Feminist IR 101, Post #4: Common Myths about Feminist IR (and the ‘truth’)

13 December 2010, 0344 EST

Here are some common misperceptions of feminist IR; the “truth” is below the “fold” …

1. Feminist IR is a paradigmatic alternative to other IR paradigms – there’s realism, liberalism, constructivism, poststructuralism, and then … feminism. It is its own “ism,” and therefore should be a chapter in each textbook proposed as a dialogue with and/or critique of International Relations.
2. Feminists are whiners – either the field of IR see, e.g., this debate nor global politics (see, e.g., Barbara Ehrenreich’s discussion of Abu Ghraib) are sites of rampant gender subordination.
3. Women are feminists, and feminists have to be women; feminist research in IR is about women (see, e.g., some of the conceptual errors in Adam Jones’ most recent book).
4. Adding gender as a variable to existing analysis satisfies feminist research concerns. Feminism can fit comfortably within the traditional boundaries of IR (see, e.g., Ann Tickner’s discussion of this issue).
5. Adding a “gender week” on the syllabus of classes on IR theory, IPE, security, and the like does pedagogical and theoretical justice to feminist concerns (see discussion in International Studies Perspectives special section “Mainstreaming Gender into the IR Curriculum,” edited by fellow Duck blogger Charli Carpenter).
6. Hiring more women addresses feminist critiques of IR as a discipline. Feminists think there should be hiring discrimination against men.
7. There is one “IR feminism” to which all IR feminists subscribe.
8. Feminism in IR is particularly relevant to things that “concern” women (like wartime rape), and things that women are (perceived to be) good at (like peace, and negotiation).
9. Feminism in IR assumes that women are/should be equal to men, and treated that way, but valorizes women and femininity, picturing women as without men’s flaws and femininity as by definition better than masculinity.
10. Feminism is irrelevant to the traditional concerns of IR (like nuclear war, trade imbalances, levels of analysis, and the like), but can have its niche studying the things it is relevant to.
11. Feminists are humorless (see blog discussion with Dan Drezner)

All of these are misguided. I will discuss each in turn.

At the outset, it is important to note – my views are not others; and this is a blog post and not a journal article, so it hasn’t been vetted and peer reviewed. Since it is being written late at night on an airplane, there may be some errors. If you have questions, I’m glad to answer them.

Now, onto the myth-busting …

1. Feminist IR is not a paradigmatic alternative to other approaches, nor is it a critique of (all) other approaches. Instead, it is a way of looking at IR’s many concerns “through gendered lenses” (in the words of Spike Peterson and Anne Runyan). Therefore, you’re not an “IR scholar” or a “feminist critic,” or a “feminist,” instead of a “realist,” or a “liberal,” or a “constructivist.” Likewise, though feminist theorists outside of IR sometimes divide feminist theorizing into “standpoint,” “liberal,” “empiricist,” and “postmodern,” IR feminism doesn’t map neatly onto those divides. Instead, there are “feminists” of all IR stripes – liberal IR feminists (interested in women’s formal/legal equality and rights), constructivist IR feminists (understanding gender as a social construct and its impact on/being impacted by global politics), critical IR feminists (interested in the ways that gender hierarchies could be reversed in emancipatory ways), poststructuralist feminists (interested in the discursive/performative aspects of gender subordination in global politics), postcolonial IR feminists (interested in the intersections between gender/race/ethnicity/colonialism and gender subordination in global politics), and (I argue) realist IR feminists (interested in gender as a global structure/power relation). There are also feminists in IR whose works traverses (and transforms) IR’s boxes. Either way, it cannot be seen as a paradigmatic alternative (because it by definition interacts with the other paradigms) or just a critique of IR’s paradigms (because it works to not only critique but revision and reconstruct.

