Last week's cover story incorrectly described the poet Randall Jarrell's military experience during World War II. He helped train bomber pilots for the U.S. Army Air Corp. (Published 2/5/91)
Look at the terms we use to praise or mock our leaders, said Georgetown University physiologist Estelle Ramey. In a male-dominated political world, where the most insulting label any leader can suffer is "impotent," a forceful leader who happens to be a woman may find herself praised as masculine.
"She's got balls, is the term we actually use," said Ramey, professor emerita of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown Medical Center. "People said that about Maggie Thatcher.
"But what do you say about a forceful man? You don't say the guy has ovaries. It all revolves around the testicles."
Poll after poll has found a "gender gap" in the way American men and women feel about war in general and the Persian Gulf conflict in particular, with women less likely than men to favor use of force against Iraq. Especially before the bombing began, women were much more in favor of alternatives such as economic sanctions. Once the air strikes were launched, the gender gap narrowed, but an ABC-Washington Post poll taken on the first night of bombing still found 84 percent of men but only 68 percent of women approved of going to war.
"The decision to kill large numbers of people, innocent people, to achieve a goal appears to be an easier one for men in leadership to make than women," said Ramey, an expert on human responses to stress. It's not so much a matter of testosterone levels, she said, referring to the male hormone, but "social conditioning. We perceive the world differently."
American boys, researchers agree, grow up more likely than girls to play with warlike toys, participate in warlike games and sports, use macho "locker room" talk and respond aggressively to perceived verbal, personal or physical threats. Girls and women are more likely to shun violent sports and try to talk out differences without resorting to physical force.
But where does such behavior come from? Different hormones or different habits? Are males naturally more aggressive than females? Or does society make them so?
"It's like asking whether the area of a rectangle is more a function of its width or its length," said Eleanor Maccoby, professor emerita of developmental psychology at Stanford University. The answer, of course, is both, just as everything humans do is influenced by both biology and culture, nature and nurture, body and mind, genes and learning. Sorting them out is next to impossible.
"I wish there were clear-cut answers," said John Money, professor of medical psychology and psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore. "But you're up against a big, big scientific problem. There's not just one but many, many variables. Everything is interwoven, like in a spider web."
Sexual stereotypes are pervasive: Men are hunters, women are nurturers; men are adventurers and warriors -- women are homebodies, preservers of the family. Men are hard, women soft.
"It is always difficult to tease out what the biological contribution is and what the cultural contribution is," said Ashley Montagu, the eminent anthropologist and author of "The Nature of Human Aggression," among many other books.
"But whatever the factors responsible," Montagu said, "it is the males who are the warriors, it is the males who incite conflict and it is the women who are the conciliators and do not believe in confrontation. You can see this in any culture in the world."
A young Native American once came up to Ramey after a talk she gave in New Mexico and told her that in his tribe all the important decisions were made by men -- except the decision to go to war.
The reason, he told her, was because "women will fight to the death to protect their children, but they won't go to war for some of the reasons men would." For example, Ramey said, "to save face -- like when one man says, 'I'm gonna kick your ass,' and the other says, 'I'd like to see you try it.'
"That struck me as a very smart way to run things." Back to Biology
"It's not that women don't fight," said Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation." "It's just that women fight when there's something to fight about." By contrast, men continually engage in "ritual combat" -- in sports, in arguments, even in friendly roughhousing.
Women know that they are usually outmatched by men when it comes to brute force, Ramey said. "But there's more than one way to stop a tank. One way is to blow it up. The other is to pour sugar into the gasoline tank. Women have learned first to pour sugar and second to pour sand."
Would the situation in the Persian Gulf be any different if the U.S. president were a woman, or if any of his inner circle of advisors were women, or if he had not been dogged by the "wimp" label for much of the past decade?
"One thing we can say for sure," said Ramey. "None of the people making the decisions had ovaries. The decisionmaking in the White House was entirely male."
