Are women being relegated to old roles?
NEW YORK — White soot covered the television reporter's dark hair; makeup ran from her eyes. More than her words, her image told viewers something terrible had happened.
A woman obscured by soot and sorrow, she was bringing the news of Sept. 11 to the nation. But as the story and its aftermath unfolded, fewer and fewer women were part of the tale.
True, TV's images did show female soldiers alongside the men, neighborhood women who led a peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich campaign for rescue crews, and persecuted Afghan women shrouded in burqas. And after the terrorist attacks, women broadcasters were praised for their professionalism and compassion.
But beyond these anchors and the many images of women as victims or mourners, female expert opinion has been notably lacking.
Aside from the commanding presence of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, women leaders in the White House, the financial sector, and the fields of science and medicine have been mostly absent in the media, while men clad in suits, turbans, or military medals crowd discussion roundtables and stride across our TV screens.
The current crisis has produced "a parade of men in every aspect of this issue," says Sheila W. Wellington, president of Catalyst, a New York-based research and advocacy group for women in business.
In this high-profile time of war, the low profile of women's images prompts questions about gender roles: Have women's public roles shrunk in the midst of crisis? Have our images reverted to stereotypes of another era?
"We think women in the first two weeks of this crisis were largely invisible," says Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women.
It's unrealistic to expect to see women where they aren't. But female leaders do exist; critics argue that they just aren't in front of the cameras.
"Media do not draw on women experts as voices of authority enough," says Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter.
At stake in this dearth of female opinion, Dr. Kanter says, is the public's impression of who can lead in wartime.
"Any kind of conflict at a time of unrest in society typically accentuates the fault lines that already exist," as it separates those with power from those without power, says Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women. "This is an excellent example of that."
Politicians and experts declare the war on terrorism to be a struggle without precedent - and yet, in gender terms, there's a sense that it is a traditional conflict, says Ms. Gupta. Men's dominance in coverage creates an impression that it's "the men who are strategizing or fighting each other, trying to rescue the women.... In fact, it's quite the opposite." She adds that women in and around Afghanistan have long been fighting for freedom.
That struggle is one subject on which women are visible, vociferous commentators. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, which for five years has campaigned on behalf of Afghan women, has been widely interviewed since Sept. 11, along with her staff, as authorities on the treatment of Afghan women.
"We've been talking about it for so long, we have credibility on the issue. People know that it isn't just because [of] Sept. 11 [that] we're chasing a fire engine or something," Ms. Smeal says.
One result is that, possibly for the first time, the Feminist Majority has helped to unite the US Congress where, currently, Smeal notes, "You even have opponents to women's rights, historically, speaking out for women's rights [in Afghanistan]."
Smeal hopes that will help her organization's efforts on behalf of American women after the war.
Indeed, learning about the plight of Afghan women has helped some learn about women's rights in general, says Deborah Rosado Shaw, a business entrepreneur and consultant. She mentions that her three teenage sons never understood feminist arguments until recently.
"The reality of women in Afghanistan has changed their perspective of women here," Ms. Shaw says. Now they tell her: "Oh, this is what happens when the discussion [about women's rights and status] doesn't happen."
Ironically, in the midst of that awareness, the expectations of American women may regress to earlier times. Author Naomi Wolf suggests that in wartime, an emphasis on consensus-building and stability means the social demands on women change. The result is a "clamping down on women's efforts to [lead] more autonomous lives," she says.
It's a change with consequences for young women coming of age. "Visibility is exceedingly important, if not critical," says Ms. Wellington. "Every time a high school girl sees a woman as a leader, her horizons broaden."
There are, of course, exceptions to female "invisibility" in the media. Women in the armed forces have been filmed preparing for war alongside men, in an almost-casual way. Former Navy Capt. Lory Manning, who now works at the Women's Research & Education Institute, applauds that low-key approach, which portrays women "in the same way as men in the military."
The first time large numbers of women were deployed was in the Gulf War. A decade later, about 15 percent of active-duty forces, or 199,000 soldiers, are women, she says.
In military leadership, too, women are on the rise. Among active Army generals, women's representation has climbed from slightly more than 1 percent during the Gulf War, to almost 5 percent today, estimates Claudia Kennedy, a retired three-star general, the highest position ever held by a woman in the US Army.
Media coverage of this war doesn't reflect that. But when only retired Army generals are interviewed, she says, we can expect to see mostly men.
In a mirror of military demographics, police officers, soldiers, firefighters, and national-security officers are largely men - the "protectors," points out Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago. If those workers were women, she says, they'd be thought of as nurturers - but the jobs would be the same.
Often, she suggests, women self-select out of these careers, in part because of the jobs' associations with violence. But protecting people is women's work, too.
Just as the military world is accommodating more women - and more women of authority - terms such as "hero" are enjoying a broader application. Since Sept. 11, the phrase has increasingly been used for those who have done extraordinary things regardless of their race, class, or gender, Shaw says. "We saw men as well as women who were part of the rescue mission.... Children are getting a different perspective of women's work."
It's an expanded definition that may be especially important now, in a war that casts everyone in the vigilant soldier's role.
"Not since the Civil War have men, women, and children been potential casualties ... at home, in this country," says Captain Manning. "The women seem to be handling it as well as the men [are].... Everybody's engaged."