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Feminism (international relations)


Feminism (international relations)

International relations theory
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Feminism is a broad term given to works of those scholars who have sought to bring gender concerns into the academic study of international politics.

In terms of international relations (IR) theory it is important to understand that feminism is derived from the school of thought known as reflectionism. One of the most influential works in feminist IR is Cynthia Enloe's Bananas, Beaches and Bases (Pandora Press 1990). This text sought to chart the many different roles that women play in international politics - as plantation sector workers, diplomatic wives, sex workers on military bases etc. The important point of this work was to emphasize how, when looking at international politics from the perspective of women, one is forced to reconsider his or her personal assumptions regarding what international politics is 'all about'.

However, it would be a mistake to think that feminist IR was solely a matter of identifying how many groups of women are positioned in the international political system. From its inception, feminist IR has always shown a strong concern with thinking about men and, in particular, masculinities. Indeed, many IR feminists argue that the discipline is inherently masculine in nature. For example, in her article "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals" Signs (1988), Carol Cohn claimed that a highly masculinised culture within the defense establishment contributed to the divorcing of war from human emotion.

A feminist IR involves looking at how international politics affects and is affected by both men and women and also at how the core concepts that are employed within the discipline of IR (e.g. war, security, etc.) are themselves gendered. Feminist IR has not only concerned itself with the traditional focus of IR on states, wars, diplomacy and security, but feminist IR scholars have also emphasized the importance of looking at how gender shapes the current global political economy. In this sense, there is no clear cut division between feminists working in IR and those working in the area of International Political Economy (IPE).

Feminist IR emerged largely from the late 1980s onwards. The end of the Cold War and the re-evaluation of traditional IR theory during the 1990s opened up a space for gendering International Relations. Because feminist IR is linked broadly to the critical project in IR, by and large most feminist scholarship has sought to problematise the politics of knowledge construction within the discipline - often by adopting methodologies of deconstructivism associated with postmodernism/poststructuralism. However, the growing influence of feminist and women-centric approaches within the international policy communities (for example at the World Bank and the United Nations) is more reflective of the liberal feminist emphasis on equality of opportunity for women.

In regards to feminism in International Relations, some of the founding feminist IR scholars refer to using a "feminist consciousness" when looking at gender issues in politics. In Cynthia Enloe’s article “Gender is not enough: the need for a feminist consciousness”, Enloe explains how International Relations needs to include masculinity in the discussion on war, while also giving attention to the issues surrounding women and girls.[1] In order to do so, Enloe urges International Relations scholars to look at issues with a ‘feminist consciousness’, which will ultimately include a perspective sensitive to masculinities and femininities.[1] In this way, the feminist consciousness, together with a gendered lens, allows for IR academics to discuss International Politics with a deeper appreciation and understanding of issues pertaining to gender around the world.

Enloe argues how the IR discipline continues to lack serious analysis of the experiences, actions and ideas of girls and women in the international arena, and how this ultimately excludes them from the discussion in IR.[1] For instance, Enloe explains Carol Cohn’s experience using a feminist consciousness while participating in the drafting of a document that outlines the actions taken in negotiating ceasefires, peace agreements and new constitutions.[1] During this event, those involved came up with the word “combatant” to describe those in need during these usually high-strung negotiations.[1] The use of ‘combatant’ in this context is particularly problematic as Carol points out, because it implies one type of militarized people, generally men carrying guns, and excludes the women and girls deployed as porters, cooks and forced ‘wives’ of male combatants.[1] This term effectively renders the needs of these women invisible, and excludes them from the particularly critical IR conversation regarding who needs what in war and peace.[1] This discussion is crucial for the analysis of how various masculinities are at play in International Politics, and how those masculinities affect women and girls during wartime and peace and initially eliminates them from the discussion.

Conversely, feminist IR scholar Charlotte Hooper effectively applies a feminist consciousness when considering how “IR disciplines men as much as men shape IR”.[2] So, instead of focusing on what and whom IR excludes from the conversation, Hooper focuses on how masculine identities are perpetuated and ultimately are the products of the practice of IR.[2] In this way, it is ineffective to use a gendered lens and feminist consciousness to analyze the exclusion of a discussion in gender in IR. Hooper suggests that a deeper examination of the ontological and epistemological ways in which IR has been inherently a masculine discipline is needed.[2] The innate masculinity of IR is due to the fact that men compose the vast majority of modern IR scholars, and their masculine identities have been socially constructed over time through various political progressions.[2] For instance, Hooper gives examples of the historical and political developments of masculinities that are still prevalent in IR and society at large; the Greek citizen/warrior model, the Judeo Christian model and the Protestant bourgeois rationalist model.[2] These track the masculine identities throughout history, where manliness is measured in militarism and citizenship, ownership and authority of the fathers, and finally, competitive individualism and reason.[2] These masculinities in turn asks one to not only use the feminist consciousness to analyze the exclusions of femininities from IR, but additionally, Hooper illuminates how one can locate the inherent inclusions of masculinities in the field of IR with a feminist consciousness.


