The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

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

April 3, 2011

Elshtain, before characterizing my article as a “massive shopping list” of “feminists argue,” “feminists claim,” etc. (i.e., as the critical literature review that it is and she forgot to do before writing her initial article), “engages” my questions about her approach to each of Waltz’s three images, and her finding that gender would not change how we think of any of them.Though she characterizes my work as failing “to grapple in a theoretically sophisticated way with the Waltzian inheritance,” doing that inheritance justice requires it engage with ideas that have evolved in the last 50 years (which other authors in the special issue do very well). Arguing that feminism in 1959 (or in 1970) is all that can be used to evaluate gender’s significance to Waltz’s levels of analysis would be on face ridiculous in any other argument (would one evaluate the claim that the earth was flat without the aid of Galileo?).

Not only are Elshtain’s arguments about gender and the first, second, and third images poorly argued (and poorly defended), contemporary feminists are right and Elshtain is wrong on their substance. I won’t be able to fully make those arguments in limited space, but I’ll outline the contours here.

In her discussion of the “first image,” Elshtain (correctly) points out that perspectives other than feminism have pointed out that the “international system” is “interdependent with its most vulnerable members.” She first asks if there is a “feminist analogue of this developed body of theoretical and conceptual argumentation,” particularly, that coming from the Catholic Church. Why yes, it turns out that there is, though, by definition, it cannot be “over a century” old (though I find it to be an odd position for someone once very engaged with the cutting edge of feminist scholarship that older is better). Writers like Cynthia Enloe, Kathy Moon, Lisa Prugl, Jacqui True, Cindy Weber, and even Caron Gentry and I have made sophisticated theoretical arguments that looking to the “margins” is important in part because marginal bodies are gendered, which changes how we think about vulnerability. Among those writers, I certainly have a problem with the ways in which the Catholic Church’s positions on women’s issues (particularly birth control) reverberate at the cites of vulnerability the church is so concerned with.

Elshtain then notes that Ann Tickner has acknowledged her as a “pioneer” in the study of “feminist IR,” an acknowledgment that I was perhaps late in making, but made in part I of this post. That, of course, makes her current position all the more confounding to me, but is neither here nor there. Elshtain notes, however, that she and Tickner disagree on the question of objectivity, because she “fears” that “linking ‘objectivity’ to ‘masculinity’ put feminists” (who she inaccurately describes as ‘women scholars’ with ‘feminist concerns’) “in a bind” because they won’t be taken seriously, and urges them, should they reject objectivity, to assure that feminist scholarship has standards for good research that are accessible and distinguish “strong truth claims based on solid work” from “mere opinion or ideology.” THAT’S WHAT FEMINISTS HAVE BEEN DOING FOR THE PAST TWENTY YEARS – working on standards, on methodology, on epistemologies, and on what it means to do feminist work and to do it well – standards that do not just describe how ‘we do’ what ‘we do,’ but also that should guide taking account of gender across the field of IR. Elshtain mistakenly conflates ‘political’ and ‘ideological,’ and (wrongly) implies that it is possible to know apolitically.

Elshtain concludes her rebuttal of my use of feminist work to argue that gender does fundamentally affect the first image by letting us know that “seeing women as relational is nothing new – that has been the dominant view of women and it has often worked to women’s detriment.” That is, of course, why I didn’t argue that women are relational; I argued that human autonomy (men’s, women’s, and people who are/identify as neither men nor women) is relational, which is a VERY DIFFERENT claim that has been central to the feminist literature over the last twenty years (see, for example, the work of Christine Sylvester). When Elshtain “fears” that “calling women’s natures ‘hybrid’ or ‘relational’ in and of themselves tells us very little,” I agree, in fact, I think it tells us nothing, and is theoretically regressive. Reading my argument correctly will tell you that I argued (like Nancy Hirschmann did, back enough ago that perhaps Elshtain saw it) that looking at women’s lives shows humans as relationally autonomous (that is, relational BUT autonomous), a complex understanding of agency gleaned from a feminist critique of social contract theory. That is why, though I respect Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s feminism, I would argue that there is no such thing as ‘the solitude of self,’ though self is an important (actual and analytical) unit.

Elshtain then turns to my discussion of her assertion that gender does not fundamentally and basically change our analysis of Waltz’s second image, the state. Elshtain is right that she did not actually use the words “evil” or “nihilistic” to refer to radical or postmodern feminism, but I am right that she used the worst examples and cast them in the worst light. She does so again when she argues that calling different states “patriarchal social orders” is problematic because “it compels one to force nasty analogies” like comparing Nazi Germany and Great Britain and deciding that, since both are patriarchal, United States foreign policy should have been the same to each since “there was no substantial difference between the two systems.” This is reductive, and silly. Great Britain and Nazi Germany had things in common, of course – that they were states, and that they were states with patriarchal social orders, but neither of these (or any other similarity) merited similar moral value or similar foreign policies. One can recognize characteristics of social orders as complex and multidimensional, and not calling either of those states patriarchal would only accomplish one thing – blindness to their (very different brands of) patriarchy.

Elshtain then takes issue with my discussion of the gendered public/private dichotomy, on which she wrote a(n excellent) book, Public Man, Private Woman (1981). While matters are “considerably more complicated” than I suggest, and, as Elshtain notes, the public/private dichotomy “got cemented at a particular historical moment,” it remains that they are read into, performed in, and enforced on the lives of people associated with masculinity and femininity throughout the world, and while it “fell apart” for particular women at a particular moment in time, its discursive salience remains high, particularly in war discourses.

