In the series of International Relations Theory, In this article you will learn about the Feminist Theory in International Relations.

Feminist Theory brings a unique contribution and perspective to the overall International Relations theory.

To begin, I would like to quote Simone de Beauvoir, who said,

It is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills.

This above quote highlights the character of both males and females, implying that those who give birth should be given more importance than those who plan to kill, dominate, or control.

In the introductory part of this Feminist Theory of International Relations, there are some important points to note –

  • Firstly, Feminist approaches in International Relations started in the 1980s and used gender as a major category of analysis. They have developed numerous gender categories and their relationships in international relations. They have divided the main actors in international relations into gendered categories and given importance to the gender perspective in diplomacy and relations between states.
  • Secondly, according to Feminist Scholars, knowledge is shaped by culture, history, and context. This is a crucial point because it challenges the belief that knowledge is objective. Instead, feminist Scholars argue that knowledge in any field is shaped by culture and cultural factors have an impact on the knowledge created.
  • Thirdly, Feminist theory signifies the relationships of power not only in the home but also in the world of foreign policy and international relations. Gender relationships play an important role in the exercise of power, from the smallest unit of the home to the biggest entity of foreign policy.
  • Fourthly, Feminist theorists have an emancipatory goal of achieving equality for women and the elimination of unequal gender relationships in international relations. They want to free the discipline of International Relations from gender bias and make it gender-neutral, allowing perspectives, opinions, experiences, and observations from all individuals, including women, to be given a space and treated equally.

Feminist Scholars tend to align more with liberal, post-colonial, constructivist, critical, and postmodern approaches to International Relations than with realism, English School, economic structuralism, or other traditional approaches.

Joshua Goldstein, in his book “War and Gender” in 2001, argued that despite political, economic, and cultural differences, gender roles in war are consistent across all known human societies.

Finally, Feminist Scholars focus on how women are represented and neglected in International Relations. International politics is often viewed as a “man’s world,” dominated by men and a field where power politics and conflict are privileged activities. However, Feminist Scholars aim to bring a gender perspective to the discipline and challenge the dominant masculine understanding of International Relations.

The Role of Women in International Relations as an Academic Discipline

International relations, as an academic discipline, is traditionally dominated by males. This can be seen in the fact that if one were to compile a list of the top 50 or 100 international relations theorists or global security experts, there would be very few women. However, this scenario is slowly changing as more women are entering this field.

1. Military and Foreign Services

Despite the increasing number of women in the military and Foreign Service in the United States, they are still rarely found in positions of military leadership or at the top of the foreign policy establishment. Feminist scholars argue that even if women are represented in the military and foreign services, they are rarely given positions of leadership due to a “glass ceiling” practice prevalent in the military and foreign policy establishment. It is believed that women lack the decisiveness and quick decision-making capabilities required at the top level.

Gene Kirkpatrick, who was the U.S ambassador to the United Nations in the early 1980s, was a notable exception. Kirkpatrick was one of the first women to hold such an important position in the United States. Despite her authoritative and forceful public style and strong conservative credentials, Kirkpatrick has stated that she failed to win the respect or attention of her male colleagues on matters of foreign policy.

Feminist theorists question the gendered interpretations in the field of international relations. For example, the term “nuclear strategy” and the vocabulary surrounding it, such as power, threat, force, or deterrence, have a distinctly masculine character. The terms associated with warring strategies and weapons are typically not associated with female characteristics, leading to biases in international relations. The concepts and terminologies used in the field are all masculine in character, perpetuating the gender bias.

2. Field of Public Policy

Somewhere, women have not received adequate representation in international relations. It has been argued that even though more women are entering the field of public policy, they are more comfortable dealing with domestic issues such as social welfare that are more compatible with their nurturing skills. There is also a prevalent perception that most women are comfortable dealing with domestic issues in public policies, as their nurturing skills can be utilized in these areas.

However, in fields like defense policy or military strategy, women are seen as not being suited for the job. This bias is still prevalent, and feminist scholars argue that women are more comfortable with social welfare and other areas where their nurturing skills can be utilized.

Masculine and Feminine Charecteristics

Feminist scholars have also tried to explain the characteristics that are generally associated with males and females. They call them masculine and feminine characteristics –

1. Masculine Characteristics

Concepts in international relations like power, diplomacy, security, war, aggression, military, sacrifice, and nationalism are often associated with male characteristics, such as bravery, decisiveness, adventure, violence, aggression, domination, and expansionist viewpoints.

2. Feminine Characteristics

On the other hand, feminine characteristics like care, being emotional, nurturing, creativity, constructiveness, peace-loving, and non-violence are associated with women. Feminist scholars argue that these characteristics are more aligned with peace-loving and non-violent approaches to international relations.

All these qualities of females, somewhere the scholars, particularly the realistic scholars, found that they are not fit in international relations. The reason being that if you see the concept of international relations, they are more male or masculine-centric.

However, there is a counter argument to this point by feminist scholars. They have argued that international relations or international community humanity needs something more. They have seen a large number of women in the ranks of the peace movement which suggests that women are not uninterested in the issues of war and peace.

When you show interest in issues of war and peace, it does not mean that you should necessarily participate in a war or support a war or develop a military strategy. Rather, there can also be a possibility that you play a constructive role in establishing peace. So women can play a very constructive role in peace building activities.

Feminist scholars have argued that there is more representation in war and peace-related activities, particularly in the peace movement. This shows that women are very much interested in international relations. Although their frequent descent from national security policy has often been branded them as naive, uninformed, and even unpatriotic, certain labels are still associated with females.

There is a reason for this, because every country wants to pursue their national interest and national security is something that became very important for them in order to pursue their national interest. Whosoever who will not show much interest in how a country can strengthen its national security or achieve their national interest, they were generally labeled as naive, uninformed, or unpatriotic.

Women’s Representation in International Organisations

Feminist scholars have further extended their interpretation of international relations to international organizations. They have studied the condition or representation of women in international organizations.

They have shown that international organizations are part of complex political and social processes that aid in the construction of assumptions about the proper role of women and men in the workforce. The underlying assumption is that such institutions are a reflection of the interests, norms, and ideas of hegemonic groups.

Sandra Whitworth has studied how many women are actually represented in international organizations, how many women are heading those organizations, and how many women are serving these organizations as representatives of their respective states.

She has written an important book, “Man, Militarism, and U.N. Peacekeeping: A Gendered Analysis,” which was written in 2008. In this book, Sandra brings a gendered understanding of national participation in international organizations, so how countries are represented by whom they are represented.

Largely, you will find that it is the males who are representing a state at various national and international forums, multilateral organizations, etc. So, a woman rarely gets a chance to represent their states.

Where are the Women in World Politics? – Cynthia Enloe

One important contribution in the field of feminist IR theory is by Cynthia Enloe. She has written an important book, “Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics.” It was written in 1990.

She argued that we should start by asking “Where are the women in World politics?” She further argued that women’s exclusion from world politics was assumed as a natural consequence of their biological or natural roles, meaning that women were largely suitable for serving as cheap labor or as prostitutes around military bases, or as wives of diplomats. They were given secondary or ceremonial functions, rather than leading from the front.

Cynthia has demonstrated and highlighted the critical role of women in the functioning of international economic and political systems. She also created and explained the distinction between women’s and men’s work, which has been largely divided and portrayed, and practiced.

She also highlighted militarization and militaristic ideas, and how these ideas influence the lives and choices of both men and women. Generally, militarization means that the military is gradually occupying and controlling all the resources and people, and serving the interests of the military. For males, this may mean fighting along with the military. For females, there may be allied or supportive functions.