2. The field of IR and global politics are both sites of rampant gender subordination. In IR (see discussion between the TRIP survey administrators and Brooke Ackerly, Jacqui True, Mary Ann Tetrault, and myself in Politics and Gender), women remain underrepresented at almost every level of the field, even proportional to the Ph.D.s they receive and the subject matters they choose to study. This underrepresentation gets worse, not better, at the senior levels of the field – that is, women leave the profession at greater rates than men; women lose out on tenure more than men; women get less jobs out of grad school than men; and women are less likely to finish Ph.D. programs than men. Women are less likely to publish in major journals and rank lower than men on a number of indicators of professional success. This is more exacerbated in IR than in other subfields in political science. In global politics, women remain 70% of those below poverty levels globally; they remain the primary civilian victims of war and conflict; sexual violence and domestic violence remain rampant throughout the world; many countries still have incredibly high rates of denied access to birth control, maternal mortality, and adolescent birth; and characteristics and people associated with femininity remain undervalued compared to characteristics and people associated with masculinity almost everywhere in the world.

3. Not all women are feminists. Not all people who study gender are feminists. Some people study “gender” without recognizing gender hierarchy. Not only is this bad research, it is by most definitions not feminist. Some people study how to suppress women more. They are not feminists. Feminists are not only interested in women. IR feminists are interested in gender(s), including masculinity (see the great IR feminist work on masculinities by people like Charlotte Hooper, Marysia Zalewski, Jane Parpart, and Terrell Carver). There are some men who do great IR feminist work. They don’t get bit or scowled at when they come to meetings. In fact, there are male officers of the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies Section of ISA. Feminist researchers in IR recognize that gender tropes do not just hurt “women,” but also “men,” as well as people who do not fit comfortably into either category.

4. Let’s say we’re trying to figure out what causes war. We’ve got regime type, economic status, ethnic differences, past wars, and all sorts of other variables that people who are interested in figuring out what causes war count in their regressions. Some people would just add “level of gender inequality” to their regression and see if it is a significant variable. This may be interesting to some (putting aside briefly issues of countability, and if gender inequality is linear), but it isn’t the point. First, “level of gender inequality” in a state is not an indicator of “gendered relations among states” – that is, states don’t assume their relative position on the international gender hierarchy from the relative level of gender subordination within each state. Second, gender relations among states have many dimensions – material, performative, perceptual, etc.; which can’t be captured on one axis. Third, gender relations within and among states influences all those other variables people who are interested in what causes war count in their regressions. Fourth, the traditional places that we look at for the causes of war are themselves subject to feminist critiques and reformulations about where global politics takes place. Fifth, “level of gender inequality” usually measures what happens to women as compared to what happens to men – how unequal women are on some axis. This is an incomplete (and one-directional) understanding of sex subordination; and it accounts for sex but cannot account for gender … I could go on, but this question will doubtless be the subject of a full post.

5. Adding “gender week” to an IR, IPE, or security syllabus perpetuates a number of myths about the place of feminisms in the discipline of IR. It perpetuates the myth that gender is a paradigmatic alternative (see #1), that it is irrelevant to the traditional concerns of IR (see #10), and that it doesn’t fundamentally transform how IR does what it does. Most “gender weeks” treat feminism(s) as critique(s) of IR, or afterthoughts – like, after you learned about the “real” IR, here’s some extra stuff you might want to know. My syllabi try to integrate gender concerns each week – feminist engagements with each substantive topic (in security class) or paradigmatic approach (in IR theory class).

6. Hiring more women doesn’t address feminist critiques of IR. First (see #4), not all women are feminists. In fact, some women kind of stink at feminism, and some women are anti-feminist. Hiring women is a good thing, because the profession should be sex-equal regardless of its gender content.  But  epistemological and ontological openness to feminist work, and methodological acceptance of it, is necessary as well – hiring feminists, engaging feminisms, and rethinking IR’s masculinism is as important as (if not more important than) hiring women, engaging sex, and adding “gender” as a variable.

7. There are many IR feminisms (see #1) that engage feminist theory and IR differently – in addition to falling within or across different paradigmatic “boxes,” feminisms are interested in different sectors of global politics – international/global security, international/global political economy, international/global migration, international/global law, international/global human rights, and the like. In the International Studies Compendium, there are 54 different essays on different areas within and approaches to feminist IR in the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies section alone, and several more in other sections’ collections.

