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date: 17 January 2018

Feminism and Gender Studies in International Relations Theory

Summary and Keywords

Feminist theories of international relations have thrived over the past decade as evidenced by the many and varied feminist contributions to the international relations field. At the same time, international relations feminists have had rich theoretical debates among themselves over critical questions about epistemology, ontology, methodology, and ethics.

Feminist theories of international relations are distinguished by their ethical commitments to inclusivity and self-reflexivity, and attentiveness to relationships and power in relationships. These norms implicitly guide feminists to put into practice their own critical theories, epistemologies, and explicit normative commitments. Thus, rather than a source of division, the contestations among international relations feminisms about the epistemological grounds for feminist knowledge, the ontology of gender, and the appropriate ethical stance in a globalizing albeit grossly unequal world are a source of their strength. With a shared normative commitment to global social change, feminist scholarship and social movements can appreciate and even celebrate internal diversities and multidimensional identities. In this respect, feminist international relations can be described as a movement that shows what is to come and that offers innovative methods to get there. In the context of current United Nations reform, feminist movements have cited the need for a global institutional powerhouse to promote the rights of women and girls worldwide, rather than a system where everyone is responsible for integrating gender perspectives.

Keywords: feminist international relations, feminism, gender studies, feminist theory


Feminist perspectives on international relations seek to understand existing gender relations – the dominance of masculinities over femininities – in order to transform how they work at all levels of global social, economic, and political life. Within International Relations, feminist theorists have drawn on the experiences of marginalized and oppressed peoples, including women, in order to challenge and revision the epistemological and ontological foundations of the field. They have interrogated gender bias inherent in rationalist ways of knowing and embedded in the core concepts and concerns of International Relations, such as states, sovereignty, power, security, international conflict, and global governance. More recently, feminists have given an explicit account of their alternative methodologies for researching international relations. However, the axiological dimension of feminist IR is still relatively underdeveloped. Feminist theory has yet to be translated into guidelines for ethical conduct by state and non-state actors in international relations.

International Relations feminists share a praxis-oriented normative theory, consciously building theory from practice and to guide political practice, but their normative theoretical and political positions are plural. They differ over the philosophical grounds for their knowledge of gendered international reality, the theoretical location and centrality of gender as an analytic category in the study of international relations, and, on the basis of these, their prescriptions for ethical conduct. Here similarities and differences among feminist theories of international relations are explored. The essay also considers the conversations or lack thereof between feminist and nonfeminist international relations theories (see Tickner 1997).

Feminist Theories and International Relations

Contrary to some recent claims, feminism’s normative commitments to particular ideals or worlds are not what distinguish it from other international relations theories (see Carpenter 2002; Caprioli 2004). From a feminist theoretical perspective “theory is always for someone, and for some purpose” (Cox 1981), and all perspectives on international relations are inherently normative whether consciously or not (Cochran 1999). What distinguishes most feminist theories of international relations is their ethical commitments to inclusivity and self-reflexivity, and attentiveness to relational power (Ackerly and True 2006; 2008). Despite the normative variations within feminist theories of international relations with respect to epistemological, ontological, and methodological perspectives, these three ethical commitments are widely shared and strongly evident within the range of International Relations feminist scholarship. They are akin to what Ann Tickner (2006), in her speech as President of the International Studies Association, broadly termed “feminist practices of responsible scholarship.”

Guided by the commitment to be inclusive of the multiple vantage points on international relations and self-reflexive about potential exclusions, feminists are acutely sensitive to power and politics in all places within and beyond the conventional boundaries of states and international public spheres. This leads them to ask questions not only about the powerful but also about their relationship to the powerless. For instance, feminists draw theoretical connections between the plight of prostitutes and the practices of peacekeepers on foreign military bases and UN missions in order to support their argument that the construction of masculinities in militaries is both a cause of war and/or a problem in peacekeeping (Moon 1997; Enloe 2000; Whitworth 2004). Moreover, the norm of inclusivity leads International Relations feminists to “study up,” as IR scholars have conventionally done, and to “study down,” as feminist theorists have for the most part done. For example, International Relations feminist scholarship on globalization examines the neoliberal perspectives of international institutions, state agencies, and elites in promoting capital mobility as well as the perspectives of female migrant domestic servants, micro-enterpreneurs, and women trafficked for prostitution that cross borders to facilitate this global production and reproduction (Chin 1998; Marchand and Runyan 2000; Jeffery 2002). Similarly, International Relations feminists analyzing the gendered politics in international conflict zones tend to conduct their research on both sides of the conflict in order to understand its identity dynamics and the alternative possibilities for conflict resolution (Jacoby 2006; Stern 2006).