  • Feminist Anti-Militarism 1
  • Gender Theory and Feminisms 2
  • Critique 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6

Feminist Anti-Militarism

Feminists within INR often look to how conceptions of masculinity have shaped foreign policy, state identity, and security and armament during and outside of warfare. One tradition that exists within the field for this purpose is that of feminist anti-militarism. This is a stance within Feminist International Relations that opposes weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear weaponry, and holds gender accountable in part for the propagation of militarism.[3] Gender becomes embedded in relations of power as that which is seen to be stronger is assigned a masculinized identity, while concepts such as emotion are seen as indicators of weakness and become associated with femininity.[4] In this way, the military strength and capability of a state becomes associated with its degree of masculinity, which feminist anti-militarists see as problematic. As disarmament could be perceived as emasculatory, states are less likely to disarm; consequently, militarism becomes normalized, downplayed, and more likely to incite warfare.[5] These are some of the concepts that Carol Cohn and Sara Ruddick explored in their article “Feminist Ethical Perspective on Weapons of Mass Destruction,” (2003) which laid out the meaning behind what they referred to as “anti-war feminism”.[3] They explain that it opposes the use of weapons of mass destruction whether for military, political, or deterring purposes, yet that it differs from pacifism in that it does not outright reject all forms of warfare.[3] Such opposition stems partly from the questionability of how effective warfare/militarism is, and whether the costs, (albeit monetary, environmental, and especially human) that are inevitably incurred yet not always accounted, for are worth it.[3]

Manifestations of feminist anti-militarism can be identified in various contexts and methods. In line with Cohn and Riddick’s (2003) aforementioned article, part of what feminist anti-militarism critiques is the framework in which weapons of mass destruction are “discussed”.[3] Such discourse assumedly would have large influence in the outcome, as investigated by Cohn in one of her earlier articles, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals." [5] Her participation in security discussions allowed her to observe the way in which the “technostrategic” language used by American defense intellectuals was highly gendered, and assigned greater value and strength to that which was assigned masculine or highly sexualized terminology.[5] While Cohn does not explicitly identify the use of a feminist anti-militarist view in this article, the ideas and subjects at hand run parallel. Relatedly, Claire Duncanson and Catherine Eschle do state their use of a feminist anti-militarist perspective in their article “Gender and the Nuclear Weapons State: A Feminist Critique of the UK Government’s White Paper on Trident”.[4] The authors borrow Cohn’s rendition of the relationship between gender and nuclear weapons to examine the way in which discourses are shaped by underlying dichotomous views of masculinity and femininity.[4] This perspective is then applied to the renewal of Trident nuclear weapons, a plan which Duncanson and Eschl argue is enabled by the UK government’s use of masculinized language that seems to be constructed into the state’s identity.[4] The UK Trident Program was the cause of another expression of feminist anti-militarism, beginning a few decades earlier in the form of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. The 1979 decision by NATO to base ground cruise missiles at Greenham Common initiated a response from women largely associated with various feminist and anti-nuclear groups. Their opposition to such militarism was demonstrated in the persistence of peace camps, demonstrations and other forms of resistance for the following two decades (nat. archive website).[6] Such efforts brought to life the feminist anti-militarist perception of the relationship between gender and militarism as exhibited through nuclear weaponry.

Gender Theory and Feminisms

Gender theory highlights the limitations of linguistic categories,[7] asserts the significance of intersectionality,[8] values concrete cultural context over universalisms and essentialisms (for example, the notion of universal patriarchy),[8] rigorously problematizes sex and gender binaries,[9] recounts and accounts for the history of sex and gender relations,[10] and deals directly with other theoretical strains such as structuralism,[11] post-structuralism,[12] socialism,[13] and psychoanalysis.[14][15] For example, in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler explores the possibility of troubling gender first by examining conventional understandings of gender that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power, and subsequently wondering about the extent to which one can undermine such constitutive categories (that is, male/female, man/woman) through continually mobilizing, subverting, and proliferating the very foundational illusions of identity which seek to keep gender in its place.[16] Gender theory can inform critical lenses and perspectives such as Cynthia Enloe’s “feminist consciousness,”[17] as well as other feminist perspectives such as liberal feminism,[18] difference feminism,[18] and poststructuralist feminism.[19] In terms of feminist international relations, gender theory engages directly with the notion of mainstreaming gender in both institutional politics[20] and discursive politics.[20]

Liberal feminism deals specifically with policy-making, and requires that women as well as perspectives on both women’s and men’s lived realities are fairly included and represented in that policy-making.[18] With regard to liberal feminism, gender theory contemplates, for example, what is meant by the term “women,” whose perspectives on “women’s” and “men’s” lived realities are considered valuable in facilitating fair representation in policy-making, and what aspects of life are considered components of “lived reality”.

