An essay by Dr. Judith L. Hand (2010)
In 2005, I established a website dedicated to abolishing war. Among a great many necessities, an important key element is to have empowered women as leaders and followers. Women, it is argued, are the natural allies of nonviolent conflict resolution, and leaving them on the sidelines in a campaign to entirely end the practice of war guarantees failure. Reading this or hearing me speak, insistent skeptics often throw out the challenge, “If women are allies of nonviolence, how do you explain Sarah Palin? And what’s with Ann Coulter?”
Years ago, when people were working, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee to women the rights guaranteed to men, people often asked me, “How do you explain Phyllis Schlafly?” Schlafly fought hard to defeat the amendment; she was the poster-girl for keeping women in their traditional places and hampered by traditional limitations (although she did not actually practice what she preached, being extremely active outside the home).
Rather than skeptical, the tone of the questions at that time tended to be puzzled: how to explain women like Schlafly who dug in their heels to prevent change, even change that would give their mothers, sisters, and daughters rights equal to those granted to men. The behavior of these women seemed so counterintuitive. Shouldn’t all women want women to have equal pay for equal work, equal ability buy stocks without a husband’s okay, equal access to the money available for sports programs in schools, and so on? Why should women have to fight every possible inequality one by one, with the ever-present possibility of loosing any given right should state legislators change their minds when an amendment could make sexual equality set law in all states for all time?
Back then I had a couple of answers, based mostly on personal experience, answers I still consider valid. In the years since, I’ve explored the subjects of social conflict, war, and male/female gender differences with respect to physical aggression. This produced a much clearer understanding of this seeming puzzle of women-as-conservatives phenomenon, even when it keeps them subordinate to men or leads them to support a president who wants to wage preemptive war. My answers now are more inclusive and based on biological, anthropological, and psychological studies.
First, some perspective. There have always been women like Sarah. That is, women of aggressive, risk-taking temperament who were emotionally and intellectually aligned with the dominant ethos of their time. They were not only not motivated to overturn that ethos, say for something less aggressive, they were supporters of it. Even benefitted from it. For famous examples we have Cleopatra, who wanted to not only rule Egypt, but much of the Roman Empire.
Or Isabella of Spain, who not only supported the pillaging of the New World for its gold, but who supported the Inquisition’s really evil work.
We also have examples of legions of unknown but equally passionate women who fought progressive actions that might elevate the status of women, for example the many women in a variety of countries who fought their fellow female citizens who were seeking the power of the vote. So the phenomenon of women being conservative…that is, supporting a status quo in which men dominate and domination by physical force is seen as inevitable, this is certainly not new.
So how does an evolutionary biologist who argues that we could do something as extraordinary as abolishing war—a move hugely progressive and one that would involve massive changes in our world view that you would think would make things so much better for women and children—how does that biologist explain someone like Sarah Palin and the phenomenon of her passionate female followers? (Why men are conservatives isn’t under review in this essay).
Somewhat surprisingly, understanding the phenomenon isn’t too difficult if we look first through the lens not of psychology or even sociology, but starting with evolutionary biology. This is the science that looks at the origins of human actions with an eye as to how a given behavior or built-in emotional preference helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce. Those of our ancestors with traits that made them more successful than other individuals at survival and reproduction passed on their success-enabling traits. We are their inheritors, and our behavior today, while strongly influenced by culture, also reflects those biologically built-in traits.
So let’s look at the biology. The first big insight comes when we understand that women, as a group, prefer to invest their energies in and are more inclined toward behavior that fosters social stability than are men. Women, as a group, are also far less inclined to use physical aggression to get their way since starting fights often leads to more fighting and consequently, possible physical injury or death for women, their close associates, families, and most significantly, their children. The reasons for this are explained in some detail in an essay "Differences Between Men and Women With Respect to Physical Aggression and Social Stability." Also in a book, "Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace."
It is this preference for social stability and aversion to fighting within their communities, where they are raising children, that makes women deeply conservative in many ways. Suffice it to say here, the difference between women and men with respect to these traits isn’t something black and white (Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace, pp. 31-32). It’s not that there isn’t overlap between women and men about just how much they prefer to avoid fighting or the extent to which they use behavior that avoids or prevents major social disruption. There is overlap, but it’s not perfect. And women are much more inclined to emotionally prefer a socially stable community, and they have a number of built-in traits that foster stability (Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace, p. 136).
I would like to see more quantitative, objective studies comparing women and men on behavior that fosters social stability, like using negotiation and compromise when people must resolve social conflicts or constantly using foresight to anticipate what things might lead to fighting so as to avoid those things. We don’t have much quantitative data that I’m aware of. But we have qualitative studies showing that women are more natural negotiators, more willing to compromise. Women, as a group, are far less inclined to overturn the social order, even if doing so only requires them to vote secretly to do it. It’s because women are geared to prefer social stability that they are deeply conservative.
What this means is that women are unlikely in big numbers to support overturning the social order or changing the social culture into which they are born. They will be seriously upset if they feel the status quo is being threatened. In surprising numbers they will oppose, for example, an Equal Rights Amendment. In impressive numbers they will be frightened at the thought of changing their “capitalist” system, the one into which they were raised, to a “socialist” system that is characterized for them as state control over all aspects of their lives, a huge change.
There is another factor at work that we must take into account when figuring why women make the choices they do. There will always be a certain percentage of women with what we might describe as a more masculine temperament, willing to take risks. They come out on the far right side of a bell curve measuring risk-taking propensities. They take up mountain climbing. They start revolutions.
