In the weeks leading up to the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, news watchers grew accustomed to poll stories with headlines like the Washington Post’s “Public Unyielding in War Against Terror; 9 in 10 Back Robust Military Response” (9/29/01). The numbers seemed overwhelming: Two out of three respondents to the Post poll “would favor military action even if the result was a long war in which large numbers of U.S. troops were killed.” Such reports give the impression that Americans are, as the Post declared, “unswerving” in their support for war and unified in their “demand for a full-scale response.”
But the public is not a monolithic group, and those numbers don’t tell the whole story. In the final two paragraphs of its 1,395-word story, the Post acknowledged “pockets of hesitancy that may turn into more hardened opposition as a military action proceeds.” Women, it turns out, “were significantly less likely to support a long and costly war.” According to the Post, while 44 percent of women would support a broad military effort, “48 percent said they want a limited strike or no military action at all.”
Similarly, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll (Gallup.com, 10/5/01) showed that 64 percent of men think the U.S. “should mount a long-term war,” while just 24 percent favored limiting retaliation to punishing the specific groups responsible for the September 11 attacks. In contrast, “women are evenly divided—with 42 percent favoring each option.” Noting that women’s support for war, though nearly as high as men’s, “is much more conditional,” Gallup’s analysis shows that women’s support is more sensitive to potential consequences. For example, though 88 percent of women said they favored taking some sort of retaliatory military action, only 55 percent of women would still support military action if 1,000 American troops would be killed (76 percent of men would still support a war under these circumstances).
Considering that women are half the population, why have we gotten the impression that the public in general has no-holds-barred enthusiasm for an open-ended war? Part of the reason could be the op-ed pages of the country’s major dailies, where women’s voices have been remarkably scarce in the month following the attacks.
According to a survey by FAIR’s Women’s Desk, out of 309 bylined op-eds published by the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today between September 12 and October 11, men wrote 283 (92 percent). Even women’s meager 8 percent representation may be misleading: Nearly a third of all female-authored opinions were written by just one woman—Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
Of course, gender equity on the op-ed pages of these dailies would not guarantee proportional representation for women who dissent from the war policy; some of the most virulently anti-Muslim columns have been written by female pundits. But as Geneva Overholser, a former Washington Post ombudsman, noted in a look at women’s post-September 11 op-ed invisibility (All Things Considered, 9/27/01), “I just think that if half the commentators were women . . . the conversation about how best to respond would have been richer, sooner.”