But the question is simplistic, she and other experts agree, because it fails to consider individual differences in background, temperament, values and political loyalties. Despite patterns of male and female behavior, exceptions abound.
"It's awfully glib and superficial to think in those terms," said psychologist Maccoby, "though I do suspect the tendency to draw a line in the sand and say you can't step over it is a male one."
Evidence for the physiological explanation -- that males tend to respond differently to threats at least partly because of differing hormones -- has come mainly from studies of brain chemistry in the past 30 years. Researchers have identified dozens of hormones secreted or stimulated by the brain, to the point where Montagu said the human brain is increasingly thought of not as a computer but as a "giant gland."
Testosterone, the main male hormone, is produced by the testicles in response to a complex series of chemical messages from the brain. Testosterone levels in males rise dramatically during puberty, triggering physical changes such as a deepening of the voice and maturing of the sex organs. The levels of testosterone decline gradually after age 20.
Some research has also suggested a link between testosterone levels and aggression, and the effect of testosterone on the male begins before birth. For example, the male brain in utero may be primed by testosterone to produce a lower threshhold of rage and anxiety and a more intense "fight-or-flight" response, Ramey said.
But much more than testosterone levels is involved in development of sexual stereotypes -- or in the events leading up to the Persian Gulf war.
"You can't say that males are aggressive simply because they have more testosterone, because they have testes," said Money. "I could shoot you up with five times your level of testosterone and it wouldn't make you any more aggressive."
From birth, in spite of growing efforts by parents and teachers to treat children equally, sexual roles are defined by upbringing, schooling, social customs, entertainment, mass media and other influences.
"We love to give toys to children -- soldiers to boys and dolls to girls," Montagu said. "That is enormously influential."
Boys growing up in America tend to play a lot more warlike games -- from "cops and robbers" to football -- than girls do, psychologist Maccoby said. They spend more time imitating warlike television and movie heroes, such as Batman and Superman, Conan the Barbarian, Rambo and the Terminator. Their sports are more physical and put more emphasis on who wins and who loses. In recent years, they have become more avid fans of "Star Wars"-type, shoot-'em-up video games that bear an eerie resemblance to some of the Pentagon's charts and videotapes of the war in the Persian Gulf.
"Look in any shopping center video game parlor and you'll find boys playing those things, 4 to 1, over girls," Maccoby said.
Heroic images of strength in American culture are "almost invariably male," said Ruth Sidel, professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York. From John Wayne to Arnold Schwarzenegger, she said, they come to symbolize the individual male overcoming all odds.
Hormonal or habitual, the gender gap shows up very early in childhood. Among groups of girls and boys, Sidel said, "it's much more acceptable for little boys to hit and scream and act out their anger." Little boys tend to "go for it," resorting to physical force more than girls to get their way, said Kate Jacobs, a Washington psychologist who specializes in treating children under age 7.
But a young child who plays with make-believe guns is no more likely than other children to turn into a violent adult, Jacobs said, "any more than wetting your pants at age 2 is a prediction of wetting your pants on your wedding day."
Some parents try to counteract stereotypes -- for example, by giving fire trucks to little girls and dolls to little boys. They may also try to make children nonviolent by prohibiting them from playing with guns. Unfortunately, Jacobs said, this may simply cause confusion or anxiety in the child. When children make imaginary guns with their fingers or sticks and pretend to shoot each other, "they know they're playing. It's the adult who confuses the situation by reacting in horror as if it were a real gun."
American culture inculcates in children at a very early age the notion of rugged individualism, "the idea that in order to be a success you must be a competitive individual," Montagu said, calling this a particularly male attitude.
Central to the male culture of competition is the role of sports. Like many, Sidel said she has been struck by the frequent overlap of jargon between sports, particularly football, and war -- as if the Iraqi conflict were "just a more important game, like the Super Super Bowl or the Super Super Super Bowl."