If the norm of inclusivity helps International Relations feminists to correct some of the biases of International Relations scholarship that does not consult a wide range of perspectives, elite and marginalized, then the norm of self-reflexivity assists International Relations feminists in discovering their own exclusions and biases. Generated within and through the feminist International Relations scholarly collective, this self-reflexive norm helps feminist theorists to be more conscious of the political exclusions that result from their normative purposes, choices of research subject and methodology, and to take responsibility for these exclusions. Carol Cohn and Sara Ruddick’s (2004) feminist analysis of weapons of mass destruction illustrates the ethical commitment to relational understanding; that we are always implicated in the global subjects that we study. They argue that staking out a normative position as “antiwar feminists” means opposing the development, proliferation, and use of all weapons of mass destruction. However, Cohn and Ruddick also recognize that this feminist position tends to deny the social and political realities of women and men living in less powerful states and reinforce the dominant perspective of Western possessor states. Demonstrating their self-reflexivity about this political implication of their argument, they explicitly state: “As citizens of the most highly-armed possessor state [and antiwar feminists], our credibility […] will be contingent upon our committed efforts to bring about nuclear disarmament in our own state, and our own efforts to redress the worldwide inequalities that are underwritten by our military superiority.”

Consistent with this attentiveness to relational power, Christine Sylvester’s (2000:283) postmodern feminist method of world-traveling entails “traveling to difference and recognizing it” rather than trying to assimilate it to one’s prior conceptualizations. This method is intended to address exclusions within feminist IR, especially Third World feminist criticisms of the dominance of the white, Western female subject in the conceptual framing of feminist analyses of gender and international development and women’s human rights, for example.

Feminism does not merely add another theoretical perspective to International Relations. Instead, its ethical commitment to inclusivity and attentiveness to relationships opens International Relations to feminist criticism from within the discipline as feminists draw on marginalized actors and subjects to challenge conventional International Relations theories, while the commitment to self-reflexivity and attentiveness to power opens International Relations to feminist criticism from outside the discipline in the broad interdisciplinary field of feminist knowledge and social movements. Thus, feminist contributions not only increase our empirical understanding of global politics by including new actors and processes, as Laurel Weldon (2006a) argues following Sandra Harding (1991), they improve the “strong objectivity” of mainstream International Relations theories and their methodological rigor by subjecting them to ongoing, critical scrutiny (Ackerly et al. 2006:10).

The Development of Feminist International Relations

Feminist theories of international relations have developed alongside some impressive changes and significant power shifts in contemporary international relations. Like all feminist scholarship, feminist International Relations is indebted and closely related to the second wave feminist movements that thrived all over the world in the 1960s and 1970s. These movements were the harbingers of feminist theories that analyzed sex and gender as social constructions to be transformed rather than facts of nature to be taken for granted. Feminist theory was in itself seen as an essential form of feminist practice that could challenge the male dominance of academic knowledge. Feminist scholars shaped by their activist experiences considered it a moral imperative to include women’s voices and to change both the subjects and the objects of study (Tickner 2006). Many feminist theorists trace their interest in international relations as an area of study to their involvement in Cold War peace movements and in feminist peace politics that go back to World War I and efforts to broker international peace and security in the League of Nations (Rupp 1997).

Not surprisingly, in the late 1980s the first feminist contributions to the IR field were highly politicized and controversial since the field was at the time one of the most male-dominated and had as its central focus interstate diplomacy and war, both on the face of it near-exclusively masculine affairs. Millennium was the first journal in the field that devoted a special issue to “women and international relations,” in 1988. In that issue Fred Halliday argued that the exclusion of women’s lives and experiences from study results in a partial, masculine view of international relations despite the claim of dominant IR theories to explain the reality of world politics (Halliday 1988). In the volume following from the Millennium special issue, editors Grant and Newland (1991:5) contended that International Relations was “excessively focused on conflict and anarchy and a way of practising statecraft and formulating strategy that is excessively focused on competition and fear.” In their view, this singular focus impoverished the field of international relations. In part due to their association with domestic “soft” (read: feminine) politics, they argued IR had neglected studies of norms, ideas, and processes such as structural violence including poverty, environmental injustice, and sociopolitical inequality that many scholars argue are the root causes of international conflict and insecurity.

Many of the feminist contributions published in Millennium and in the early 1990s challenged the conventional ontologies and epistemologies of International Relations. Feminist scholars such as Ann Tickner, Spike Peterson, Jan Jindy Pettman, Ann Runyan, and Christine Sylvester (1994) contested the exclusionary, state-centric and positivist nature of the discipline. They sought to deconstruct and subvert realism, the dominant “power politics” approach to international relations. Some feminists argued that women’s lives on the margins of world politics afford us a less biased and more “realistic” understanding of international relations given their distance from dominant institutions and elite power (Runyan and Peterson 1991; Tickner 1992).

Feminist scholars used gender analysis to deconstruct the theoretical framework of International Relations, and reveal the masculine bias pervading key concepts such as power, security, and sovereignty (see True 2009). They argued that these concepts were identified specifically with masculinity and men’s experiences and knowledge derived from an exclusive, male-dominated public sphere. For example, Tickner (1988) explored the realist concept of power through her analysis of Hans Morgenthau’s six principles of power politics, showing how it is based on masculine norms of rational, autonomous agency. Similarly, Sylvester (1992:32–8) argued that the assumption of self-help as the essential feature of world politics masks the many “relations international” in other institutions including households, trade regimes, and diplomacy. For her part, Enloe (1996) argued that studying women’s activities in world politics, those marginalized and/or excluded from official accounts of international relations, exposed how much “power” it takes to maintain the state-centric international political system. Paying attention to women’s as well as men’s experiences in peace and war, feminist scholars such as Enloe and Tickner urged that international security must be redefined. In her book Gender in International Relations, Tickner noted in particular that what is called “national security” is profoundly endangering to human survival and sustainable communities and fails to take account of women’s experiences of insecurity (Tickner 1992).

