A National-Security Gender Gap

We're hearing a lot about national security these days, but it's always defined in one-dimensional terms -- as protection from external enemies. But there is another aspect of national security that is traditionally recognized as vital to any nation, and this is protection from the internal enemies of neglect, ignorance and despair. These may not appear to be immediate threats, but over time they can destroy a society. True homeland security requires a strong defense against internal as well as external vulnerabilities.

The two elements of national security have been linked since time immemorial with regard to gender. The most powerful archetypes in human culture are the warrior and the mother, Mars and Venus, the destroyer and the creator, the avenger and the nurturer. Military protection and social reproduction: We couldn't survive without either one. Defining national security in only one of these terms is as stupid as thinking that one well-muscled leg is better than a right one and a left.

Yet our current leaders seem to believe that sheer military might is all we need to be safe. The warriors have a blank check on our resources while mothers and children are being told the cupboard is bare. The treasure poured into external defense has transformed American military technology and put the United States in a category of its own in terms of weaponry and the ability to project force. America's warriors are No. 1; no debate.

Our mothers, on the other hand, don't even rank in the top 10 by most measures. The United States is 35th in the world in mortality rates for children under the age of five, alongside Croatia and Malaysia. We are 54th in the world in access to health care, particularly for women and children. We are one of only five countries in the world that does not guarantee paid leave to a new parent. We have the highest rates of maternal and child poverty in the industrialized world. Motherhood, in fact, is the biggest risk factor for poverty in America.

Because many parents can't take time off to care for their newborns, we have more infants in day care than any other wealthy nation, and millions of mothers are unable to breast feed for the length of time recommended by pediatricians. We have fewer 3-5-year-olds in preschool. More than 20 percent of American adults are functionally illiterate. We have more people in prison than any country in the world.

In Iowa, the all-American heartland, in just one county surrounding Des Moines, 18,330 kids live in poverty, 5,500 eligible children have no health insurance, 680 homeless children are in shelters every day and more than 10,000 kids are suspended from school annually. Most of these kids are white, growing up at risk of becoming troubled and unproductive, unless things change. Does this sound like homeland security to you?

Of course not, you're thinking, but what does this have to do with gender? Isn't this a national problem? Why call it a women's issue?

It is a women's issue in part because the country's decision to beef up the military and starve domestic security shifts money and jobs from women to men. The military, like its "hard" twin, law enforcement, is still overwhelmingly a masculine institution, a focus of masculine fascination and a source of income for guys. Education, health care, child care and other "soft" human services are still overwhelmingly a source of jobs and income for women. There is nothing gender neutral about our current definition of national security, or our current federal budget. We are diverting our national wealth to priorities preferred by men, at the expense of priorities more valued by women. If we were to create more balance between our response to the internal and external threats to our well-being, millions of American women would be better-off economically. And that means that children would be better-off, too.

I agree with the French that there is a difference between men and women. It is interesting to remember that some of the early French feminists explicitly argued for "equality in difference" between the masculine and the feminine, between warriors and mothers. But warriors and mothers have never been equal except in myth, especially in the United States today. Our mothers are still an unpaid or ill-paid, poorly equipped army of volunteers.

This is a shortsighted, one-sided defense policy. And it's a women's issue because women are most negatively affected, and women are going to have to lead the charge for change. Otherwise we will continue to be, as Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset described Americans years ago, "a primitive people, camouflaged behind the latest inventions."

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