Imagine in this set of curves that we are measuring, on the horizontal axis, the willingness to take physical risks, with total risk-aversion to the left and increasing willingness to take physical risks progressing as you move to the right to the point where danger to life is involved (it’s not important what is actually being measured…I’m using these curves as an example). On the vertical axis we plot the numbers of men (red) and women (blue) that exhibit a given level of risk-taking willingness.
We don’t have actual measures for these differences, but at least in the U.S. at this time, a number of studies show that men, represented by the red, are the more numerous and bigger physical risk-takers. But there are plenty of women who are also of that temperament, although very few or possibly no women would measure up at the extreme right end.
I know I fall more on the high end of this tendency, but certainly not at the very high end. I have no desire to climb Mt. Everest…although I have fanaticized positively at times about bungee jumping and sky diving (but never got up the nerve to do it). I love to shoot guns and take (not too dangerous) physical risks. I would have loved to fly jets! I’m pretty sure Sarah also falls on the high end. Note however, that significant numbers of women, more women than men, would be to the left on this risk-taking measure.
So here is part of the puzzle about women: some of the women who fall on the risk-taking end of things will buy into the status quo—like Cleopatra or Phyllis Schlafly or Sarah Palin. Others will be women who want to change the system to something they perceive to be better and are willing to fight to make that change happen—like the suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul, or Hillary Clinton.
There are also some notable exceptions to women’s unwillingness to overturn current practice or take on a war that we need to include in the picture. This has to do with the welfare of their children or defense of the community in which they are raising those children. Women, even women low on the scale for personal risk-taking for example, will vote for preemptive war if they are convinced that doing so is absolutely necessary to avoid a physical attack on their community. They will egg the men on, which is the most common response. But if necessary, they will fight, and fight bravely (Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace, pp 93-109).
Women (in general) do not lack courage, they just prefer using nonviolent means of resolving problems if at all possible, and especially nature has equipped them to want to avoid physical risk to themselves or their families and children.
So what happens is that our warrior culture in the United States raises pretty much all of us in a warrior mentality – and if a woman is raised to admire guns and hunting and kicking ass and she is one of those women on the bell curve with a more confrontational, fighting spirit, she’ll be attracted to using violence, or at least incendiary speech, as part of an urge to protect her community.
Women like Sarah can be utterly sincere, protecting what they know and believe, protecting what makes them feel comfortable. And for them, that does NOT include change. It involves fiercely defending the status quo from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Perhaps even insisting that we return to the “time of the Founding Fathers.” For some women it involves fiercely defending the tenets of a religious belief that is the core of their worldview as they perceive their beliefs to relate to politics. Ann Coulter for example, another fiery woman, seems to fit in that category.
Women who become revolutionaries, on the other hand, who kick over the traces or take on the system, women who would be considered progressives, have a different background. In my experience such women spring up from several different soils. The pattern I noticed as a young woman was that many women I met who were stepping out to lead the movement when it was still very risky to do so typically had a supportive father who told his daughter she could do ANYTHING, BE anything she wanted to be, a father who was himself progressive. I suspect this would not include Sarah.
Other female revolutionaries at some point receive an education that is well outside the warrior mentality box (for example, a lot of graduates from places like Wellesley or from a religious community that fosters equality and a non-warrior way of life, such as Quakers). This also does not include Sarah. Others are brilliant minds that simply refuse to be put into the standard boxes. I think of Oprah Winfrey. This is also not Sarah.
As a final point, the great paradigm shift I champion, the abolition of war—which many people want and some are starting to embrace—will upset a lot of women because it will, for a time, create enormous social turmoil. The many changes involved are the subject of AFWW cornerstone essays, and my book Shift: The Beginning of War, the Ending of War.
In a country like the United States which is still soaked to the bone in a warrior culture mentality, this turmoil will be especially upsetting, and not just for women. The United States is a country where people freely talk about pulling out guns to redress a grievance. A country in which there is an ethos of total independence that frequently overrides a sense of doing what is good for the community. Many women especially will find this turmoil to be uncomfortable. They will dig in their heels, fearful of the profound changes happening around them as progressives try to make changes they believe will deliver a more egalitarian and less violent future. Will “gay marriage” destroy the family? Will getting rid of nuclear weapons make our communities less safe? Will having women in combat weaken our fighting forces? The list of possible changes and the fears they prompt is a long one.
Other women, however, will be attracted at once to the prospect of what they see as a great, positive change, and will be willing to work hard and do whatever they can to support anyone moving in that direction…including the U.S. current president, Barack Obama. Their fighting spirit to protect their children and communities will kick in and they, like Sarah, will be unstoppable…but in their case, in a fight for change.
I predict that if serious progress is made in the direction of positive change to create a community of nations determined to cooperate, not only to end war but to take on other major problems facing all of us, even initially fearful women will remarkably swiftly come on board. Future social stability will depend upon cooperation, not fighting, and social stability is a prime female value.
It will be fascinating to me over the next decades to watch women choose sides.
So bottom Line: Don’t expect all women to be progressives. Expect there to be at least some, those on the right side of the risk-taking curve, who will fight hard with words or in some cases even with action to maintain the status quo or return to an ideal past—real or as they imagine it to be. There will be female Tea Partiers, and not because they like tea parties.
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About the Author
Dr. Judith L. Hand. Dr. Hand earned her Ph.D. in biology from UCLA. Her studies included animal behavior and primatology. After completing a Smithsonian Post-doctoral Fellowship at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., she returned to UCLA as a research associate and lecturer. Her undergraduate major was in cultural anthropology. She worked as a technician in neurophysiology laboratories at UCLA and the Max Planck Institute, in Munich, Germany. As a student of animal communication, she is the author of several books and scientific papers on the subject of social conflict resolution.