Respond to this Article April 2003

Homeland Security is for Girls

When it comes to worrying about terrorism, men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

By Garance Franke-Ruta

President Bush was famously criticized after September 11 for asking nothing of Americans but that they go shopping. In February, Bush's Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge went a step further: He gave Americans a shopping list.

On the day he delivered the ominous news of an Orange alert, Ridge suggested that citizens secure duct tape, plastic sheeting, and other necessities to construct a "safe room" in the event that a toxic cloud of something awful happened to settle over their homes. As a resident of Washington D.C., a city that's been through two attacks, Ridge didn't have to tell me twice. I grabbed J., my "emergency preparedness buddy," and set out for Target. We both know she's not good in a crisis; but that's OK, because I'm the type who's had a flashlight, Cipro, and National Guard-issued P100 toxic dust mask on hand for more than a year. (Besides, she's got both the things I require in an evacuation partner: a sense of humor and a car.)

Veteran mallgoers can attest that supply shopping in these anxious times is uncannily like the annual day-after-Thanksgiving blitz. Our neighborhood hardware store was advising customers to line up at 6:30 a.m. For duct tape! So we ventured instead to the bountiful malls of Northern Virginia with no fewer than four--yes, four--crosschecked supply lists in hand. You see, my apartment sits within the area around the White House that Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher has helpfully dubbed "the Death Zone" (thanks, Marc). So to prepare for a massive, radiation-spewing explosion, I figured I needed Ace bandages, large amounts of gauze, medical tape, antibiotic ointment, industrial-strength soap, and eyewash. Check. Check. Check. And for good measure, J. and I splurged not on a pair of Prada mules but on a pair of high-powered communication radios.

As J. and I waited in a checkout line long enough to rival the next Star Wars premiere, something strange gradually dawned on me. Looking around at my fellow preparedness shoppers, I realized that most of those fumbling with D batteries, prepared foodstuffs, and enough bottled water to free Willy were women. Aside from the unshaven few who always huddle around the high-tech gadgets, the male of the species was virtually absent.

As my week dragged on, I began to notice this pattern everywhere. Newspapers regularly publish reports that women are, for example, twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with panic disorder and social phobia, nearly twice as likely to become depressed, and of the 11 million Americans who suffer from phobias, most are--surprise!--women. Men, I decided, are strangely immune from terrorism worries, as well.

It wasn't just my male friends and colleagues who seemed unable to tear themselves away from "SportsCenter." It was also the ones in positions to really worry. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--a man who works in a building that has already been hit by terrorists!--admitted to WMAL radio that he and his family actually hadn't rushed to stock their home with duct tape, plastic sheeting, and bottled water: "I would like to say I did," Rumsfeld mused, as though he hadn't a care in the world, but "I don't believe we do." This was even true of Mr. Orange Alert himself who, it turns out, like so many manly American men, delegated homeland preparedness to the little woman. "Mr. Ridge has a home emergency kit of food, water, and batteries that his wife assembled several months ago," The New York Times reported.

As I contemplated my own response to the Orange Alert and the fact that men were noticeably AWOL from the hardware stores, grocery stores, and pharmacies while the womenfolk prepared for World War III, as I watched the men I know display the same Zen-like indifference that characterizes their approach not just to terror alerts but to well everything, and as I perused the wave of data that showed how the genders responded differently to the terrorism alert, I decided my initial suspicion was indeed a scientific fact: Homeland security is for girls.

Duct-Tape Divas

Ever since September 11, there's been a steady stream of evidence that when it comes to the question of terrorism, men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Certainly, two of the loudest voices of homeland-security anxiety belong to women. Sally Quinn, renowned Georgetown socialite and Washington Post reporter, could very well be the leading candidate for the title of "most anxious woman in America." New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is running a close second.

"Nobody in America makes me feel more insecure than Tom Ridge," Dowd confessed in a Feb. 23 column. "The man who is supposed to restore my confidence in the prospect of my safety gives me the uneasy sense that the door's unlocked, the alarm's off, and there's a ladder leaning up against the house." Not to be outdone, Quinn penned her own column. "A large portion of the population is in denial," she pointed out, in what perhaps was an oblique reference to the masculine gender. "Those people need to understand that they can do things to save their lives and the lives of their families." Quinn wasn't content with a mere op-ed; she's spearheading an entire special supplement in The Washington Post on how to prepare for an attack.

