The Duck of Minerva

Feminist IR 101, Post #3: What is “feminist” about “feminist IR”?

4 December 2010

So I’ve been accused elsewhere in the blogosphere (not linked here because of profane language) of just posting a lot of overlong (language cleaned up) definitions in service of a poststructuralist cause which is “irrelevant (insert choice words here).” I could get all defensive or argumentative (insert sarcastic comment about feminists here), but I think that I’ll those comments as proof that perhaps the explaining needs to continue.

I posted all those definitional discussions because it would be easy to misread what came after them without that foundation, which is not obvious or intuitive to most IR scholars. The next series of posts (this one, #4, “common misconceptions about feminist IR,” and #5, “what feminist IR can do for you”) lay out generally what feminisms in IR are and what they do. Posts that follow those will discuss particular theoretical areas or empirical puzzles of interest to feminisms and IR.

So what is “feminist” about “feminist IR”? This is, to me, another way of getting at the question of “what is feminist IR?” There are some colloquial definitions that get us somewhere. In high school, I had a bumper sticker that said “feminism is the radical notion that women are people too.” More helpfully, perhaps, Betty Reardon once described feminism as “the belief that women are of equal social and human value with men.” That’s a start, but not the crux of it.

A caveat before I go into this in more depth: I’m not the foremost authority of, the founder of, a gatekeeper for, or the voice of feminisms in IR – I was in grade school when the people I’m now proud to call my mentors began feminist interventions in IR. These statements, while meant to make feminist work accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t (make the effort to) engage with and understand it, are only my approaches, and not something by which to judge the enterprise of feminisms in IR, which I feel privileged to be a part of, but am only a part of.

With that said, Reardon is right that feminisms (in IR and elsewhere) started with (and maintain) a concern with the subordinating treatment of women in social and political life. Feminists have noted that, on almost every indicator of social, political, and economic well-being, participation, and “development,” “women” remain behind “men;” this is true in the most progressive places in the world and the least progressive places in the world, however measured, and everywhere in between. Many feminists in IR started with the (important) empirical and theoretical question – (in Cynthia Enloe’s words) where are the “women” in global politics? Why do they fare worse than the “men,” almost universally? Why are they largely absent(ed) from histories and contemporary accounts of social and political life?

So, feminist IR has cared about, and does care about “women,” empirically (because showing where they are tells us more about global politics than we knew when we didn’t see them) and normatively (because women’s invisibility and marginality in social, political, and economic life is not incidental, but a product of gender subordination. But this care for “women” is (in most cases) not some unselfconscious interest in promoting women’s rights or interests as if all women are the same, or have the same wants and needs, or as if “women” have “gender issues” and men are “genderless.”

Instead, in Jill Steans’ words (using a concept employed by Spike Peterson and Anne Sisson Runyan and Christine Sylvester before), to look at the world through gender lenses is to focus on gender as a particular kind of power relation, or to trace out the ways in which gender is central to understanding international processes. In other words, feminist IR is not an enterprise of labeling or targeting “men,” of vindicating or idealizing “women,” of idealism, of waxing philosophical about things irrelevant to the “real” IR. It is an enterprise of looking to understand “real” IR differently, and better, through seeing how gender matters in the (causal and constitutive) relationships (mainstream/malestream) IR cares about, and the role it plays in which relationships are deemed outside of the disciplinary purview.

“Feminisms” in IR are normative, but they are (largely) not idealist. They are normative in that they have a political agenda (which all scholarly/epistemological enterprises do) and they admit it (which very few scholarly/epistemological enterprises do). That political agenda is in recognizing and deconstructing gender hierarchies in global politics generally (and the academic discipline of IR specifically). (Most) feminists argue that it is studying (gender in) global politics is done less rigorously without that political agenda, or, at the very least, taking account gender as a dichotomy which is hierarchical rather than “equal.”

What does that mean? “Gender” is not category where each choice in the dichotomy is equally valued. Instead, most everywhere in the world, consciously or unconsciously, we select for (people and values associated with) masculinities (which often include, but do not map one-to-one onto “men”) over (people and values associated with) femininities (which often include, but do not map one-to-one onto “women”). If you treat gender as a variable (asking what “men” do and what “women” do, or what is done to “men” and what is done to “women”) without taking account of that hierarchy, it is impossible to understand what is really going on, because “men” and “women” do not act outside of that gender-hierarchical social structure. For an in-depth discussion of this point, see my engagement with (fellow duck blogger) Charli Carpenter’s work in International Studies Quarterly a couple of years ago.

The implications for “men” and “women” matter empirically and normatively, feminists argue, but gender hierarchy in global politics has implications outside of (the relations between) sex categories. When we prize masculinities over femininities, association with masculinity comes to be a place of power, and association with femininity comes to be a place of weakness – so people, states, social organizations, and the like often have a vested interest in positioning themselves at the higher ends of gender hierarchies (masculinization) and positioning their opponents or enemies at the lower ends of gender hierarchies (feminization). This makes gender both an organizing principle of global politics (since global politics can be understood as gender-hierarchical) and an acting principal of global politics’ agents (since relative position along gender hierarchies is important, and can be altered). Therefore (in Marysia Zalewski’s words), the driving force of feminism is attention to gender and not simply to women …the concept, nature, and practice of gender are key. Scholars looking through gender lenses (in Lauren Wilcox’s words) ask what assumptions about gender (and race, class, nationality, and sexuality) are necessary to make particular statements, policies, and actions meaningful. Therefore, as I have argued before, failure to recognize gender hierarchy makes IR scholarship less descriptively accurate and predictively powerful for its omission of a major force in global politics.

Of course, this is an oversimple summary of decades of careful theoretical work which has certainly left major points out. The punchline, which I hope to expand in future posts, is that seeing gender hierarchy in the world transforms both what we think about in global politics and how we think about it, for a more accurate empirical view of how the world “works” and a different normative understanding of what needs to be changed in it. Feminisms in(/of/critical of) IR (of which there are many, and they are substantially different, a question that will be addressed in the next post) try, through empirical research, theoretical work, critique, and reformulation to encourage(/perform/enact) that(/those) transformation(s).