In her reply, Elshtain next writes that “it is rather late in the day – is it not? – to repeat, yet again, the ‘assertiveness, coarseness, toughness, rationality’ of men and the ‘warmth, gentleness, sensitivity, emotion’ of women as attributed characteristics with some basis in reality, at least according to most feminists.” I guess I just have to ask if she read what I wrote, and, if not, if she might read how I defined gender, and then re-read what I wrote. I, of course, listed “characteristics associated with masculinities” (which do not map one-to-one onto ‘men,’ perceptively or empirically) and “characteristics associated with femininities’ (which do not map one-to-one onto ‘women,’ perceptively or empirically).

Elshtain concludes her discussion of my use of the feminist literature to argue that calling the state ‘gendered’ is not only worthwhile but conceptually and empirically essential by contending that I misunderstand the state “as a juridical entity” and accusing me of holding “the ‘state’ as synonymous with ‘society.’” Implying that if I truly understood the state, I would recognize that calling the “state ‘gendered’ does not do any real conceptual heavy-lifting.” Elshtain may be right that I am not careful with the idea of the state – it is not the focus of my work, and I certainly haven’t given Gifford Lectures on it. That said, I am certain that feminists who have really worked on, looked at, and looked into the state do not make the same conceptual errors I do(/might), and that the careful work of scholars like Spike Peterson, Christine Sylvester, Sandy Whitworth, Rebecca Grant, Anne Sisson Runyan, and Cynthia Weber that argues that states are gendered actually does think of the state seriously and complexly. My argument was that Elshtain needed to engage that work, not mine, on the gendered nature of the state. Likewise, while my short review essay does not “demonstrate compellingly the extent to which, for example, nationalism is gendered and how this spurs conflict,” the work of Anne McClintock, Nira Yuval-Davis, Floya Anthias, Sita Ranchod-Nillson, Miranda Alison, and others does provide that evidence which Elshtain is content to ignore, and accuse me of not repeating. Using (a strawman of) Palestinian women, Elshtain argues that gender’s impact on the state is culturally contingent when it exists. The state of the art in feminist work on the state takes account of this, and looks at the constant/consistent mechanisms through which that contextual and contingent influence is performed and instituted.

Elshtain’s (somewhat muddled) response to my argument that gender fundamentally changes how we think about the third image (a subject addressed at length in my forthcoming book) by arguing that she’d discussed women and war in her book, Women and War, and asserting that it includes some “quite chilling moments” where women tried to shame men into fighting war(s). For “quite chilling moments,” see also Caron Gentry and my Mothers, Monsters, Whores (about women’s violence in global politics), and my in-the-works Raping Ourselves (about women genocidal rapists in wars) … of course, this is not the point, both because I was not writing about “women and wars” but about “gender and wars” at a Waltzian, third-image level. Elshtain’s reply then goes into a somewhat lengthy discussion of gender and just war theorizing, the punchline of which is that feminist work on the protection racket is not a contribution to just war theory. While I will defend my (and Iris Marion Young’s, and others’) work on gender in war ethics in some other more appropriate space, it is neither here nor there for the majority of my argument about gender and war in the article.

Elshtain’s argument with my assertion that gender fundamentally changes how we think about the third level of analysis concludes with the contention that “it is a rather worn-out claim by not to say things like ‘gender stereotypes that justify war also persuade people (mostly men) to fight those wars.’” Following that, Elshtain instructs me that “feminists …[are] lamenting the femininity/masculinity divide even as they reincode it, repairing to ‘femininity’ as the presumably ‘good’ thing that bad masculinism is set to oppose.”

It must be a comfortable position to be in to be able to “argue” with someone without really having any idea who they are or what they research. Of course, the whole argument of the Mothers, Monsters, Whores book (and the feminist research program on women’s violence in global politics that it is engendering) is a feminist corrective to the feminist assumption that women are men’s equals without their flaws. I have no desire to attach normative value either to femininity or to masculinity, and I do not do so in the article Elshtain is replying to. I argue that gender stereotypes of masculinities and femininities are used by both ‘men’ and ‘women’ to encourage fighting for (gendered) protection, (gendered) chivalry, and (gendered) honor. Empirically, however, I feel compelled to let Elshtain know that, even in the “All Volunteer Force” the overwhelming majority of fighters are men (and women indeed remain banned from some combat positions), and that the “All Volunteer Force” in the United States is one of literally hundreds of militaries in the world, the great majority of which are even more sex-imbalanced than the United States military. So is conceptualizing militaries as gendered passé? Anything but. And if you don’t believe me, Cynthia Enloe’s new book (with extensive empirical documentation of the Iraq War) does a very good job of making the argument.

Of course, none of these discussions actually address the ‘newest’ argument my article makes – using the gendered organizations literature (which has a very similar conception of structure to Waltz’s) to conceptualize the international structure as a gender hierarchy (as opposed to, or even in addition to, Waltz’s conception of structure as “invisible” and (therefore) “anarchical”). This is the part of Waltz with which I am the most familiar, and the part of the discussion of gender and the levels of analysis with which I am most intimately involved.  So, in answer to the question of how gender might “alter in significant ways” third-image thinking, I argue that “understanding gender hierarchy as international structure has two comparative advantages over the Waltzian conception of structure as (merely) anarchy: it could account for both war generally (as a permissive cause) and wars specifically (as a direct cause), and it could account for changes in the frequency and severity of war over time. For this, Elshtain has no answer.

I’ll discuss Elshtain’s conclusion, and mine, in Part III, to wrap up the “reply to the reply.”

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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.