Two decades later, several key disciplinary journals have published whole issues on the subjects of women, gender, and feminism in international relations, and in 1999 the International Feminist Journal of Politics was established to promote dialogue among scholars of feminism, politics, and International Relations. The sudden collapse of communism and with it the bipolar international system that seemed so intransigent had far-reaching implications for the IR field as a whole and for IR feminism in particular. Dominant realist theories of international relations, singularly focused on power politics among states and to a large extent the Cold War between the two superpowers, did not anticipate this transformation. Nor could they explain it. Failing to look beyond elites and the systemic level, the major flaws of realist explanations were exposed. The glaring impoverishment of theories of international relations opened the way for new approaches to understanding global politics, including critical and explicitly normative perspectives such as feminism. Indeed, Ann Tickner (2001:x) locates feminist scholarship within “the profound transformation that the discipline of IR has undergone” since the end of the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War also had a profound impact on the political opportunities available for principled, non-state actors to participate in global politics and put nontraditional issues on global policy agendas. At the same time as feminist perspectives began to challenge the norms of IR scholarship, women’s movements gained a foothold in the United Nations and began to use that international institution to mobilize global alliances of Western and non-Western women activists, scholars and policy makers (Antrobus 2005; Harcourt 2006). A feminist epistemic network that included International Relations feminists emerged through UN and other international conferences in the 1990s. The 1990s also heralded two successful global campaigns to have women’s rights recognized as human rights in international law and to address a range of egregious practices, often state- and culturally sanctioned, as forms of “violence against women” (Weldon 2006b). Transnational feminist networks used their substantive expertise on gender relations – both through critical argumentation and evidence-based research – to engage institutional power (True and Mintrom 2001; True 2003a).

By the end of the millennium it looked as if feminists had had more success in engaging international institutions than in influencing the discipline of IR. Antiwar feminists collaborated to get the United Nations Security Council to pass Resolution 1325 securing women’s rights to participate in international peace negotiations and operations, while feminists critical of neoliberal globalization and the disproportionate impact of structural adjustment policies on poor women made significant inroads into the World Bank and other international development agencies. At the same time the European Union formally adopted gender mainstreaming as a methodology for paying attention to gender inequalities and differences across all policy domains and areas of competency. Feminist perspectives on international relations mirrored the focus of global women’s movements, more so than the statist theoretical concerns of the mainstream International Relations field, by developing gendered analyses of nationalism and ethnic conflict, democratization, and economic globalization. Tickner (2001) observed that mainstream American International Relations, in particular, was focused narrowly on its own paradigmatic research questions, marginalizing the more popular questions that dominated the global public realm in the 1990s. She and other International Relations feminists regretted mainstream International Relations’ lack of engagement with feminist theories yet noted the intellectual gulf between their different epistemological approaches (Tickner 1997).

Whereas the post-Cold War era allowed many political opportunities for feminist and other critical IR perspectives to shape the IR research agenda, the events of September 11, 2001 changed this relatively propitious environment for innovative and radical approaches to international relations. Tickner (2001) observed that feminist International Relations in the 1990s was mostly devoted one way or another to analyzing international political economy, in particular the gendered dimensions and effects of economic globalization. But like other International Relations theories responding to the changed global political context, the emphasis of feminist analysis shifted after 9/11 to focus more on international security. Unlike other IR theories, though, feminist analyses have sought to understand the gendered roots of terrorism in underlying political and economic inequalities and in constructions of masculinity in Western and non-Western contexts that contribute to global insecurities (Agathangelou and Ling 2004; Kaufman-Osborn 2005).

Comparing Feminist Theories of International Relations

Feminist theories of international relations have thrived over the past decade as evidenced by the many and varied feminist contributions to the International Relations field and the establishment of a new quarterly journal, the International Feminist Journal of Politics, in 1999. At the same time, International Relations feminists have had rich theoretical debates among themselves over critical questions about epistemology, ontology, methodology, and ethics.

So far in this essay, I have been in the ironic position of defining a normative field that is not only plural, but that eschews definition. Feminist International Relations is difficult to classify precisely, because, as Christine Sylvester articulates, “[it] has many types and shifting forms. It is non-uniform and non-consensual; it is a complex matter with many internal debates” (2000:269). There are several feminist theoretical approaches to international relations, and differences among them. Here I explore three major variations. These feminist theoretical differences revolve around, firstly, epistemological stance, secondly, feminist concepts of gender relations, and thirdly, feminist normative approaches to world politics. Guided by ethical commitments to inclusivity and reflexivity, and sensitivity to power and relationships, feminist theorists of international relations are continually conversing and contesting the norms of the subfield, accepting the ironies of self-definition, and acknowledging the similarities and differences among them (see Ackerly et al. 2006).

