Study: In post-9/11 atmosphere of war, voters favor male candidates

August 13, 2004

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- A clear bias favoring male candidates accompanies America's war on terrorism, according to a new study by a political scientist at Brown University. Women fare as well as men when issues play to women's stereotypical strengths but are at a disadvantage when "men's issues" dominate the agenda.

Almost two-thirds of 2,119 people randomly surveyed a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks said men and women are not equally suited to deal with military affairs. Of the 64 percent of participants who expressed a gender-based distinction on this issue, 95 percent indicated that men are better able than women to deal with military crises.

The research provides the first evidence of how the atmosphere of war shapes voters' attitudes about men and women as candidates for high-level office, said Jennifer Lawless, assistant professor of political science. It also contradicts earlier studies that indicated voters are unbiased against women candidates at the polls.

"Perhaps we were too narrow-sighted when we concluded that the electoral arena is unbiased against women candidates," said Lawless, whose study is published in the September Political Research Quarterly. "Winning elections has nothing to do with the sex of the candidate as long as domestic policy issues comprise the political agenda."

Voters perceive male candidates as more competent than females to legislate on issues of military crises, crime, the economy and agriculture; voters perceive female candidates as having expertise when the issues are gender equity, education, health care and poverty.

While foreign policy concerns did not play a central role in political campaigns during the last several election cycles, that changed on September 11, 2001, and the change had an impact on the last election.

In 2002, a record number of women ran for governor, senator and U.S. representative, yet the election did not result in an increase in women's presence in Congress. The number of women in the House of Representatives remained at 59, with 13 in the Senate. It was one of only two elections in the last 20 years that did not result in an increase in representation by women.

Following the terrorist attacks, the percentage of citizens willing to support a female presidential party nominee also significantly decreased. When Lawless conducted the study, the overall willingness to elect a woman president was as low as it was three decades ago, long before women broke into the political sphere and demonstrated their ability to legislate.

Voters are more likely to perceive men as strong, assertive, confident foreign policy experts. These traits are particularly relevant in a political context dominated by fighting terrorism, deploying troops, protecting national security and brokering peace agreements.

From Aug. 23, 2002, through Sept. 11, 2002, when the survey was conducted, Americans indicated that the war on terrorism was the most important issue facing the country. Those weeks included the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The U.S military was already fighting in Afghanistan but had not yet entered Iraq.
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Brown University

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