The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

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

April 5, 2011

Part 3 (of 3) …

In concluding, Elshtain characterizes my essay as “overreach,” “hyper-theorizing,” and “prosaic,” arguing that (like “the entire post-structural arsenal”), “when you get down to the nitty-gritty, things slip through your fingers.”

Its true that my essay discusses more than it could ever back up – because the essay is not a research essay or an original work, so much as it is an accounting for, and asking for recognition for, hundreds of books and thousands of articles that provide evidence for the points mentioned in it which are categorically ignored in Elshtain’s discussion of Waltz’s levels of analysis, to which they are crucially relevant, especially insomuch as Elshtain is(/claims to be) talking about gender.

This is evident in Elshtain’s discussion of the positive contributions of “women scholars” (which I was unaware was a theoretically significant category) in history and anthropology (presumably as opposed to political science/international relations), because those scholars “spend time researching questions, reading vast amounts, trying to sort out how things really worked – whatever the big theories said about them.” Again, this can only be argued by someone who hasn’t been reading feminist IR – in addition to the AMAZING empirical books that I read in graduate school (Kathy Moon’s, Charlotte Hooper’s, Lisa Prugl’s, Jacqui True’s, Brooke Ackerly’s, Lisa Prugl’s, and Christine Chin’s, I believe, all dissertation books), I have had the opportunity not only to do, but to read, hard-nosed, ethnographic research based on years of field work. Reading books for the Oxford Series in Gender and International Relations, the great majority of feminist books in Political Science/IR are deeply empirical, highly sophisticated, and highly complex – things that my article-length summary of twenty years of contributions necessarily could not be.

But Elshtain could see this if her argument were more than a careless, disengaged polemic.

Elshtain’s polemic ends by urging feminists to focus on “what women actually did – the roles they really played” and critiquing them for relying “too heavily on male theorists.” This is over-simple, and just silly, not least because (at least my) feminism does not care what sex organs people have (or where they like to put them, for that matter) in reading their gender analysis (or critiquing their failure to think about gender critically).

In one sentence, Elshtain accuses feminists of not having “kept up with rapidly changing social categories” ….three sentences after having cast a wholly inaccurate picture of feminist scholarship’s engagements with said social categories. The ONLY THING I was arguing in my article is that you have to understand gender studies and/or feminism to critique them, and Elshtain clearly does not. She urges me to “get past defensive claims about feminists having done this or that, to the truth,” but the WHOLE REASON defensive claims about what feminists have done were necessary is because Elshtain manages to silence and do discursive violence to decades worth of rich, empirical research on “the truth” about gender in global politics through cynical, partial assumptions about what feminist work is(/was 25 years ago). That’s assuming, of course, that most feminists are wrong that the idea of “truth” is itself gendered. If Elshtain wants to know either if gender is transformational of “man, the state, and war” (the question in her original article) or “about the lives women are living and how ‘gendered categories’ may or may not be definitive or determinative in particular situations,” it might behoove her (work) to acknowledge the research program asking particularly those questions.

Is that such a radical argument?

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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.