The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Thinking about gender and foreign policy

January 28, 2010

I am, perhaps, the world’s worst guest blogger. I do it rarely, if at all, and in a scattered way. I keep meaning to, but then … Perhaps I am not suited for this medium of communication. Or maybe I am just distracted. With apologies to my colleagues for my flawed posting habits, however, I am not quite ready to give up on myself-as-blogger, and feel like weighing in on this question of “what to read on gender and foreign policy” might be a good place to make amends for my otherwise neglectful blogging (even if I have not managed to be timely even in this endeavor).

First, I’d like to agree with Charli both that it is a very positive development that Foreign Affairs is showing a commitment to including gender issues and gender analysis in their coverage of foreign policy issues. I am encouraged both by that as an epistemological commitment on the part of the journal as well as as a reflection of changes in the policy world.

Despite the positive directions in the academic world and the policy world as concerns gender issues, I remain only cautiously optimistic, given what I read as still largely missing: critical, complex, dialectical approaches to that gender analysis. Given that, I will accept Charli’s invitation to talk about what to read in gender and foreign policy, and through that conversation, perhaps (briefly), give a sense my hopes and fears for the field.

While I don’t disagree that a number of the books that Charli lists are important ones likely to have an impact on the field and potentially also on the policy world, I worry both about the message some of them send individually and their collective omissions. I suppose, as a segway into this discussion, I should tell you that I was inspired to go to graduate school by the question of the policy relevance of feminist theorizing (a curiosity inspired by my engagement with policy debate). Feminist theorizing has done a lot of work to analyze and demonstrate its policy relevance, but there remains a tendency for some of the nuance and complexity of gender analysis to be lost in the work read in the policy world.

For example, there is a lot of work in Feminist IR specifically and feminist theorizing generally critical of the sort of approach taken in Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky. While there is no denying both the density and quality of information about women’s human rights, postcolonial feminist scholars like Chandra Mohanty (in Feminism without Borders) and Geeta Chowdhry and Shelia Nair (in Power, Postcolonialism, and International Relations) have cautioned us against understanding a radical division between “Americans” and the “Third World” where “Americans” fail to be conscious of both genderings in their relationships with the “Third World” and position ourselves as helpers of victims rather than understanding agency, power, desire, and subjectivity in more complicated ways (perhaps as is evidenced in Christine Sylvester’s Feminist International Relations: An Unfinished Journey).

Along similar lines, while Tara McKelvey’s volume includes an unprecedented amount of empirical information and some important theoretical accounts (particularly those by Eve Ensler, Angela Davis, and Cynthia Enloe), several of the accounts of feminism in the book (particularly those by Barbara Ehrenrich and Katharine Viner) betray both an oversimplified understanding of gender analysis and a partial, politically interested view of what gender emancipation would look like. Other work (not least Caron Gentry and my Mothers, Monsters, Whores, but also, and closer to the empirical evidence, Miranda Alison’s Women and Political Violence) identifies gender hierarchy not as a result of (in Charli’s words) foreign policy institutions that incentivize manliness, but instead, as a structural feature of global politics reproduced not only in the incentivization of manliness in foreign policy institutions, but in gendered hierarchies within most if not all domestic and international institutions in international relations.

I’m also concerned with the potential orientalist (see Edward Said’s Orientalism) and gender essentialist (see discussions in Brooke Ackerly, Maria Stern, and Jacqui True’s Feminist Methodologies for International Relations implications of Hudson and Den Boer’s Bare Branches. Much gender analytical work in foreign policy, security, and International Relations more generally provides a more sophisticated account of states’ gendered violence that does not rely on naturalizing the sex/gender dichotomy or blaming men for gendered violence (see, for example, Ann Tickner’s Gendering World Politics or Jane Parpart and Marysia Zalewski’s Rethinking the Man Question).

To stop from going on for too long, I will turn to the things I would include in such a list that are not included in Charli’s as perhaps a suggestion of how I see the field. While my citations above give some indication of the sort of work that I find relevant to “reading about gender and foreign policy,” there are a couple of books explicitly on point that I think are important. First, I don’t think one can read about gender and foreign policy without reading Laura Shepherd’s Gender, Violence, and Security. This book is a feminist post-structuralist account of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, with important implications for national security policy-making and international organization constitution and effectiveness. I suggest this because I think it is important, when reading about gender and foreign policy, to pay attention not only to “women” and “gender” as material, but also in the relationship between gender, foreign policy, and violence that crosses the material/symbolic/performative divide. Along those lines, I would call Natalie Florea Hudson’s book on human security, gender, and the UN essential reading as well. The new (third) edition of V. Spike Peterson and Anne Sisson Runyan’s Global Gender Issues includes not only a sophisticated account of “feminization as devalorization” in the making of foreign policy, but also of (not only sex but gender) analysis of a number of crucial issues in 21st century foreign policy, including development, globalization, militarization, and migration.

This is just the start of a conversation on these issues, I suppose. I am happy that we’ve gotten to a place where there is an essential reading list for gender and foreign policy at all, but I’d like to push the envelope and argue that complex, non-essentialist, culturally sensitive, perhaps even post-colonial and post-structuralist, work on gender and foreign policy should make the “must read” list for those interested in the subject matter.

+ posts

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.