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Taking Drezner’s Challenge (Kind of)

September 21, 2009

In response to my discussion of his post “The Trouble with Dames in World Politics,” Dan Drezner (among other things) challenges me to blog more, and to blog more about the issues directly related to Gender and IR – an encouragement so emphatic that it gets both bold and italic emphases.

While I will start blogging more about when my book publisher thinks that’s an acceptable substitute for a manuscript, those deciding on my tenure consider it service, and it paints my new house … I (kind of) accept the challenge. Dan is right that I have not blogged a lot about issues related to gender and International Relations. I really just started blogging this summer in the throws of moving across the country, and really wrote about whatever was on my mind at the time. I wasn’t complaining about the absence of gender on IR blogs when I answered Dan’s post. I was complaining about the absence of gender in “mainstream” IR as reflected on the blogs, understanding it to be a mutually reinforcing cycle.

For that reason, I think it is important to say that, while I haven’t blogged a lot about gender and IR, I have written a lot about why gender matters in International Relations, and think that should matter in a discussion of talking about “the issues.” For that reason, at the bottom of this post, I’ve summarized some of the work that I’ve done on these issues.

Still, there is, I think, some value to getting some of this stuff out on the “blogosphere” (I felt so old typing that word). What time I do have to blog, I will spend dealing seriously with some of the important issues related to gender and global politics.

Here’s a little discussion before I get on the plane to go to ISA-West ….

First, Dan expresses hesitance about talking about gender as a “Man.” Dan (and any other “men” interested in engaging these issues), if there are people out there in the world opposed to men talking about gender, I’m not one of them, and would welcome an open dialogue about these issues. Certainly (see more below), men have a gender too (right?) … and one of the major goals of feminist advocacy in IR as I understand it is to mainstream gender discussions in IR, rather than leaving them as the sole property/responsibility of (women) feminist scholars. While some may differ, I think the majority of feminist scholars in IR would say that you have as much license to talk about gender as anyone else, and I certainly won’t give you less credit for your gender.

Second, I’ll concede Dan’s argument that research programs don’t rise and fall with your blog posts. But in so much as (your and others) blog post are representative of the field of IR, and (increasingly) students take their cues from online representations as much as they do from journals and syllabi, I think it is important that we notice the position that gender studies has in these blogs, as well as in the field writ large. My point was not that it could never be funny to joke about gender/IR (I’ll delay judgment on that), or that this blog post was (anywhere near) solely responsible for the marginalization of gender-based/feminist scholarship in IR. My point is simply that it means something discursively that the only mention of gender and IR on a blog considered “mainstream” in the discipline is as a (theoretically problematic) joke. That said, I welcome a serious engagement of these issues, even in blog format, where humor is par for the course. And while I would never want to (even unwittingly) perpetuate the stereotype that feminists are humorless, I also think it is important to understand that (even funny) discourse has social and political impact.

Third, perhaps a taking off point for serious discussion (that I can’t really do justice right now). Dan “defends” his “FP colleagues” by mentioning that some of them have raised the issue of gender, linking to Steve Walt’s post about the “top ten” books written by women in IR, written after Steve (and his wife, according to his post) realized that his “top ten” books in IR list featured only books authored by men. I appreciate Steve’s consciousness about the sex of the authors of books, and that he took the time to go back and write this second list out of this consciousness.

Still, if we are going to have discussions about “gender and IR” we need to get some sense of what it is we are talking about – and Steve’s post is about women (in the discipline), not about gender (in global politics). The two (women/gender and the discipline/global politics) are related, and often women/gender are discussed in the same scholarly works. Still “women” and “gender” are not the same, conceptually or actually, and their conflation often causes substantial confusion and miscommunication between scholars attempting to discuss these issues. So, a couple of points:

1) “Sex” is a (falsely, but we’ll get to this in a minute) dichotomous category, where there are two choices, “male” and “female.” In addition to conflating sex and gender (also, we’ll get to this in a minute), way too much of the scholarly and media discussion (links available on request) about “gender issues” reduces gender to “women,” implying first that “women” are the only people who have gender, and second that “gender issues” are about women’s problems and the solutions to them, rather than about gender subordination more generally (which happens both to “women” and to “men”). “Gender” is something that everyone has, and that everyone is impacted by, whichever “sex” category they are assigned to.

2) (Because I said I’d get to this), the “sex” categories “male” and “female” are a false dichotomy. It is estimated that fully one percent of the population physically and/or genetically differ from the standard biological understandings of what it means to be “male” or “female.” Those people are currently understood as one category, “intersex,” though many of the biological causes and manifestations of “gender ambiguities” differ fairly substantially. I bring this up because we are often quick to understand people as male/female (and associate masculinity and femininity), but there are a substantial number of people in the world who don’t fit (either comfortably or at all) in either category.