Difference feminism focusses on empowering women in particular through specific designs, implementations, and evaluations of policies that account for the material and cultural differences between men and women and their significance.[18] With regard to difference feminism, gender theory questions, again, what is meant by the term “women;” what factors might lead to “women” requiring specific designs, implementations, and evaluations of policies; what is considered to constitute “difference” in the material and cultural experience of “men” and “women;” and what aspects of that “difference” suppose its especial significance.

Poststructuralist feminism prioritizes difference and diversity to the extent that it recognizes all identities as absolutely contingent social constructions.[21] With regard to poststructuralist feminism, gender theory points out that due to this ontological and epistemological discursiveness, poststructuralist feminism can, in some cases, risk understanding the subjects in policy-making as distinct social subjectivities primarily and/or exclusively in terms of gender difference, rather than in terms of the multiplicities of difference that comprise subjectivities in poststructural feminist thought.[19]

Institutional politics describes the political, material, bureaucratic, and organizational relationships and conventions that govern administrative institutions.[20] Gender theory seeks to examine the ways in which these normalized relationships and conventions shape the policy-making processes of and within these institutions.

Discursive politics refers to the ways in which institutionalized norms, policy procedures, organizational identities, and material structures shape the language and meaning of gender equality and/or difference therein.[20] Gender theory, with regard to discursive politics, for instance, would examine the identities, the constitutive categories,[16] created and/or perpetuated by the language and meaning of gender equality and/or difference in such international institutions.


In the hardcore academic realm of IR theory Feminist perspective did not receive serious attention because of its alien ways of addressing the Problem.[22] Social science is more and more approaching the hypothetico deductivist way of looking in social phenomena.[23] In that context feminist perspective fits more into an activist way of looking into the issue rather than solving the problem. In their rescue, Keohane-one of the figureheads of the IR discipline, suggested feminists to formulate some verifiable problems, to collect data and do some science to solve the issue.[22] However, the call received cold reaction from feminists and in rebuttal one of them wrote “You Still Don’t Understand: Why Troubled Engagements Continue between Feminists and (Critical) IPE.”.[24] Some other critiques argued that,whereas the theories might be socially constructed by the interaction between theorists and their wives, mothers, daughters and sisters, although women might by apparently invisible; installing female morality is redundant and human universal common morality is more comprehensive and attainable.[25]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Enloe, C. (2004), III "‘Gender’ is not enough: the need for a feminist consciousness". International Affairs, 80: 95–97. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2346.2004.00370.x.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Hooper, C. (1999), "Masculinities, IR and the 'Gender Variable': A Cost-Benefit Analysis for (Sympathetic) Gender Skeptics". International Studies, 25: 475-491.
  3. ^ a b c d e Cohn, C., & Ruddick, S. (2003). A Feminist Ethical Perspective on Weapons of Mass Destruction. Boston Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, Working Paper 104, 3-33. Retrieved from
  4. ^ a b c d Duncanson, C., & Eschle, C. (2008). Gender and the Nuclear Weapons State: A Feminist Critique of the UK Government’s White Paper on Trident. New Political Science, 30(4), 545-563. Retrieved from use:
  5. ^ a b c Cohn, C. (1987). Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals. Signs, 12(4), 687-178. Retrieved from
  6. ^ The National Archives | Access to Archives. The National Archives. Retrieved September 26, 2013, from
  7. ^ Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge. p. 5. 
  8. ^ a b Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge. p. 6. 
  9. ^ Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge. p. 9. 
  10. ^ Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge. pp. 49–50. 
  11. ^ Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge. p. 51. 
  12. ^ Butler, Judith (1999). Preface, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge. pp. viii–ix. 
  13. ^ Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge. p. 47. 
  14. ^ Butler, Judith (1999). Preface, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge. p. xviii. 
  15. ^ Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge. pp. 53–4. 
  16. ^ a b Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge. p. 44. 
  17. ^ Enloe, Cynthia (January 2004). "Gender is not enough: the need for a feminist consciousness". International Affairs 80 (1): 95–97.  
  18. ^ a b c d  
  19. ^ a b  
  20. ^ a b c d  
  21. ^  
  22. ^ a b Keohane, R. O. (1998). Beyond dichotomy: Conversations between international relations and feminist theory. International Studies Quarterly, 42(1):193-197
  23. ^
  24. ^ Waylen, Georgina. 2006. “You Still Don’t Understand: Why Troubled Engagements Continue between Feminists and (Critical) IPE.” Review of International Studies 32(1):145–64.
  25. ^

Further reading

  • Tickner, J. Ann. Gendering World Politics. Columbia University Press (May 15, 2001). ISBN 0-231-11367-6
  • Theory TalksInterview with feminist IR-scholar Marysia Zalewski by
  • Theory TalksInterview with feminist IR-scholar Cynthia Enloe by
  • Keohane, R. O. (1998). Beyond dichotomy: Conversations between international relations and feminist theory. International Studies Quarterly, 42(1):193-197
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