While Quinn and Dowd trilled in the papers, women all over Washington were making plans. According to a Washington Post survey, about 62 percent of all people in the Washington region took at least one step to prepare themselves for an attack in the week after the Code was raised. But statistics suggest most were women. An ABC News-Washington Post poll showed that 40 percent of women were worried about becoming a victim of terrorism, compared to just 25 percent of men. A University of Washington study conducted shortly after the 9/11 attacks showed that women travelers found flying more stressful than men. And a Pew Research Center survey found that half of all women, but just 30 percent of men, were "somewhat" or "very" concerned about new attacks. So naturally, more women than men reported post-attack depression and insomnia. And what do men think about all this? While Dowd agonized over Cape Fear-style home-invasion scenarios, Times columnist Thomas Friedman--on the same page and on the very same day--proudly insisted "the only survival purchase I've made since Code Orange is a new set of Ben Hogan Apex irons."

What is it about terrorism and men that sparks this strutting machismo and brings out their inner Rumsfeld? I can think of three reasons. Any sentient female recognizes that there is nothing men hate more than shopping. In fact, scientists have documented this. In 1998, British psychologist David Lewis found that when men were faced with crowded stores and complex shopping expeditions, their symptoms of physical stress shot into the stratosphere. "In some cases," Lewis told reporters, "when we looked at heart rate and blood pressure, this is something you'd expect to see in a fighter pilot going into combat." The truth is that for most men, a trip to Target for a disaster supply kit may be scarier than doing nothing.

Number two--and the fact that this is the 21st century notwithstanding--women still hold primary responsibility for the care and maintenance of America's homes. The entire homeland security debate is framed in terms of what you can do to protect your home, which essentially turns terrorism preparedness into a high-stress equivalent of baby-proofing. After all, Ridge dispatched millions of anxious Americans to Home Depot--not army surplus stores or Office Depot, mind you--for plastic sheeting and duct tape. So unless the Homeland Security Department's Green Alert involves some sort of lawn care competition that permits riding mowers, don't expect male involvement anytime soon.

The third reason for the homeland security gender gap is that, like Tom Ridge, men everywhere know that if they procrastinate for long enough, women will do the home job for them. In the annals of war, there is actually a long history of this. Earlier in the 20th century, "home defense" was considered an aspect of "feminine patriotism." Previous wars not only gave women specific roles, such as within the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, but called upon them explicitly to defend the home front and keep the home fires burning. While women have now moved into more substantive positions in America's military--as soldiers, support staff, and doctors--at home they've been left to fend for themselves. So once again, women are taking on the thankless but vital task of getting things ready. And when an attack does come, the men will be the ones scrambling around asking their wives where they keep D batteries and duct tape.

None of this makes life any easier for women, who have a harder time with terrorism even without the extra preparedness workload. A recent SLS Health study discovered that women were still considerably more traumatized by September 11, with one-third reporting anxiety or nightmares (compared to about zero percent of men). Women were also much likelier to avoid social situations or places they felt might be likely targets for future attacks. (Apparently we make an exception for Target.) And this is not just true of Washington-area women. The homeland security gender gap also showed up in studies of Canadian responses to 9/11.

So why do women feel they're more likely to be targets when in reality few outside certain neighborhoods are apt to be at any risk at all? "Women feel more insecure because generally they are more insecure," explains pollster Anna Greenberg. Women aren't just more likely to be more worried about terrorism than men, they're often more anxious about everything else that can go wrong, too. Which makes sense, she says, when you consider that women are more likely to be in the low-wage service sector, more likely to be laid off or unemployed, and more likely to be cash-strapped single heads of households. When things go wrong, they simply tend to hit women harder.

Strategies for Stress

While the woman in me was silently calculating the yards of duct tape I would need to secure my apartment, the political reporter in me got to thinking that any political party would be foolish not to notice this trend and exploit it. Neither party is, in fact, foolish.

As Greenberg's polling revealed after last year's elections, the gender gap Democrats have relied on for decades shrank dramatically. Democrats won women's votes by a meager 2 percent in 2002, down from the 6 to 10 point gaps in the 1990s. Pollsters note that this narrowing is due to Democrats losing some of their traditional advantage on issues such as Social Security, prescription drugs, and education. But Bush's tough line on terrorism is also making women feel more secure about supporting Republicans--though Ridge's ham-handed management of terror alarms has limited the GOP's appeal to women.

Conversely, it's no coincidence that the Democrats' main line of attack these days is how Republicans have shortchanged homeland security spending. What could appeal more to anxious women voters than a political party that fights alongside them in the thankless task of preparation? Indeed, since the election, Democrats--now led by woman in the House of Representatives, remember--have hammered the Bush administration on this subject and seen their poll numbers rebound accordingly.

It's strange to think that the Orange Alert that sent J. and I scrambling for duct tape and walkie-talkies also played right into the parties' political strategies. Or maybe it's just that scientists still underestimate how much men hate shopping.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a senior editor of The American Prospect.


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