US military that has performed superbly over the past decade.
Although the majority of American women soldiers are in health care and administrative/clerical positions, other women have piloted combat jets bombing Afghanistan, as they did in Serbia in 1999.
Historically, once women stop being a novelty in a particular unit, they integrate effectively and bond with comrades of both genders. A decade after the Gulf War, American women's participation is routine, and public opinion supports it.
The news about military women in the Afghan campaign is that they're not newsworthy. The Pentagon likes it that way; American forces need women to wage war effectively, and political debates get in the way.
Finally, Afghan women during this war took on larger-than-life stature for Americans. Their oppression became emblematic of a repressive and regressive regime. Their liberation gives many American women an emotional connection with the war effort.
Washington's interest in Afghan women breaks new ground by putting women's participation on the Afghan postwar agenda. However, outsiders cannot command changes in gender roles in traditional societies and need to avoid counterproductive interventions that equate women's freedoms with Westernization.
In short, as in the past, wartime has reshaped the home front. Traditional masculinity has found new resonance, yet we also are celebrating female fighter pilots and Afghan women's liberation. Public opinion has united behind the war, yet shown continuing gender differences in interpretations. Despite these conflicting impulses, at a time when "united we stand," men and women are sticking together.
Joshua S. Goldstein, a professor of international relations at American University, is the author of 'War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa' (Cambridge, 2001).