8. Certainly, it is easy to see gender in things which “concern” women, like wartime rape. Feminists are (intensely) interested in these things – in the example of wartime rape, the way that gendered nationalism(s) play(s) into motivations for mass rapes, the gendered assumptions that are necessary to make rape an (accepted) part of the making and fighting of wars, the gendered stereotypes in the prosecution of wartime rapists, the difficult road for women victims of forced impregnation (and the resulting war babies), the way that men inscribe dominance on other men through women’s bodies, and the like. That said, feminist scholarship is as interested in and as relevant to the choice of weapons or artillery (which initially appears gender neutral) as it is in wartime rape (see #10). This interest, though, is not about women’s special abilities in particular areas. For example, Robert Keohane, in 1989, suggested that feminisms should pair up with neoliberal institutionalist approaches to IR basically because women are better at negotiation and compromise, and therefore could teach us to be better institutionalists. As Ann Tickner and Cynthia Weber noted, this is so not the point (see also #9). Feminisms in IR are not about capitalizing on gender subordination for policy efficiency.

9.  I won’t argue that no feminisms in IR assume that women are/should be equal to men, and treated that way, while picturing women as without men’s flaws and femininity as by definition better than masculinity – some of it does, blaming “masculine violence” on “men,” and not thinking/talking about feminizing violence, or about women who behave as masculinists, or the like. That said, feminisms in IR are at their best, I believe, when they recognize that “women” are not “beautiful souls” (in Elshtain’s words originally) always innocent of and victims of the terrible things in the world. At the same time, women’s flaws, their complicity in gender subordination, their reproduction of gender-subordinating tropes and ideas, do not mean that women are not subordinated on the basis of gender, or that masculinities do not generally trump femininities along gender hierarchies. Women can subordinate women on the basis of gender (I am, in fact, writing a book about this very phenomena in wartime sexual violence). That doesn’t make it not gender subordination. Men can also subordinate men on the basis of gender. Again, still gender subordination. For me, the “problem” with gender hierarchies is the consistent valorization of masculinities and devalorization of femininities. Would I like to see what the world would be like if it valorized femininities? Sure. But is that the point? Not so much. The point is to question and reform the naturalness of masculinities and femininities as categories and descriptors, and the naturalness of choosing masculinities when we choose among traits, characteristics, ideas, people, states, or nations.

10. A discipline shaped by men (with and for masculine values) about a global political arena where only men were visible with interest in the subjects that men thought were important at levels of analysis men saw and formulated hasn’t changed much since those formative times. Feminism critiques the process of evolution of the traditional concerns of IR, and argues that those concerns are partial, short-sighted, and masculinist. But it also has something to say about each of those concerns and ideas. While feminists don’t think IR should be (exclusively) about nuclear war, terrorism, trade imbalances, and regime types, they have had something to say about all of those things. Those observations, theoretical reformulations, and case studies are not niches or irrelevant to how others think about those same issues. Instead, they interrogate the ways IR theorists have thought about them, reformulate traditional approaches, and reveal dynamics that were previously unseen. I’d go on, but, again, this is likely to be the subject of another post.

11. Feminists aren’t humorless. I may be proving the point by bringing up a long-dead and initially half-joking assertion that Dan Drezner made, but I’m going to take that risk. Some people can blog about their work, and have their work made fun of, secure in the position that it is taken seriously in the discipline of IR and in global politics more generally. That’s fine, and more power to them. Feminist work, however, is consistently marginalized, trivialized, and not taken seriously. Jokes about feminist IR work are sometimes “funny haha” sort of jokes, but more often they are jokes that betray a belief that feminist IR specifically (and sometimes women and gender studies in IR generally) belongs in IR’s galleys, in its punchlines, and in its innuendoes. While, usually, I have a thick enough skin to deal with that extra layer of crap one gets for doing what I do, sometimes I don’t, and I shouldn’t have to. If feminisms were comfortably “in” IR – joke all you want. Until then … take it seriously first, joke second.

More soon … requested future posts include “feminism in political economy,” “feminism in security studies,” and “the transformative power of feminisms in IR.” More requests are welcome.