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Gender gap narrows over Kosovo

As debate persists in America over how much force to use, fewer women

Sarah Abrams is "not at all convinced" America should be bombing Yugoslavia. She believes more diplomacy was warranted before taking to the skies.

Her husband, Rod Kessler, is more confident about the morality of the NATO airstrikes. Not only that, he also believes the US should introduce ground troops. "If we believe force is required here, then the moral necessity should be to do it with all force," he says.

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The gap in this Cambridge couple's opinions provides a window into the ambivalence the American public still feels about US involvement in the Balkans and enduring differences between the sexes in how they view the use of force.

Historically, women have been more reluctant than men to send soldiers into combat. While the differences still remain, experts say a subtle shift is under way in which more women are now willing to support the use of military might.

Such a move, even if slight, could be important as the US debate over Yugoslavia intensifies and the nation continues to search for its moral bearing in the post-Vietnam era.

Indeed, the vote by the US House this week to bar President Clinton from sending in ground troops without congressional approval - and even failing to support the NATO air campaign - reflected more than partisan differences and showed how divisive the issue remains.

"A lot of people on the left, male or female, who are normally pacifists are supporting this war, so maybe it's not so much a gap just of gender, but of ideology," says Cathy Young, a gender expert at the Cato Institute.

But for now, differences in perceptions do remain. Some polls show that, by as many as 10 points, women are less supportive of the airstrikes in Yugoslavia than men are. And in at least one survey, women were almost twice as likely to oppose the introduction of US ground troops when casualties were mentioned.

"It's a constant: It's almost one of the laws of public opinion that women are less likely in almost all cases to approve the use of force," says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington.

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History of the gender divide

Whether the cause is nurture or nature, some degree of gender gap has existed on questions of armed conflict since polls were first invented. Throughout World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and on to the Persian Gulf conflict, there have been consistent differences in the way men and women view the need to use force, with mothers hesitating while many of their sons were raring to go.

Just before the air campaign against Baghdad in the Persian Gulf War in January 1991, 62 percent of men surveyed favored military action, compared with only 41 percent of women - a 20-point gap.

This time, in Kosovo, the polls show a narrower gap - 10 points at most. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the difference between women's and men's views was only 4 points, close to the margin of error.

"There's more of an understanding of political reality today, that regrettably there are going to be situations where war is necessary, and it's also less glamorized than in the past," says Jayne Tear, a corporate gender consultant in New York.

Experts see a variety of reasons for the shrinking gender gap concerning use of military force: the increased involvement of women in the work world and the military, the sanitized nature of much of the war footage now portrayed in the media, and the humanitarian mission of this war.

"Certainly, the suffering of women has been heavily emphasized; there are lots of concerns about women being raped," says Ms. Young, who is also the author of "Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality." "Although, it's the men who are being rounded up and shot."

Women, though, are much more likely to favor diplomacy, historically as well as in Kosovo. In 1996, the Pew Research Center asked respondents whether the best way to ensure peace was through military strength or diplomacy. Thirty-nine percent of men and only 21 percent of women "strongly agreed" that military strength was the answer. But 50 percent of women (compared with 37 percent of men) opted for diplomacy.

The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked whether the United States and NATO should continue bombing or pause the airstrikes to allow time to negotiate a settlement. Fifty-nine percent of the men supported continued bombing, compared with 46 percent of the women, a 13-point gap.

While most American women still favor the use of talk over tanks, they also have become, as a group, more willing to consider the importance of a strong military. Throughout the cold war, women were consistently less supportive of military spending than men were.

To more women, a dangerous world

"In the post-cold-war period, you often have women thinking that the world is more dangerous than men do, so that traditional position on military spending has been muted somewhat," says pollster Celinda Lake. "It's part of why we have less debate now in this country on what should be the level of military spending."

While poll numbers and gaps are interesting gauges to use in looking at how the country as a whole is reacting, they can be misleading if used to predict anything about individuals. Young did an analysis of a 60/40 breakdown, a 20-point gender gap, and estimated how many times you'd be right if you randomly selected couples and assumed they fit the polling profile.

"If you make the assumption that the man is pro-war and the woman is antiwar, you'll be wrong 2 out of 3 times," she says. "It's an interesting reminder that even with these gender gaps, we really have to look at the individuals first."

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