Fighting to Gratify a Sex Instinct? War Attitudes Vary by Gender

Fighting to Gratify a Sex Instinct? War Attitudes Vary by Gender

By Lori Adelman

In her influential 1938 essay “Three Guineas,” Virginia Woolf portrayed war as an expression of male power and self-interest. “If you insist upon fighting to protect me, or ‘our’ country,” she warned, “let it be understood soberly and rationally between us that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits where I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself or my country.”

of “the enemy”
slant male

Public attitudes toward war validate Woolf’s emphatic stance about the male-centric nature of war and women’s responses to it. Although women have always been involved in war — as soldiers, doctors, drivers, spies and more — they have not been engaged to the same extent as men. Worldwide, the overwhelming majority of soldiers are men, and the figure jumps to 99.9 percent where combat forces are concerned. And although militarists often invoke rhetoric around improving the lives of women to justify their actions, war has arguably failed to bring about a safer or more prosperous world for women, bringing with its promises of security the threat of gender-based violence: massacre, rape as a tool of war and sexual assault.

These realities have left their mark on women’s attitudes toward war, with the current U.S.-led “war on terror” proving no exception. Although individual women have diverse and complicated relationships with the war on terror, variously serving as perpetrators, victims, supporters and opponents, researchers largely agree that women are less likely than men to endorse the use of violence for political purposes.

Military Divide is Big

Gender differences in attitudes towards war have characterized the public opinions of United States military conflicts, including World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. As Professor Richard C. Eichenberg described in a paper presented to the Convention of the Midwest Political Science Association last year, gender is often the single most important correlate of attitudes toward the use of military force, trumping race, class and even partisanship at times.

Dr. Victoria Stewart, senior lecturer at the University of Leicester and author of Women’s Autobiography: War and Trauma points out that notions of war still cut against deep-seated norms of the role expectations of women. Even in our modern cultural context, the belief is that “women should still nurture children and families,” she says, “whereas the man’s role has historically been conceived as the active one, going out to defend the family group.”

The war on terror is no different in its gendered appeal. Today, nearly a decade after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and more than a month after the death of Osama Bin Laden, polling data confirms that public opinion of the war on terror shows a significant gender differential.

Media hard-pressed
to explain a female
suicide bomber.

Recently released data by USA Surveys indicates that women are more ambivalent and less certain than men about most aspects of the war on terror. This ambivalence extends to the decision to kill Osama Bin Laden, bury his body at sea or celebrate his death – 66 percent of men said it was appropriate to celebrate, as compared to 58 percent of women. Women are also more hesitant to say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been worth fighting (32 percent of women and 40 percent of men say this), and less inclined to name a side as currently “winning” the war on terror (28 percent of women believe neither the United States nor the terrorists are winning the war, as compared to just 17 percent of men). And while more men than women perceive al Qaeda as an ongoing threat, women on the whole feel that bin Laden’s death will result in a more dangerous world in the long term.

Cultural Embeds

At least to some extent, gender still matters in matters of war. But does this data really offer new insight into attitudes towards the war against terror? Or is it merely reflective of a centuries-long and deeply culturally embedded narrative about gender and violence in this country? And given the uncertainty around these questions, is it possible to distinguish women’s attitudes towards the current war on terror from their historically attitudes about war in general? Three indicators are useful.

First, public opinion of torture, an issue that has occupied a uniquely large place in the public discourse of the war on terror, is conditioned by gender. Data from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland suggests that gender strongly shapes opposition to harsh interrogation techniques and that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Eichenberg, for example, compares modern surveys on torture to a series of surveys conducted in 1944 on the use of poison gas in World War II (the use of poison gas resembling torture, he points out, in the sense that it was “a policy instrument that was both illegal and widely condemned on moral grounds”). In the two 1944 surveys, gender differences in attitude were practically nonexistent, and in the polls from 1945, women were even found to be mildly more supportive than men of the use of poison gas against the enemy (49 percent of women were supportive, as compared to 42 percent of men). The feminized nature of dissent on torture contributes, in part, greater ambivalence by gender toward the overall war on terror efforts.

Second, polls show that women have a heightened sensitivity to casualties. Dr. Louis Kriesberg, Founding Director of the Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflict at the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs, analyzes numerous surveys in his book, Constructive Conflicts: from Escalation to Resolution and concludes that “women are more sensitive to the risk of casualties and tend to withhold support for military action more than do men, particularly as casualties mount.” With many sources estimating casualties of the war in Iraq for U.S. military forces at over 33,000, this factor carries great significance.

Third, in the war on terror, representations of “the enemy” and terrorists, slant male. This is not a new phenomenon, as Carrie Hamilton demonstrates in “Political Violence and Body Language in Life Stories of Women ETA Activists.” “Violent bodies” as she puts it, “are usually described as male.” But the war on terror has furthered this trope in a distinctly new way. Dorit Naaman, a researcher and filmmaker with expertise in examining Middle Eastern cinema from post-colonial and feminist perspective, states that “with regard to Western media … the constructed nature of the label terrorist … stands in stark contrast to the highly coded and constructed label woman.” Naaman describes how Western media, having created a specific and rigid narrative around the hardened and evil male terrorist, is hard pressed to explain a female suicide bomber or terrorist. It is not difficult to understand why women feel more ambivalent about a war that is presented as simultaneously driven and led by men, and fundamentally at odds with their femaleness.

These three factors begin to paint a broader picture of gender and public attitudes toward the war on terror. But in the end, I have to wonder if perhaps women’s collective aversion to war stems as much from concerns of a practical nature as it does from any moral or gendered stance: the failure of war to fulfill its promise to “protect either myself or my country,” as Woolf wrote. Despite some significant differences in attitude by gender, it strikes me that, to the extent that any person — man or woman — is reluctant to endorse war, their pacifism may share very similar roots: the suspicion that, in the end, there is little to be won and much to be lost in the act of war.

Lori Adelman is a writer and advocate living in Brooklyn, NY. She blogs at

Also see Gender Values: The Costs of War by Susan Feiner in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Finding Hope: Reweaving — Then and Now by Pam McAllister in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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