Feminism (International Relations)

Feminism (International Relations)

In this article, we shall examine the theory of feminism in international relations. We shall examine the history of feminism in international relations theory, and also discuss the theory within the context of other theories such as realism and liberalism. More specifically, we shall examine feminist critiques of these theories within the field. We will also examine main characteristics of feminist theory in international affairs.

Feminist Theory in International Relations

Feminist theory looks at international relations through the lens of gender and equality. Feminists examine gender stereotypes in international relations, and in particular how some assume that power is a male characteristic. Feminist theorists look at how these sorts of stereotypes affect actors in the international system.

Traditionally, many of the international theories centered on examining state relations within one another, particularly with an emphasis on war and also trade. Furthermore, Feminist theories have long argued that international relations has primarily been one of patriarchy; “feminist theory says that most of the key players in IR, such as diplomats, policymakers, heads of government, and academic professionals, have been, and still are, males who come from patriarchal social and political backgrounds” (Ruiz, 2004). However, in recent years, and arguably since the end of the Cold War, there has been an increased shift from only relying on a limited number of theories for explaining events in the international system. For example, in recent decades, there has been more attention to issues of human security, as opposed to more traditional approaches to only examining security from the perspective of the state.

As Tickner (1992) writes: “Framed in its own set of binary distinctions, the discipline of international relations assumes similarly hierarchical relationships when it posits an anarchic world “outside” to be defended against through the accumulation and rational use of power. In political discourse, this becomes translated into stereotypical notions about those who inhabit the outside. Like women, foreigners are frequently portrayed as “the other”: nonwhites and tropical countries are often depicted as irrational, emotional, and unstable, characteristics that are also attributed to women. The construction of this discourse and the way in which we are taught to think about international politics closely parallel the way in which we are socialized into understanding gender differences. To ignore these hierarchical constructions and their relevance to power is therefore to risk perpetuating these relationships of domination and subordination.”

Feminism, Realism, and Liberalism Theories

Feminist examinations of international relations are important, as they challenge traditional ways that we look at core international relations concepts such as power, security, and economics. While the more historical theories of realism and liberalism tend to get much of the attention with regards to explaining the relations within the world we live in, feminism in international relations has attempted to provide a new, yet equally important voice to these issues. Sadly, there are many that have felt that “[f]eminist International Relations has tended to flourish as a subfield of the main field of International Relations, without much impact on the field as a whole” (Youngs, 2004).

The theory of feminism in international relations has departed from realism and liberalism in different ways. Feminism has challenged traditional realist views of power, and the implications of power in an anarchical world. In fact, this is a major point of division between feminism (international relations) and realism in international relations. In fact, “Much feminist IR theory stems from a critique of realism, whose “socially constructed worldview continues to guide much thought about world politics.” First, feminists argue that realists overvalue the role of the state in defining international relations, without questioning how the state itself is internally structured, politically and socially. Feminist theory would consider how the state includes, or excludes, the views of its individual citizens, and how, in turn, the state’s domestic views translate into foreign policies” (Ruiz, 2004).

Ruiz (2004) goes as far as saying that “In relation to realism, feminist theory is clear: realism is the antithesis to achieving gender equality, both in discussion and practice, and even in its tools of war and security, patriarchy remains the central theme. States are the actors and the individual is of little importance. When the individual is de-emphasized, there is even less acknowledgement of a female individual, which effectively excludes feminist discussion.” Others, such as Youngs (2004) argue that “Feminist International Relations has identified malestream International Relations theory as one of the discourses that help perpetuate a distorted and partial world view that reflects the disproportionate power of control and influence that men hold, rather than the full social reality of the lives of women, children and men.” 

Much of this can be seen with the approach to notions of security. Traditional attention to security has revolved around the state as the primary actor. As Blanchard (2003) points out, “Within international relations, discussions of international security traditionally revolve around issues of war and peace in an international system of sovereign and self-interested nation-states, with a particular focus on issues of military strategy. In this view, the provision of security is entrusted to the state, with the assumption that states protect and secure the members of the political community from threats emanating from the dangerous, foreign realm outside state boundaries” (1289). But feminists, and other scholars have taken issue with this understanding of security. For them, the reason idea of security is security for the individual (Blanchard, 2003), who happens to be the one most affected by things such as war and conflict.