The Politics of Knowledge

The first salient debate within feminism concerns the philosophical foundations for feminist normative claims. In reviews of feminist International Relations, much emphasis has been placed on the distinction between feminist standpoint theory and postmodern feminism (Keohane 1989; Zalewski 1993; True 2009). Following Marxism, the feminist standpoint asserts that a stronger, more objective perspective on social reality can be gained from taking the standpoint of marginalized political subjects, historically women, who by virtue of their dominated position tend to be less ideologically vested in maintaining the status quo. This feminist standpoint is counterposed to a postmodern feminist stance which is suspicious of any claims to a better vantage point on the truth of social and international reality.

Postmodern feminism problematizes the feminist standpoint assumption that women’s experience of oppression in social hierarchies can constitute the basis for critical knowledge. Postmodernists argue that such a standpoint tends to homogenize differences among women and reinforce gender stereotypes. Although oversimplified, this epistemological distinction among feminisms remains relevant in analyzing International Relations debates. Influenced by Third World, postcolonial, postmodern, Black, and lesbian feminist critiques, some International Relations feminists now posit a plural rather than a singular feminist standpoint on international relations. But they retain the belief in the value of a feminist/gender perspective from the political margins that begins by asking questions about excluded women’s lives, i.e., the work women do and structural impacts on them, although they do not stop there (see, e.g., Enloe 2000; Tickner 2006).

Postmodern feminists dispute even provisional and diversified feminist standpoints on international relations. They shift the attention away from the subject of women or the perspective of gender difference in IR. Employing epistemological strategies of deconstruction, displacement, and distraction, including the strategic use of woman and/or the feminine, postmodern feminists aim to destabilize both IR’s and feminism’s philosophical and epistemological grounds (Berman 2003; Jabri 2003; Zalewski 2006). Sylvester (2000) describes this epistemological practice as inlining, which “involves disrupting universalizing feminist narratives of ‘women’ and ‘gender’ in IR theory and practice” (p. 279). As a method, it deconstructs the gendered assumptions of both IR and feminism and finds “women” and “men” where they are not supposed to be, at least according to conventional gender scripts. Roland Bleiker (1997) recommends that feminists “forget IR” in order to avoid creating the very same totalizing knowledges and exclusionary political effects as mainstream perspectives.

Contrary to this feminist deconstructionist approach to knowledge and building on the pluralist standpoint approach, some International Relations feminists have advocated a dialogic approach to the construction of International Relations knowledge and to the construction of global feminisms. This approach critically scrutinizes the conditions of exclusion in these “fields” in order to bring about the emancipation of all subjects, feminist and nonfeminist. It is also a destabilizing epistemology to the extent that it assumes the grounds for knowledge claims and feminist politics and transnational alliances are always shifting. Yet dialogic feminists seek to overcome postcolonial and postmodern critiques through an ethical stance that involves entering into constructive conversation with marginalized others (see Porter 2000). Such a feminist approach involves an ethical commitment to deconstructing one’s own position of privilege while actively working to transform the power relations that support that position. To take an example, Brooke Ackerly tries to build a feminist universalist theory of human rights that is sensitive to local, cultural struggles and the social contexts of rights by listening to as well as analyzing the partial perspectives of Third World women human rights activists (Ackerly 2000; 2001). In sum, feminist dialogic approaches seek common, albeit contested, ground among feminists, situated in different contexts and struggles around the world, as well as among feminist and nonfeminist International Relations theories, divided by their different ways of knowing and seeing the world (see Tickner 1997).

Gender Studies

Feminist theorists differ in their normative views of how integral the category of gender is to the constitution of international relations. They also vary in how they view gender relative to other categories of difference such as race, sexuality, ethnicity, and class, and the implications for International Relations theory. As well, some feminist theorists see gender as reproduced primarily within material structures rather than through discursive processes. Let us consider these three forms of ontological difference in turn.

The majority of International Relations feminists conceive of gender as the relational construction of individual masculine and feminine identities, where masculine identities are preferred over feminine ones, and are a signifier for power relations of domination and subordination among individuals and collectivities more generally (Peterson 1992). In these dual senses of the term, gender is seen as infusing all aspects of international relations and, therefore, as a highly relevant category of analysis. For example, feminist scholars use gender analysis to critique gendered identities and security discourses in the post-9/11 global “war on terror.” Tickner (2002) and Agathangelou and Ling (2004) deconstruct US conceptions of security that look for “real men” to protect “us” from “them” and blame feminism and homosexuality for weakening the resolve of the West. They also scrutinize the gendered discourses in the Islamic fundamentalist groups behind the terrorist acts of violence against the West and among the US occupation forces in Iraq and the greater Middle East (Kaufman-Osborn 2005). These discourses perceive Western sexual and gender equality and the supposed imprisonment and abuse of Muslim women by non-Muslim men as threatening Islamic culture, and as such they are used both to incite and to justify violence.

