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A Reply to the Reply: Jean Elshtain, Gender, and IR (Part I)

April 1, 2011

Some of you might have seen the summer 2009 issue of International Relations; a retrospective on Man, the State, and War, by Kenneth Waltz, and its fiftieth anniversary. Among those essays was one by Jean Elsthain, entitled “Women, the State, and War,” where Elshtain asks whether gender as a category of analysis or as a central feature of a logic of explanation alters in significant ways Waltz’s levels of analysis, and answers in the negative. My (empirical and theoretical) response to her article is published in the March 2010 issue of the same journal, which published Elshtain’s reply following my article.

Of course, there’s a limit to the amount of this conversation the journal can publish, and I have a “reply to the reply” and a hope that the conversation can be continued, not least because I think that Elshtain fundamentally misunderstands both my argument and (what I see as) feminist IR. In the spirit of exploring these issues, I’ve decided to blog my reply to Elshtain’s reply.

I’d like to start out by giving credit to Elshtain’s foundational work studying sex and gender in global politics, particularly the book that she mentions in her reply, Women and War (1987), which was certainly foundational to my beginning to think about my research as a college student, and I know has played a similar role for many in their field. I do not mean to be disrespectful of Elshtain’s good work, or of her influence on the field. That said, I think that it is the very high level of esteem in which I hold her work that compels me to question the positions she took in her original article in the Waltz special issue, and in her response to my article.

The punchline (expanded below and in subsequent posts) is this: Eshtain’s argument is incorrect (intellectually), wrong (normatively), and it is made badly. I cannot stop journals from publishing it anyway or even get them to require it to be made well (frankly, I’m on the losing side of the relative power in the field “academically” and personally). As an Assistant Professor, I cannot even hope to “win” an argument with some who is apparently above peer review. But I can decide not to greet it with silent complicity, and I have.

I will talk about her reply’s overview in this post, and then the address the “images” in Part II.

To start out her response, Elshtain mentions that she does “not need to be instructed on the ‘sex’/’gender’ distinction” and mentions that she devoted an entire book to the “complicated construction of gender,” particularly to the question of “how have men’s and women’s identities been structured historically in relation to war?” Three things come to mind. First, as a younger scholar and student of people of Elshtain’s generation, where is that Jean Elshtain? A leader of the feminist movement in hard times? Why is she writing normatively ridiculous things like Just War Against Terror, rather than work that expands on, institutionalizes, and deepens Women and War? Why is she going out of her way to harm the feminist cause in the field, rather than to build it up? That aside, since it is irrelevant to the argument, two theoretical observations are important. First, the sentence Elshtain writes implying that the question of “men’s and women’s identities” maps onto gender shows that she does indeed need the lesson I give on the sex/gender distinction. Elshtain calls on science to argue that “there are, in fact, standard differences between males and females,” but ignores the science that argues that there are people that are neither male nor female, and that male and female are indeed not distinct categories even in terms of biological sex. Most feminists are not (and I as a feminist am not) arguing for ignoring sex(es), embodiment, or physicality in IR; in fact, there’s some great work out there now on the body (like that of Lauren Wilcox) and on sense/sensuality in war (like that of Christine Sylvester). Elshtain’s reading of feminism as severing sex and gender just demonstrates that Elshtain doesn’t read current feminist work, which references much of the “creative research” in the cutting edge of biology, which talks about sex and gender as co-constituted (and thus both dynamic categories). Second, as I implied in the last sentence, Elshtain’s interpretation of feminism is based on an outdated and partial reading of the feminist literature, which I will discuss next.

Elshtain then replies to my argument that her examples of what counts as feminism were anomalous, and her interpretation of feminist theory is outdated (and therefore inaccurate). She contends that her examples are “not at all anomalous; they were dominant and central at the time that they were adumbrated,” and that she’s “not sure exactly what chronology has to do with it if the issue is ‘human nature.’”