3) (This is the point, for today) Sex isn’t gender. If “male,” “female,” and “intersex,” are sex categories, gender is not the equivalent of (perceived) membership in biological sex classes. Instead, when feminist scholars say “gender,” they are referring to a system of symbolic meaning that creates social hierarchies based on perceived association with masculine and feminine characteristics. So “gender” and “gendering” are about the association with (and value attached to) characteristics that we understand as associated with sex categories. The best sentence-long explanation of this that I’ve found comes from Lauren Wilcox, who says that “gender symbolism describes the way in which masculine/feminine are assigned to various dichotomies that organize Western thought” where “both men and women tend to place a higher value on the term which is associated with masculinity” (in Gender and International Security). An implication of this is that “gender subordination” isn’t just when “men” put down “women,” it is a system of symbolic meaning perpetuated by both “men” and “women” that affects and orders the lives of all. There is not just one “masculinity” or one “femininity” but various masculinities and femininities ordered in relation to what R. W. Connell calls a “hegemonic” masculinity, the cultural ideal-type to which others are compared and expected to aspire. It is certainly a “gender issue” when we discover the hugely disproportionate impact on “women” of phenomena like wartime rape, human trafficking, post-conflict DDR processes, and the like. But it is also a “gender issue” when militaries motivate soldiers by identifying weaker men as “sissies” and “girls,” despite it “happening to” men. While I am interested in the question of the ways that gender hierarchical social relations lead to women’s subordination, I am more interested in the ways that gender hierarchical social relations which subordinate women and characteristics associated with masculinity constitute a rule in global social and political relations, and impact not only all individuals’ lives but the structure and function of the international system.

Those are the sorts of things I will talk about as I blog about gender and IR.

Because I promised it at the top of this post, not in a self-congratulatory way, but instead in a “see, its out there,” sort of way … you can find my work:

In Gender, Justice, and the Wars in Iraq, where I argue that gender has been a key factor in shaping the historical and current debates around just war theory, and point out the ways in which the gendered nature of just war theory affected the state-level dialogues surrounding the wars in Iraq (the First and Second Gulf Wars, as well as the sanctions). Dan, I don’t know if you remember, but the sanctions chapter of this book comes out of my undergraduate thesis, which was an attempt to expand the thesis of the sanctions article you linked to in your response to my post. We talked about it a few times while I was at Chicago, though you were away my senior year.

In “The Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle: Why Gender Analysis Needs Feminism” in International Studies Quarterly, I argue that the nature of the non-combatant immunity principle can only be fully understood (either casually or constitutively) without taking account not only of gender but of the fact that gender (in global politics and elsewhere) is a hierarchy against which particular roles are doled out and values are measured. It argues that the non-combatant immunity principle is (both philosophically and in practice) fundamentally based on the classification of women as “beautiful souls” (at once protected from war and the object to be fought over) which warrants men’s roles as citizen-soldiers, and serves as an underlying justifactory logic for war.

In Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics, Caron Gentry and I argue that gender-based expectations about women’s behavior obscure their political motivations for engaging in violence, leading instead both scholars and popular media to characterize women as lacking agency in their violence, whether that violence is revolutionary, terrorist, or genocidal. We point out that the continued assumption that women are incapable of violence betrays lingering unequal understanding of men and women (individually and collectively) in global politics, which has important implications both for international conflict and gender subordination.

In the “Security Studies: Feminist Contributions,” the introduction to the special issue of the journal Security Studies that I edited, I discuss briefly what it means to approach IR from a feminist perspective and provide a brief overview of questions of epistemology and method in feminist theorizing. I then summarize some of the accomplishments of Feminist Security Studies, and related that work to Security studies writ large. I argue that gender is conceptually, empirically, and normatively essential to studying international security, and that, as such, accurate, rigorous, and ethical scholarship cannot be produced without taking account both of women’s presence in and the gendering of global politics.

In “Agency, Militarized Femininity, and Enemy Others,” in the International Feminist Journal of Politics, I explore the gender-based expectations of women joining the United States military, especially as it relates to women’s participation in the prison abuse “scandal” at Abu Ghraib. It points out the increasing sophistication of the idealized image of the “woman soldier,” stories of militarized femininity constructed in opposition to the gendered enemy, and contradictions in understandings abot women’s agency in their violence.

In “Feminist Interrogations of Terrorism/Terrorism Studies,” in International Relations, I point out that, while there isn’t one feminist approach to terrorism/terrorism studies, feminist approaches might ask a collage of questions, including: where are the women in terrorism? in terrorism studies? in our understandings of terrorism’s victims? what approach should we use to study terrorism? what epistemological biases are inherent in how we see “terrorism?” how are current definitions of terrorism gendered? how are gender roles and gender perceptions manipulated in terrorist and counterterrorist efforts? how does the (gendered) rational/emotional divide impact the way that we study terrorists’ motivations?

Along related lines, I’ve also edited a fair amount of work in gender/security, written on gender and styles of political leadership, gender and issues of IR pedagogy, feminist reformulations of just war theory, the sexualization of women’s violence, the applicability of feminist just war theorizing to non-state actors in 21st century war, and the gendered nature of power transition theory, among other things. And certainly, my work only scratches the surface of work in Feminist Security Studies specifically, and in gender and IR more generally. Several projects developing comprehensive bibliographies should be up and running later this year.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.