Some feminist theorists use gender analysis to develop new, non-traditional research questions and interpretations of global politics, for example feminist research that explores the role of prostitution on foreign military bases and the significance of female migrant domestic labor in the political economy of export-oriented economies and global financial centers. In contrast, some feminist empiricists accept the conventional ontology of IR as given and the rationalist approach to research design treating gender as a variable that helps to explain state behavior in an anarchic system (Caprioli 2004). For example, feminist research shows that states with the greatest domestic inequality between men and women are more likely to go to war or to engage in state-sanctioned violence (Goldstein 2002), whereas those states with near gender equality tend to be the most pacific in their interstate relations, and more generous international aid donors (Regan and Paskeviciute 2003). This “neofeminist” approach that explores the impact of gender inequality on state behavior is at odds with much of International Relations feminism that uses gender not as a variable but as an analytical tool to theoretically challenge realist International Relations’ reductionist concept of the state and its security practices. However, the potentially radical contribution of such empirical research using gender should not be discounted. Feminist empiricism frequently starts from the perspective that gender relations are relevant to International Relations analysis because patterns of gender inequality exist at every level of state and global politics (although the extent of gender inequality differs across states and regions) (see Gray et al. 2006:294). Thus, it highlights the relevance of gender to the study of even the most conventional research questions, and using positivist methods feminist research can show the demonstrable impact of gender inequality and feminist non-state actors in the global political economy (True and Mintrom 2001; Sweeney 2005).

Another feminist variation with respect to ontology concerns the treatment of gender relative to other categories of oppression such as race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and sexuality. Progressively, International Relations feminists have moved away from binary conceptions of gender to explore plural masculinities and femininities in global politics. Tickner (1992) introduced the notion of hegemonic masculinity in order to denote the forms of domination and subordination among men that have implications for international relations, including international conflict. Following Tickner, Hooper (2000) argued that multiple masculinities existed across ethnicity, class, sexuality, nationality, and so on, and changes in dominant masculine identities underpin (and indeed can help to explain) shifts in world order, such as the contemporary globalization of political economies.

But more recently some feminists have gone further to locate gender at the intersection of various forms of subordination (Han and Ling 1998; Agathangelou and Ling 2004; Stern 2006). Feminist knowledge about the diversity of women’s experiences and contexts leads them to appreciate the interrelated character of social hierarchies and their influence on oppression (Ackerly and True 2006; D’Costa 2006). Intersectional analysis of gender marks a paradigm shift away from the monolithic representation of gender relations as the patriarchal domination of women by men without regard to race, ethnicity, and sexual and colonial hierarchies. Gender analysis no longer refers to the singular axis of difference between women and men. It opens up multiple axes of difference so that we take account of poor, minority, migrant and refugee women and girls who have often fallen through the categories of feminist and IR theories, global policy, and international law. Chan-Tiberghien (2004:477) argues that the concept of gender as intersectionality has facilitated “feminist interventions across a spectrum of global issues” and made possible a new phase of transnational feminist mobilization. Thus, the concept of gender as intersectionality also has normative and political implications for feminist efforts to understand complex identities and differences within international relations.

As well as the different theoretical treatment of gender as an analytic category and gender as a variable, relational gender and intersectional gender, International Relations feminists vary in how they understand the construction and reproduction of gender relations. In short, some feminists locate gender within material structures whereas other feminists see gender as present in discursive processes. This difference among International Relations feminists reflects the development of feminist theories in relation to neo-Marxist, constructivist and poststructural theories. Efforts to transform gender domination depend greatly on how its existence is understood or explained. Thus, differences with respect to the ontology of gender have normative import within International Relations feminism. Although most International Relations feminists conceive of gender relations as involving both elements of structure and agency, International Relations feminists influenced by neo-Marxism understand gender as an ideological and structural hierarchy, that is primarily rooted in the material divisions created by patriarchal capitalism, such as the globalized, gender division of labor, and reinforced by international organizations and the ideologies of globalization (Stienstra 1994; Steans 1998). In contrast, International Relations feminists influenced by constructivist theories of the rules of discourse within language tend to see gender as a hegemonic discourse of difference that is reproduced through largely institutionalized norms and identities rather than material structures (Cohn 1987; Prugl 1999). Unsurprisingly, the possibilities for feminist agency vary depending on whether gender is located in material or discursive structures. If gender hierarchies are rooted in material structures, then feminist strategies for transformation will likely be oppositional to states and international organizations insofar as they seek structural change in the organization and regulation of political economies. However, if gender hegemonies are located in discourse, then feminist strategies for transformation will involve struggles over the meanings of women and gender embedded in rules and norms, and will likely require institutional engagement with states and international organizations to disrupt and/or change their practices (Prugl 2004; cf. Rai 2004).

Implications for International Conduct

In addition to epistemological and ontological differences, feminists differ with respect to the implications for ethical conduct they draw from their theory. Some International Relations feminists assert the political value of the ethic of care in international relations whereas other feminists focus on difference and suggest a postmodern form of feminist ethics that recognizes the plurality of the self and is responsive to its constitutive other (Jabri 2003). Joan Tronto (1993:145) argues that “care is not solely private or parochial; it can concern institutions, societies, even global levels of thinking.” Although it is derived from a normative context where the feminine is pitted against the masculine, the private against the public, the ethic of care is not associated exclusively with women nor does it rely on an essentialist conception of woman. In Fiona Robinson’s (2006:228, 231) account it offers a “distinct moral perspective that is gender-focused but not exclusively ‘woman-centered’,” that seeks to understand, reflect on, and possibly transform gendered patterns of moral relations rather than construct universal, generalizable, moral principles. By contrast, the postmodern feminist “care of self” ethic subverts categorical gendered concepts of identity through a performative, stylized celebration of difference. It is self-critical with respect to all efforts to assimilate the other or develop a discourse with global application (see also Bergeron 2001; Hutchings 2004).

