If Women Ran the War

When it comes to war and violence, do women respond differently from men? Could female virtues stop Saddam Hussein?

SHOULD women fight men or join them? From the beginnings of women's rights advocacy, two distinct and incompatible positions have emerged. One holds that women are fundamentally different from men. According to this argument, women exhibit qualities of mind and take actions that diverge from those of men. If the argument becomes feminist, it follows that women's qualities - long suppressed and submerged - must be allowed to engage, even dominate, political and social life. The hope is that women, being more nurturant and caring on average than men, will hold on to those qualities and bring them to bear as they take over positions of responsibility. The ``difference'' argument was made powerfully by the great 19th century suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

``The male element is a destructive force, stern, selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition, breeding in the material and moral world alike discord, disorder, disease and death. See what a record of blood and cruelty the pages of history reveal!''

Cady Stanton argued that the ``male element has held carnival thus far, it has fairly run riot from the beginning, overpowering the feminine element everywhere.'' The feminine element, if given a chance to reveal itself, would ``exalt purity, virtue, morality, true religion'' and lift humanity to higher realms. Minimally, she insisted, the US would never have exterminated the Indians nor engaged in the Mexican-American War if women were in charge.

Updated versions of this argument continue to dominate discussion of the so-called ``gender gap.'' On a recent talk show, a woman political columnist argued that women were more ``sensitive'' than men and, if they had been in charge, we would likely not be in the Gulf war. Women, she insisted, rather than spending five months on a military build-up and ``five minutes'' on negotiation, would have reversed the order and exhausted diplomatic efforts, reserving just ``five minutes'' for military preparations.

She was reflecting polls that show 83 percent of men and 67 percent of women support the war. These differences aren't new. They have been reflected in survey data for years on questions about the use of force. On such matters as abortion and the ERA, women and men do not vary significantly. But if the question is gun control, or the death penalty, or going to war, the genders begin to gap. This lends credence to the view that women would be less likely to deploy force. Asked to explain a Margaret Thatcher or a Golda Meir, the answer is: ``Of course, those few women who come to power will act like men because they live in a male-dominated world.'' Not a comforting conclusion.

To a second group of women the difference argument is anathema. They hold that women and men are exactly alike ``save for'' biology, and socialization - which can and should become more identical in order, they hope, to turn out male and females who are more like than unlike. They do not cling to any belief that women would or should run the show differently, although this is a sufficiently troubling conclusion that it is often hedged about with reassurances that somehow a ``gender neutral'' method of child-rearing and education will rub the rough edges off masculinity even as it preserves the good (read: caring, nurturant) about femininity - a bit of a gamble.

The feminist integrationist posture of minimizing difference is reflected in such policy claims as a ``right to fight,'' endorsed by the National Organization for Women which argued this point in a 1981 amicus brief challenging all-male military registration. Beginning with the claim that universal military service is central to the concept of citizenship in a democracy, NOW insisted that if women are to gain ``first-class citizenship,'' they, too, must have the right to fight. Some who endorsed this position went on to promise that somehow women would be more caring even as they wielded M-16s. They were countered by tough-minded military women, chafing against combat restriction rules, who insisted that they were soldiers, period.

Yet it's muddled to insist women be trained to do just what men are trained to do, within structures dominated by a tradition ethos of what that means (the military is a good example), and yet expect, with more sentimentalism than clarity, that women will emerge with cleaner hands.

That women strongly prefer negotiation over fighting suggests there are some ancient female virtues - and that, given a sufficient ``critical mass'' of women leaders, matters might tilt toward the less militant and confrontational. This is a big ``maybe.'' It splits the difference between the ``women are more virtuous'' vs. ``women and men are the same'' positions. But it continues to locate those who hold to this idea on the horns of a real dilemma, one suggested on the talk show as discussion of sex difference continued.

Fine, said a male panelist to the female's charge that women would have negotiated more. Maybe so. But Saddam Hussein is not a ``sensitive male.'' While you were avoiding a build-up and negotiating, he would have hardened his defenses and enhanced his military. Then, if war had come, your small force would have been destroyed and Saudi Arabia may have been lost at a great cost. This is a classic restatement of the security dilemma and it haunts - as it should - speculation about what the world would be like were women in charge.

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