St. Petersburg Times columnist Robyn Blumner has unwittingly stepped into a David-and-Goliath war with radio talk show king Rush Limbaugh over the issues of politics, gender, and values. Can, and should, female values change and improve world politics? It's a debate that has been with us for at least 150 years, and shows no sign of being resolved.
Blumner opened the skirmish with an Aug. 20 column provocatively titled "US could use more girlie men." (Full disclosure: Blumner is a friend and a board member of the Women's Freedom Network, a group I helped found in 1994.) Drawing on the HBO series "Deadwood," set in the nearly all-male environment of a gold mining camp in the 1870s, Blumner noted that a "testosterone-laden" world ruled by the code of the gunslinger is an inhospitable place not only for women but for kinder, gentler, smarter men. Then she wrote, "I've been feeling lately that the world has suddenly gone all male—Deadwood-male to be exact. And this is not a good sign for civilization."
As an example of this hypermasculine ethos, Blumner cited radical Islamic fundamentalism and cultures where "men would rather shoot guns at ancient enemies than build a modern society." But she argued that the Bush administration with its "cowboy approach to geopolitics," its reliance on warfare over diplomacy, and its cavalier attitude toward niceties like due process was a part of the same problem. Enter Limbaugh, who was quick to brand Blumner "blissfully naive" and "a useful idiot," and whose callers (as Blumner recounts in her latest column on Aug. 27) scornfully asserted that without all those macho men to protect her freedoms, Blumner would be dead or encased in a burka.
Blumner has explained that she is not a pacifist—she simply believes that military force has to be balanced with diplomacy—and that she is not a male-basher, either. From my acquaintance with Blumner, she is not someone who judges people by their gender. Which is why I think it's unfortunate that she chose to bring gender into the discussion.
The idea that "female values" would save the world was popular in the 1980s, when the Cold War seemed to have no end and fears of nuclear annihilation ran high. Back then, many feminist commentators embraced psychologist Carol Gilligan's 1982 book "In a Different Voice," which affirmed that female ethical thinking was rooted in care, compassion, and connection to others, in contrast to the male language of abstract justice, rights, and self-assertion. Peace activist Dr. Helen Caldicott argued that the nuclear arms race was a product of the male ego with its "my-missiles-are-bigger-than-yours" posturing.
Yet subsequent research has found that men and women don't differ much in their moral reasoning, and that both sexes apply the principles of justice and care to ethical dilemmas. Teenage girls may be more relationship-oriented than boys, but their social networks also feature ruthless competition and dominance. As scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese noted in her 1991 book "Feminism Without Illusions:" "Those who have experienced dismissal by the junior high school girls' clique could not, with a straight face, claim generosity and nurture as a natural attribute of women."
In politics, women tend to be less supportive of the use of military force than men are, though this difference often evaporates when, as in the post-Sept. 11 world, women perceive a real and present threat to their security. And there are plenty of female leaders who fit what some would call the "cowboy" model (think Margaret Thatcher), as well as plenty of male peacemakers and diplomats. One of the most prominent foreign-policy hardliners in the Bush administration is a woman, Condoleezza Rice.
Let's not forget, too, that women are found in the ranks of terrorists and their supporters, just as they are found among instigators of racial and religious hate. It would be naive, and a bit condescending, to see all those women as mere puppets of men or vessels for testosterone-driven values. All too often, hate has no gender.
Whether more talk and less force would be a good approach to our problems is a question for another day. But it's a question of human values, not male or female ones. Once gender is introduced into the debate, we run the risk of reducing complex issues to Mars-Venus platitudes. We also open the door to sexist cheap shots, such as Limbaugh's sneering reference to the "chickification of news" and his explanation of Blumner's views: "She's a woman, for crying out loud."