Unlike the postmodern ethic of the self, however, the feminist “ethic of care” perspective is no longer defined as an epistemological stance but as an ontological claim about “the central role of care and other relational moral practices in the everyday lives of people in all settings” (Robinson 2006:225). It recognizes global divisions of caring labor and the power relations among women due to social hierarchies of class, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, disability, and so on. In this way, care ethics is also an axiological approach that draws ethical guidelines from feminist theory for humanitarian intervention, multilateral peacekeeping, development aid, foreign security policy, and human rights protection, among other practical global issues and dilemmas (see Hutchings 2000:122–3). For example, Tronto (2006) analyzes the normative framework supporting multilateral peacekeeping from a feminist perspective. She stresses that the shift from the right to intervene in a sovereign state to the responsibility to protect citizens not protected by their own state is a shift from liberal to care ethics, from the masculine assumption of an autonomous self – sovereign man or state – to the assumption of a relational self with responsibilities to others. Similarly, Elisabeth Porter (2006) outlines a “politics of compassion,” distinct from yet inspired by care ethics, that aims to help state leaders respond emotionally and practically to the need for human security, in particular the needs of asylum seekers in a world where terrorism threatens state borders.

Conversations between Feminist and Nonfeminist International Relations Theory

Some feminist perspectives embrace a dialogical approach to knowledge and ethical conduct whereas other feminist perspectives are more skeptical of engagement with dominant perspectives that represent institutional power, anticipating that it will result in cooptation and the loss of feminism’s critical perspective and destabilizing epistemology. Like any other approach to inquiry, however, feminist IR must itself be evaluated in terms of its ability to respond to critical scrutiny from other perspectives. Clearly, feminist IR has evolved both in relation and in reaction to mainstream IR and the mainstream insistence that feminism set out and defend its research agenda and methodological approach (see Keohane 1998).

Interestingly, in contrast, to other social science fields such as sociology and psychology where feminist research emerged in the 1970s, feminism in International Relations coming somewhat later did not begin by adding women or gender as subjects to existing research agendas using prevailing empiricist approaches within the field. Rather, feminism first entered IR as part of a broader post-positivist debate that challenged International Relations’ disciplinary foundations and the dominance of the neorealist account of interstate power politics, although it was not devoid of empirical content in doing so. Thus there are affinities between feminist and nonfeminist post-positivist IR approaches, yet there are also important distinctions between them as Ann Tickner (1997) accentuates in her keystone article “You Just Don’t Understand.” While both feminists and nonfeminists consider research questions to be important, they ask different types of questions and go about answering them in radically different ways. Moreover, many of the questions feminists ask about how, for example, manly men and states make war and how war shapes masculinities and femininities have required them to go beyond the traditional boundaries of the International Relations field into the domains of sociology, psychology, law, philosophy, and the interdisciplinary fields of cultural studies, gender and sexuality studies, masculinity studies, and so on (e.g., Goldstein 2002).

Feminist theorists are typically post-positivists skeptical of objectivist epistemology; therefore they tend to prefer, Tickner argues, narrative-based, interpretative, and ethnographic methodologies since these begin from a relational epistemology and ontology that stresses the social, constitutive aspects of world politics. Yet feminists are also eclectic with respect to methodology. Accordingly, there have been some notable attempts to draw feminism and rationalist approaches such as neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism closer. Mary Caprioli (2004) contends, for instance, that the quantitative analysis of gender and state behavior as the dependent variable may be better than critical/interpretative feminist approaches at delivering the goals of social justice and women’s empowerment. Further, she argues that such a neofeminist approach might make feminism more relevant to International Relations just as neorealism modernized classical realist perspectives in the field. This analogy is questionable since in most feminist and post-positivist readings, neorealism actually reduced a rich historical and philosophical tradition of realism to an ahistorical, scientifically testable set of propositions. This did not result in a diverse or more systematic research agenda (see Ashley 1986).

As well as differences, there are synergies between feminism and neorealism, feminism and neoliberal institutionalism. To not be influenced by these nonfeminist International Relations theories reduces the chance that feminism has of infiltrating and changing them. Increasingly, feminist research is adapting nonfeminist research questions on state behavior, international norms and law, and global civil society, and nonfeminist methodologies such as quantitative analysis, frame analysis, and institutional analysis. For example, feminist empiricists consider the impact of gender differences on international conflict and cooperation. It is possible that women’s and men’s political leadership may have differential impacts on the behavior of states and international organizations (see Fukuyama 1998). But these differences are unlikely to be categorical since most feminists theorize gender as a social construction subject to ongoing change, rather than a fixed variable. By contrast, feminist and constructivist International Relations theories appear on their face to be much more compatible and have been combined in different ways in several influential studies (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Prugl 1999). Birgit Locher and Elisabeth Prugl (2001) contend that feminism and constructivism share an “ontology of becoming.” But they argue that unlike feminism, most constructivist approaches (e.g., systemic constructivism) do not locate power in the construction of social identities. As such they cannot appreciate the significance of feminist analyses of gender identity. Thus, even when constructivist research does take account of gender identities and norms, it tends to treat them in a nominal way, as explanatory variables, not as something themselves to be explained (see Carpenter 2006).

