How does feminist theorising enrich our understanding of IR theory?

Essay, 2012

6 Pages, Grade: 1.8


How does feminist theorising enrich our understanding of IR theory?

Realism and liberalism have long been the dominant theories within IR. However, these failed to give a full-fledge explanation about the peaceful end of the Cold War, thereby giving way to more alternative IR views, such as Feminism. The increased use of violence against women as a weapon of war1, sexual trafficking, military prostitution2 as well as women's increasingly important role as peace activists and wives of statesmen (Baylis & Smith, 1997: 174) prove that women do influence politics. This lets Feminist scholars, such as C. Enloe, pose the legitimate question "Where were the women in world politics" (1990, p. 133). The establishment of the International Feminist Journal of Politics in 1999 (Taylor & Francis Online, 2012) and the UN Resolution 1325 "Women, Peace and Security" in 2000 (Women for Peace, 2012) seem to prove that Feminism has finally been granted a place in IR. Nevertheless, the relatively low number and the rather aggressive, male-like behaviour of female political actors3 let us question this presumption.

After outlining the main strands and concepts of Feminist Theory, the essay highlights feminist critique on traditional IR theory4. I, then, explain how Feminism allows for a re-evaluation and expansion of basic IR concepts, thereby enriching IR theory.

To define the different strands within Feminist Theory, S. Harding's classification of the following three feminist schools is adopted: Liberal, Postmodern and Standpoint Feminism. These feminist strands are concerned with the disadvantages women encounter in terms of political and economic access to power and the discrimination of women in international politics. Liberal feminist scholars are concerned with women's inequality towards men in global politics, thereby pointing out the male bias within IR. This can easily be corrected by expanding on women's right in the legal agenda. However, this "add women and stir" approach5 fails to question the underlying assumptions for the prioritization of male values within IR. Postmodern feminist6 scholars, such as C. Sylvester, are concerned with the influence of linguistics and the impact of social norms on creating and deconstructing gender hierarchies. For example, from the first great debate on, IR has only been referring to men as political actors, thereby excluding women from the beginnings of IR. The most influential strand, Standpoint Feminism, sees world politics from a marginalized, female point of view. Scholarly work, such as J. A. Tickner's re-evaluation of H. Morgenthau's Six Principles of Political Realisms, proves that a feminine standpoint does, indeed, offer valid insights into a malebiased IR (Harding, 1986: 24-29).

Regarding realism, Tickner's analysis of Morgenthau's work reveals an androcentric view on IR. Morgenthau defines power as "control of man over man" (1949: 43); his assumptions are based on objective and moral laws as well as on human nature, which, in Western Culture, are traditionally "associated with masculinity" (1988: 433). Most importantly, Morgenthau constructs an "autonomous political sphere" whereas Tickner and other Feminist scholars argue that "the personal is political", i.e. there is no such distinction of private/public in which men are assigned to the political, public field and women to the private sphere (Tickner, 1988: 432). Similarly, J. B. Elshtain's analysis of K. Waltz's "Man, State and War" reveals how trying to explain the causes of war through a gendered lens would "alter all levels of analysis" in Waltz's work (2009: 289).

Liberalism, instead, focuses on the individual and promotes equality through liberal rights, democracy, international institutions, and free trade. However, liberalism fails to provide political and economic equality of power in reality and encourages a patriarchal system7. Especially, capitalist markets are organized in a hierarchical way, putting men on top and leading to unequal distribution of wealth. Domestic work is traditionally assigned to women - unpaid, thereby, excluding them from contributing to the state's economic power. When participating in professional life, women are mostly assigned easy, less paid jobs to supplement housework. Instead, important roles in business and politics are assigned to men. Hence, decisions made in these areas, especially on labour rights and social funds, are male-centred, disfavouring or excluding women (Dunne, Kurki & Smith, 2000: 204).

Besides the private/women - public/men dichotomy, this feminist point of view on realism and liberalism reveals their "gendered structure", i.e. men are dominating the public sphere and deny women the access to political, economic and military power (Blanchard, 2003: 1292). Another common feminist critique for both strands is how political actors use language. Politicians' usage of "strategic voice", such as "nuclear virginity" or disarmament with emasculation", reveals that male domination pervades every aspect of politics. Thus, it is only legitimate for feminist scholars to ask how women behave in this male dominated discourse and how a re-evaluation of the gender discourse can benefit international relations (Blanchard, 2003: 1294).

Having highlighted Feminist critique on IR theory, this essay shall now outline how basic IR concepts- power, states, security, peace and war - are re-evaluated and expanded by Feminist scholars.


1 According to UN data (2012), sexual violence was massively used in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), Liberia (1989- 2003), and former Yugoslavia (1992-1995).

2 According to Moon (1997), especially within the US and Korean political relationship, female prostitutes played a crucial role in security agreements.

3 Devetak, Burke & George (2007) analyzed the political behavior and the use of language of Condoleezza Rice and Margaret Thatcher (84).

4 As pointed out in the introduction, I refer to the dominant strands, i.e. realism and liberalism, when mentioning (traditional) IR theory. Since realism is still the strongest of all IR theories, one will find a slightly stronger connection to realist theory throughout the essay than to liberalism.

5 This term was invented by R. Zalewski to point out that the ingredient "women" just needs to be added to the existing global politics (Baylis & Smith, 1997: 174).

6 Postmodern Feminism is also referred to as Post-structural Feminism.

7 Liberal philosophers J. Locke and J.-J. Rousseau already assumed male preponderance in their political theories. Locke referred to citizens of a state as "all men", thereby excluding women. Rousseau disregarded the impact of family relations in its stag hunt. (Blanchard, 2003: 1293).

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How does feminist theorising enrich our understanding of IR theory?
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Magdalena Zettl (Author), 2012, How does feminist theorising enrich our understanding of IR theory?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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