A (not so) open letter to a journal editor (or five): Part II

Nov 20, 2010

Dear Dr. Journal Editor,

As I mentioned in “Part I” of this letter, I “lost” this battle, and it matters to me.

Why? Because it’s not just “work” to me that happens to be on a particular topic because it is an interesting question. I believe all knowledge has a politics, acknowledged or not, and I acknowledge mine.

I do feminist work because I’m interested in deconstructing gender hierarchies in IR as a discipline and in global politics more generally. I think that such a move would benefit everyone in IR/global politics, not just women (a category I’m not particularly fond of).

I don’t want all IR the sort of work that I do, but I want (and need) it to be open to the sort of work that I do, because the world (both the real one and ours) is worse off when it isn’t, both normatively and in terms of our empirical/theoretical knowledge about the world.

In an unpublished paper a couple of years ago, I argued that the relationship between feminist IR and IR generally was an impossible one, where feminist work would always (and only) be included when it mimics IR, which robs it of its (intellectual) identity – a paradox to say the least.

I might believe that, but I’ve acted differently – attempting to mainstream feminist work at every opportunity, even when just publishing in “our” journals and talking to “our” audience would be both intellectually more interesting and substantially easier. And a lot of times that has been a great learning experience for both “sides” with an excellent result, (thanks, for example, to Security Studies), but, more often than not, like it was last week, it is an exercise where futility meets ridiculousness.

Why do I say ridiculousness? And, “so what”?

The ridiculousness: 

I wrote an article that makes a constitutive (not causal) argument about gender (not sex). It is interested in symbolism, in underlying justificatory logics, and in the ways that the unsaid plays into the particular problematique. It is heavily based on existing feminist literature in security studies, which it cites, but does not rehash for reasons of space (after all, when did you last read a 1000 word summary of Michael Doyle in the regime type literature?). It combines case explorations and multivariate regressions, though those regressions are used to show relationships rather than “measure” gender hierarchy and determine the directionality of its relationship with a “dependent variable” (the reviewers’ words, not mine).

As I implied in the first part of this letter, it was not taken on its own terms. It was not even taken on the terms usually used in evaluation of feminist work. I don’t know if the article would pass the bar on those terms, but I would sure like to.

A brief example: Reviewer 1 complains that (s)he doesn’t need the lesson on the difference between sex and gender (which I included, since I sent it to a mainstream journal and was talking about the latter, which is always conflated with the former). Then the Reviewer complains that the theory doesn’t take into account the heterogeneity among/between women, which it does, because that’s the whole point of laying out that feminist work is about gender, not about sex, and talks about women/femininity not women/sex organs. The article isn’t about “women” per se (but gendered representations and performances in war signification), and it doesn’t come anywhere near assuming either that all women have anything in common, or that femininity is something natural to (any) women. I feel fairly sure that people who do feminist IR (or even take it seriously) wouldn’t have read it that way. Its almost like some of the replies to the last letter I posted – people see the word “gender” (or, god forbid, “feminist”) and read all sorts of ridiculous things that the work doesn’t argue into it.

A second brief example: Both reviewers conclude with examples of what counts as “good work” in this field to them. First, that work isn’t in my field. I won’t “name names” in a blog post because I’m not looking to grind axes with particular people’s work, and they are people I respect personally and professionally – but they are people who “study gender” (by which they really mean sex …as dichotomous … what do men do? what do women do differently?) from a ‘non-feminist’ approach (by which I mean that they do not take account of the gender hierarchy as a fundamental condition of global social and political life). The particular work referred to in the reviews (and tacitly accepted by the journal editors as the standard by which my work should be judged) is just not good analysis from a(/my) feminist perspective, and not just for the normative reasons some may accuse me of being attached to (as if that were a bad thing). Instead, it misses links in a (you choose causal or constitutive) chain of analysis about how the world works, it makes (false/unjustifiable/oversimplified) sex essentialist assumptions, it doesn’t understand the empirical implications of sex/gender distinction (and confluence), it assumes the countability of uncountable things and the materiality of performative things, it doesn’t “hear” the substance to silence …. I could go on.

So what? 

Losing these battles is unjustified, and getting old. As a commenter on the first part of this letter notes, it’s not your journal and your journal alone. Your journal could be one of many. It’s also not just journals, its hiring committees, book publishers, etc … not universally, but by and large. So on one hand, it is not your “fault.” But it is our collective fault, and yours more than mine (both because of the relative power differential between us and because I critique the orthodoxy you reify).

Be on notice: feminist IR won’t lose the war. We will open up this discipline to feminist work (and critical work more generally), hell or high water, and I will devote my career to that work, even if it takes the rest of my career. And not tokenism, but real, rigorous, complex, contingent, modest, engaged inclusion.

I will do so because feminism belongs in IR, and not only when it looks and acts like it fits in mainstream IR’s narrow world, but maintaining its own identity and transforming IR to make it broader and better. IR needs feminist work in order to make its worldview less partial, to increase the explanatory value of its theoretical propositions, and to clarify the meanings of its empirical observations. The “relationship” cannot continue forever on its current terms, where tokenism but general closedness is the practice. Instead, feminist IR should and can transform IR – maintaining “our” sense of identity, embracing “our” diversity, and flexing “our” strengths.

That part, though, is beside the point. When Ann Tickner wrote You Just Don’t Understand, she was asking IR to think about feminist work by the claims it makes and the positions it takes, not despite them, ignoring them, or trivializing them. I, for one, am embarrassed to be needing to repeat that request (over and over) thirteen years later. But that’s what I’m doing, now, to you, and to anyone else who might be listening.

Look for a series of “PS” posts to this letter (tentatively titled “Feminist IR 101”) explaining what you might want to know to give feminist work a fair review.


…who is exhausted by having to stick up for her (research’s) right to exist.


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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.