After the first air strikes were launched against Iraq, a U.S. Air Force officer in Saudi Arabia compared American pilots favorably to the Dallas Cowboys football team. Football expressions have laced discussion of the war by President Bush, Pentagon officials, analysts and journalists: end runs, interceptions, blitzes, game plans. Such metaphors "sound foreign" to many women, Sidel said.
Football, too, is a man's game in which women sit on the sidelines. They only "play" in a supportive role, as fans or cheerleaders.
In the Persian Gulf war, 6 percent of the U.S. forces in the Mideast are women, but they are not allowed in direct combat and cannot serve aboard warships or attack planes or in ground troop units.
So far, the war has come home to most Americans through a series of television images emphasizing the relatively bloodless nature of pinpoint air attacks -- "a high-tech war with no negatives, no bodies, no consequences," in Sidel's words.
The high-tech aspect of the war seems to appeal particularly to masculine imaginations. Men were more apt to feel a thrill while watching television coverage of the first days of the Persian Gulf war -- for example, the dramatic videotape showing how a U.S. Stealth fighter-bomber zeroed in on an Iraqi military headquarters, fired a laser-guided "smart" bomb down an air shaft and blew the building apart from the inside.
"This is a prime example of what men find interesting," linguist Tannen said. "Watching the war on television is fascinating and even fun to them. Women are less likely to be mesmerized by that 'fun' aspect of it and more likely to be appalled by the suffering caused."
"It's not to say that men are creeps and women are angels," Tannen said. "But there seems to be this fascination or preoccupation with war and technology among men, and this fascination with people among women."
In a hospital, Ramey noted, the most exciting place to be is the emergency room. "You see some awful things there, but what makes it exciting is the immediacy of life and death." Men and women, however, approach the work there differently.
"The man takes this as a personal challenge -- he's going to overcome death. The woman sees it a little differently -- she's going to save a life."
Similarly, wartime experience is often seen by men as a test of their manhood, Ramey said, and bravery -- particularly standing up to overwhelming odds -- is a masculine ideal. "Like the man who runs into machine-gun fire. We don't call that insanity, we call it bravery -- even when nothing is gained by it."
For generations of men, war has presented the existential question: How will I do under fire? Yet the great literature of war tends to expose the myths behind the battlefield mystique. As Hemingway wrote in "A Farewell to Arms," in the end "words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concreteness of villages." And poet Randall Jarrell, a bomber pilot in in World War II, remembered this:
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school --
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, "Our casualties were low."
Leading people into war is not exclusively a male phenomenon. History has plenty of examples of women who did not hesitate to take up arms. The suggestion that current events might have been different if a woman were in charge instead of a man ignores the military exploits of female leaders such as ancient Britain's Queen Boadicea, Elizabeth I, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir.
"When the chips are down, women can make exactly the same decisions about war as men can," Money said.
Yet in the Persian Gulf crisis, American women appear to be less eager than men to go to war and more eager to explore nonviolent alternatives for settling disputes.
When Congress voted Jan. 12 to authorize President Bush to use force against Iraq, the resolution carried by 52 to 47 in the Senate and 250 to 183 in the House. The two women senators split, Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) voting "yes" and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) voting "no." Women in the House opposed the use-of-force resolution by 17 to 11.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll taken three days before the war began found that 82 percent of men but only 58 percent of women favored an attack on Iraq if Saddam Hussein failed to withdraw from Kuwait -- a gender gap of 24 percentage points. Earlier polls during the Persian Gulf crisis found gender gaps ranging from 18 to 25 points, wider than during other recent U.S. military interventions.
"To be a man in nature is to be swift of foot, strong of muscle and violent," Ramey said. "To be a woman in nature is to nurture a child so the species can go on."
That division of roles might have made sense for preservation of the species -- at least before the advent of global war and weapons of mass destruction.
"We are creatures of our biology," said Ramey. "The only trouble is, our biology is totally unsuited to the world our brains have created. We're not designed for the world we made."