On the “chronology” issue first … it is, of course, not about chronology, but about theoretical development. From her reply, Elshtain clearly reads (if selectively) current work on gender in the biological sciences and neurology. What would be so hard about reading the current work in gender and war (to write an essay about gender and war), just to see if there was a good idea that one had not thought of? The question in Elshtain’s article is whether or not gender would fundamentally change Waltz’s levels of analysis. I’ll admit that I’m relatively new in the field. I was eight when Women and War was published, and still in primary school when the newest citation in “Women, the State, and War” was published. But that’s my point, I guess. Feminist IR was new then, and the arguments have developed substantially since Elshtain (apparently) stopped reading in it. Elshtain’s article has a number of arguments feminists used to make about how gender might matter to Waltz’s levels of analysis. Those arguments have changed, become more nuanced, and frankly, gotten better. Why use generation-old arguments as a strawman when the new ones could be argued with more skillfully and more persuasively? I may not have been in the field as long as Elshtain has, but I know that not reading and engaging the relevant literature to one’s assertions is poor scholarly practice. My pointing out that Elshtain’s references are outdated, then, is not about “chronology” for something as age-old as “human nature,” it is, instead, about omitting (or deliberatively ignoring) the best feminist arguments about “human nature” (and the other levels of analysis) by reading selectively (and in an outdated way) in the feminist literature. Frankly, I do not see how this is even controversial. It would never be okay to ask a question like “is democracy relevant to war?” without citing the democratic peace literature, even if just to disagree with it, because it has discussed the issue at length. It is likewise not okay to ask “is gender relevant to Waltz’s levels of analysis in IR?” without citing the feminist IR literature, even if just to disagree with it, because it has discussed the issue at length. Relatedly, I would argue that Elshtain’s examples of feminism(s) were indeed anomalous, even at the time, and that the fact that they have been largely repudiated/moved on from by contemporary feminism is not irrelevant to the argument. Due to space limitations, I will not talk about them specifically, but am willing to discuss in the comments, should anyone be interested.

Elshtain then points out that my argument that the “epistemology of feminist work” that “acknowledges its political content” is “noted matter-of-factly” but “begs many questions.” While space limitations in the journal took out a lot of my elaboration of this contention, it is not “muddled as stated” and has been addressed in much more sophisticated ways in the feminist literature (particularly, in Ackerly, Stern, and True’s Feminist Methodology in International Relations, but also in my Introduction to the special issue of Security Studies), which I would suggest Elshtain refer to in asking her questions about the nature of feminist epistemology. Elshtain suggests I am assigning feminist work a particular, singular epistemology; that’s not true, and if what I wrote could be construed that way, then I miswrote. What I was arguing, of course, which Elshtain repeats, is that “feminist work is work with an explicit political agenda in mind” – that is, that multiple feminist epistemologies have a politics in common.

Several times in her reply, Elstain criticizes me for saying that “feminists have argued x,” rather than making the argument myself, asking “how does that make the claim stick?”  It is true that I didn’t recount hundreds of books and thousands of articles, or redo their work, in a 10,000 word article, to create a “digest” guide for Elshtain so she actually doesn’t have to do the reading and engage with the work.  MY work in this article is not the stuff that “makes the claim stick,” others’ work that I cite does that.  MY argument was that, in order to say that “gender is not causal” (as she does in her article), she needed to read, and engage with, the work that argues that it is, and points out specific paths to proving causality. Her very questions about this show her ignorance of this literature …she notes that, “in the area of globalization, one would have to ask how ‘patriarchal social organization’ somehow ‘causes’ international finance flows, or other central features of the global economy.” Of course, feminist work by a number of amazing scholars HAS asked these questions and HAS backed up these claims with meticulous research (including but not limited to foundational books by Spike Peterson, J. K. Gibson-Graham, Sandra Whitworth, Shirin Rai, and Lordes Beneria; as well as the work of Suzanne Bergeron). So, Jean, to answer your question, “does the claim about ‘principal cause’ precede any research, yes; decades worth of labor of hundreds of scholars. It would behoove you to, say, google it, if not read it.

It is not that the argument that gender doesn’t change Waltz’s levels of analysis couldn’t be made well. I would still disagree, and present evidence to the contrary, but the argument could be made carefully, and with intellectual integrity. Then, maybe, my response wouldn’t have to be all over the place, at once pointing to the silliness of the argument as made and trying to argue against the argument were it made well and with reference to the relevant literatures. More in Part II.

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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.