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Gender Differences in Public Attitudes toward the Use of Force by the United States, 1990-2003
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International Security 28.1 (2003) 110-141

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Gender Differences in Public Attitudes toward the Use of Force by the United States, 1990-2003

Richard C. Eichenberg


In their study of gender differences in public reactions to the 1990-91 Persian Gulf crisis and war, Virginia Sapiro and Pamela Conover analyzed a number of American survey items dealing with hypothetical security policies as well as concrete questions involving the use of military force and its consequences. The results were clear: Although a gender difference on the more abstract, hypothetical questions was weak or nonexistent, when the analysis turned to the specific questions of using force against Iraq and the civilian and military casualties that could result, the differences became large indeed. Sapiro and Conover concluded that "when we moved from the abstract to the concrete—from hypothetical wars to the Gulf War—the distance separating women and men grew, and on every measure, women reacted more negatively. These gender differences are some of the largest and most consistent in the study of political psychology and are clearly of a magnitude that can have real political significance under the right circumstances." 1

Less than ten years later, as NATO warplanes continued their attacks against Serbia, the Christian Science Monitor reported that the gender difference in public opinion concerning the war over Kosovo was far smaller than it had been in previous wars: "As debate persists in America over how much to use force, [End Page 110] fewer women are 'doves.'" 2 After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Council on Foreign Relations conducted a survey on defense issues and reported that "women's opinion on defense policies has been transformed" because their views of defense spending and missile defense (among other issues) now closely resembled those of men. 3

What explains the disappearance of such yawning gender differences over U.S. defense issues? One might speculate that the Gulf War was unique, a dramatic, highly publicized occurrence accompanied by considerable discussion of potential casualties and a polarized political leadership. That public opinion would polarize in such a context is not surprising. The Kosovo war, in contrast, began with President Bill Clinton's stated intention to avoid using ground troops, thus lessening the fear of casualties. One might also speculate (as does the Christian Science Monitor) that the war over Kosovo involved humanitarian and other issues that convinced women of the moral necessity of using force to halt the atrocities being carried out by Serbian forces—many against women. And of course, the attacks of September 11 brought near unanimity to the view of citizens and leaders alike that military force was necessary to protect the United States from grievous harm. One does not expect gender polarization under such conditions of near-universal consensus.

However plausible such speculation, there is no basis in the social science literature for favoring one or the other of these arguments, because scholarly knowledge of gender differences on national security issues rests on sparse evidence. For example, Bruce Jentleson's research on a "principal policy objectives" framework has produced robust findings on the determinants of overall public support for the use of military force. To my knowledge, however, there has been no attempt to extend that framework to an analysis of differences within the general public. In addition, scholarly research on gender differences and the use of force are concentrated on three major conflicts: the Korean, Vietnam, and 1991 Persian Gulf Wars. 4 These are important cases, but they are also unique—they are wars after all—and therefore potentially unrepresentative. Finally, with the partial exception of Lisa Brandes's analysis of surveys during [End Page 111] the Korean and Vietnam Wars, there is to my knowledge virtually no research on the historical evolution of gender differences on the use of force. Of course, the lack of data over time makes it difficult to sort out the degree of constancy or variability in gender differences. Perhaps not surprising, therefore, the standard monograph on public opinion and U.S...