Perhaps more fundamentally from a feminist perspective, Locher and Prugl (2001) contend that the objectivist stance of many constructivist scholars is inconsistent with their social ontology. Constructivist International Relations theorists tend to use concepts of socially constructed identities, ideas and norms to empirically and analytically examine aspects of international relations without explicitly addressing their normative content. For feminist constructivists, this approach reproduces masculinist ways of knowing, denying the scholars’ own normative position and relationship to their research subjects. However, some constructivist research is more promising from a feminist perspective. For instance, Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall’s (2005) conceptualization of power has affinities with feminist concepts. They argue that the analysis of power must consider “the normative structures and discourses that generate differential social capacities for actors to define and pursue their interests and ideals” (2005:3). Gender is seen as one of the normative discourses that constitute the possible, the natural, what counts as a problem, as legitimate knowledge, and whose voices are marginalized (2005:20). It is not merely an additive to IR research designs but a form of productive power.

Employing this approach to gender, Helen Kinsella (2005) explores how the ostensibly gender-neutral distinction between civilians and combatants in the international laws of war is produced upon gender discourses that naturalize sex and gender difference. This categorical distinction has contradictory effects, for example, on the treatment of male civilians in war, who are by definition assumed to be combatants, and on the treatment of women civilians, who are considered always already to be victims (2005:253). Laura Sjoberg (2006:898) argues that neither women nor men are protected by the gendered immunity principle that extends from the laws of war. Moreover, the gender stereotypes on which the just war tradition is based “affect the meaning of gender and the subordination of women outside wartime” (Barnett and Duvall 2005:31). The normative implication of this feminist constructivist analysis is that by (re)producing the civilian/combatant dichotomy, international relations inscribes gender hegemonies within domestic (familial) and international (civilized) orders.

Critical theory and postmodern approaches have often been seen by International Relations feminists as the most fruitful International Relations theories with which to engage since they share the view that all knowledge is socially constructed on the basis of specific interests and normative purposes. Like feminists, Habermasian and neo-Gramscian critical theorists advance an explicitly normative agenda for International Relations that addresses both how the current form of world order is maintained and how it can be transformed. However, while International Relations critical theorists acknowledge the importance of change-oriented theorizing, International Relations feminists privilege the moment of political practice in the process of theorizing and judge normative and ethical theories in terms of the practical possibilities they open up (Robinson 2006). To a greater extent than nonfeminist critical theorists, International Relations feminists have developed the sociological analysis that is fundamental to a critical International Relations theory. Feminists have illuminated the multiple dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that prevent the realization of a just and equitable global society (Ackerly and True 2006:249–52).

As well as contributing to a critical sociology of international relations, feminists have shown themselves to be more praxis-oriented than nonfeminist critical theorists. Critical feminists scrutinize the normative assumptions of a perspective by evaluating their practical import for the struggles of women and men located in varied social contexts and, within those contexts, in a myriad of intersecting power relations. Despite the apparent affinities between feminist and critical theories of international relations, feminists judge critical International Relations scholars’ neglect of the gender dimensions of injustice and the possibilities for transformation to be a demonstrable weakness for the practical application of the normative theory (Robinson 1999; Ackerly and True 2006).

As Cochran (1999) argues, normative International Relations theorists have failed to take up feminist questions about multiple, intersecting oppressions in a systematic way because they address ethical questions within the dichotomous communitarian versus cosmopolitan framework which is based on the assumption of a male subject.

Compared with their normative differences, it might seem easier to integrate the empirical aspects of feminism and critical theory with respect to their analysis of the contemporary global political economy. Yet this integration of gender and critical International Political Economy perspectives has largely been one-way so far (Whitworth 1994; Chin 1998; True 2003b). In piecemeal ways, critical International Political Economy has recognized feminist mobilization against neoliberal forms of globalization and that women are an increasingly large proportion of workers in the strategic sectors of global production and reproduction. But they understand the structures, processes, and agents of globalization for the most part in gender-neutral terms. Like mainstream scholars, critical theorists have tended to focus on the macro and formal aspects of political economies and in so doing, produced incomplete analyses of change. “Even the neo-Gramscian perspective, with its emphasis on cultural hegemony, lacks the gendered focus on everyday life” (True 2003b:172). Moreover, few critical International Political Economy scholars have considered the implications of the crisis of social reproduction emerging due to a dramatic demographic decline in many countries around the world (for an exception, see Bakker and Gill 2003). By contrast, feminist relational perspectives on globalization make visible the often invisible reproductive care economy and its relationship to the productive economy in order to explain the differentiated local processes and outcomes of globalization (True 2003b:172). To the extent that critical theory perspectives on globalization remain at a macro level of analysis, and neglect gendered dynamics, they cannot suggest possibilities for the transformation of political economies.