This approach to human security (and not merely state security) has allowed us to ask questions not only about humans who are affected by war, conflict, famine, diplomacy, etc…, but feminist theory also says that we can further examine how gender is approached in the world. And as Young (2004) argues, “Thus, this theory is more reflective and expressive of historically established male power than it is an open and comprehensive exploration of the political and economic processes in which all members of society are engaged. It is more of a discourse of and about the powerful than one that seeks to examine deeply how power works, including its gendered, radicalized and social-economic dimensions, or to situation individuals and groups differently in terms of contrasting levels of capacity, control, influence and freedom” (76).

Thus, to feminist theory in international relations, even the non-realist schools of thought in international relations theories that are more open to looking at the non-state actor (such as liberalism) still far short of providing full rights of equality for women. For example, looking at the issue of liberalism, one finds that the theory’s concentration on free trade as a mechanism for cooperation and interdependence may have different effects for men as it does for women. While trade and economic growth is good, there are questions about whether women receive the same benefits of this trade openness, or whether they are discriminated against, where “the economic inequalities inherent to free trade…disproportionately affect women” (Ruiz, 2004).

There is an attention to questions surrounding gender and also patriarchy in international relations. How are women (and how is gender in particular) viewed? Are there biases against women in human rights, in conflict, in diplomacy, or any other related issues within international relations? How have women been excluded from international relations and politics? (Ruiz, 2004). Feminism in international relations argues that there are many examples of how women are either disregarded or discriminated against politics and international relations. 

Feminism (international relations) may look at how the vast majority of countries have a male as the head of the state, even though women make up over half of the world’s population. Feminism in international relations may also examine why so few women hold top posts in international organizations. Or take the issue of running for political office. Feminist theories argue that women are often held to a very different standard then men are when running for office. Men are rarely asked questions about their emotions, and also about how they look; yet women have to be scrutinized in ways that males are not.

Theorists (within feminism in international relations) also examine how others might interact with women leaders compared to male leaders. Related to this, how are women treated when in power? For example, Tickner (1992) tells a story in her work, “When Bella Abzug entered the House of Representatives in 1972, she claimed that ending the war in Vietnam was the most important item on the congressional agenda and the one on which she most wanted to work as the representative of the many women and men in her district who opposed the war. With this goal in mind, Abzug requested a seat on the House Armed Services Committee, a committee on which, in 1972, no woman had served in the past twenty-two years. Abzug’s request was denied by members of the House leadership, one of whom suggested that the Agriculture Committee would be more appropriate. In her account of this incident, Abzug notes that, of the twelve women in the House of Representatives in 1972, five were assigned to the Education and Labor Committee, evidence that suggests that women in politics are channeled into certain arenas of public policy that are perceived as “women’s issues””. It is these sorts of gender discrimination that feminist theories examine in international relations.

With regards to human rights in international relations, feminism in international relations examines the ways that women’s human rights are violated, whether it is in not receiving equal education or employment opportunities, not having an equal vote in civil society or in decision making processes within a country, or how women’s rights are violated in the context of war, and also everyday life. As Ruiz (2004) writes, “

As Ruiz (2004) writes, “feminists argue the topic of security should address acts of rape and violence, not only from foreign perpetrators, but from their own fellow citizens as well. Feminists would also add that occurrences of rape increase during times of war, and is even used as a method of ethnic cleansing among the rivalries within their state,11 yet would never enter into typical IR discussions that focus solely on state- to-state interaction, simply because IR discussions traditionally remain focused on states as the key actors.” Thus, it is imperative that we break out of the idea that the only type of security that matters is state security. Once we accept the importance of human security in international relations, we can further understand issues of gender within the field. 


Feminism in International Relations References

Blanchard, E.M. (2003). Gender, International Relations, and the Development of Feminist Security Theory. Signs, Vol. 28, No. 4, pages 1289-1312.

Ruiz, T. (2004). Feminist Theory and International Relations: The Feminist Challenge to Realism and Liberalism. Available Online: https://www.csustan.edu/sites/default/files/honors/documents/journals/soundings/Ruiz.pdf

Tickner, J.A. (1992). Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security. New York, New York. Columbia University Press.

Youngs, G. (2004). Feminist International Relations: A contradiction in terms? Or: why women and gender are essential to understanding the world ‘we’ live in. International Affairs, Vol. 80, No. 1, pages 75-87.

Below are a number of books related to feminism and international relations.

J. Ann Tickner (Editor) & Laura Sjoberg (Editor), Feminism and International Relations: Conversations About the Past, Present, and Future.

Laura Sjoberg, Gendering Global Conflict: Towards a Feminist Theory of War

Ann Tickner, Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the Post-Cold War Era

Ann Tickner, A Feminist Voyage Through International Relations

Carol Cohn (Editor), Women and Wars: Contested Histories, Uncertain Futures

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