To be sure, there are some national and regional differences in the conversations between feminist and nonfeminist international relations, and much of the failure to communicate has been observed in the context of the American discipline (e.g., Tickner 1997; Keohane 1998; Marchand 1998). For example, in a special issue of the British Journal of Politics and International Relations Judith Squires and Jutta Weldes (2007) argue that the British gender and international relations subfield characterizes itself neither as a subfield nor as marginal from the mainstream of IR, because gendered analysis increasingly takes place as part of the field. Feminism as an IR theory is increasingly not separable from other theoretical approaches such as constructivism, Marxism, liberalism, or even realism. In the United Kingdom, best doctoral dissertation and best published article prizes go to scholars of gender and international relations, many PhDs are produced in the subfield, and scholars go on to take up regular international relations positions in major British universities. Substantively, “gendered analysis fundamentally alters the empirical and theoretical boundaries of IR, thus irrevocably transforming its legitimate purview” in the British academic context (2007:190). It is accepted, for example, that part of understanding IR is analyzing how hegemonic constructions of masculinity motivate men and women soldiers to fight and protect, and how these gendered identities legitimate war and national security policies. In British IR where arguably plural, theoretical and methodological approaches are embraced, there is more room for integrating gender perspectives. The distinctive difference between British (and possibly European, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, etc.) and US national contexts is that in the former, gendered analysis is increasingly viewed as essential to doing good IR research within a range of theoretical perspectives whereas in the latter, this is not yet the case (Ackerly and True 2008:161).

Concluding Reflections

Normative commitments infuse not only feminist questions, interpretations and claims to know international relations but also how feminists do their work. There are many differences and variations among International Relations feminisms, but the ethical commitments to inclusivity and self-reflexivity and attentiveness to relationships and power in relationships distinguish most feminist theories of international relations. These norms implicitly guide feminists to put into practice their own critical theories, epistemologies, and explicit normative commitments. Thus, rather than a source of division, the contestations among International Relations feminisms about the epistemological grounds for feminist knowledge, the ontology of gender, and the appropriate ethical stance in a globalizing albeit grossly unequal world are a source of their strength. With a shared normative commitment to global social change, feminist scholarship and social movements can appreciate and even celebrate internal diversities and multidimensional identities. In this respect, as Christine Sylvester (2000:269) claims, “feminist International Relations is avant-garde,” a movement showing what is to come and that offers innovative methods to get there.

In the context of current United Nations reform, feminist movements have argued that we need a global institutional powerhouse to promote the rights of women and girls worldwide, rather than a system where everyone is responsible for integrating gender perspectives. Yet no one has the resources to do it effectively (and meanwhile egregious gender injustices are perpetuated). Using this analogy, feminist International Relations also needs to continue to build its own powerhouse of knowledge by reaching out to feminist movements. It is important not to underestimate the specialized empirical, theoretical, and methodological knowledge required to develop a gender perspective on any given global or international relations issue. Moreover, as Cynthia Enloe (2004:97) has argued, “there needs to be a feminist consciousness informing our work on gender.” Feminist engagement with realist, liberal, and constructivist International Relations theories has often resulted in attempts by some scholars to use gender to empirically and analytically examine aspects of international relations without being “tainted” by the normative content of feminism. While this may be a fruitful line of research from the perspective of these mainstream International Relations theories, it can hinder efforts to advance feminist theories of International Relations, which are guided by ethical commitments to inclusivity, self-reflexivity, and attentiveness to relational power.

So how can feminist perspectives position themselves to make a greater contribution to normative theoretical debate in International Relations given the relative indifference to them among mainstream perspectives? There are several promising avenues for the future of feminist International Relations that involve closer engagement with other International Relations theories. Tickner (2006) has suggested that feminist efforts to broker conversations across differences present a potential way forward for responsible practices of International Relations scholarship. Consistent with this, a feminist critical theory approach involves bringing the insights of feminist praxis to bear on discussions of universal human rights, social justice and economic globalization, democratization and peace processes. Within feminist collective practice there are resources for building a normative theory about the possibility for global dialogue across differences – but that take account of differences and do not necessarily seek to diminish them – and for determining the form that it could and should take.

Another avenue for feminist International Relations would be to explore the normative approaches of multilateral economic institutions to justice and equity, including gender justice and equity. This might involve examining the meanings of gender as they are institutionalized in new rules and hegemonies, and critically scrutinizing them in terms of feminist goals and criteria for a more gender-just world order. Such a feminist normative approach to institutions could allow for greater synthesis with critical International Political Economy and neoliberal institutionalist perspectives on regimes, for instance.

Lastly, a future feminist research agenda would not be sufficiently inclusive, self-reflexive, or attentive to relational power if it did not leave room for feminist deconstruction and displacement. Postmodern feminist theories are crucial for our critical analysis of security discourses and practices of statecraft in the anti-terror era. In our current predicament, threats of violence are seemingly everywhere and nowhere, preying exactly on our falsely universalizing assumptions about the boundaries of gender, knowledge, and international relations.


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