How does feminist theorising enrich our understanding of International Relations theory?

Essay, 2012

7 Pages, Grade: 1,3


How does feminist theorising enrich our understanding of IR theory?

In IR theory as in everyday life, women seek to promote a better understanding of their struggle for recognition inside a male-dominated world. The ‘orthodox’ field of IR theory is broadly faceted, generating space for numerous, more or less practicable approaches. In order to evaluate the impact of feminism on and inside IR theory, the structure of this essay is twofold. First of all, the genesis of feminist theorising has to be examined. Hence, historical, social and political features of the feminist movement are brought into context with the evolvement of several feminist IR theories. Afterwards, a critical view on adequacy of IR feminism is taken, answering the question whether feminism achieved more than simply “the addition of sex as a variable”, as V. S. Peterson (1992, p. 199) provocatively put it.

Feminism as a scientific branch evolved out of the international movement for emancipation and equality of women during the 1960s and 1970s (Tickner, 2011, p.264). Until that point in contemporary history, feminist terms like “woman”, “feminism” and “equality” were broadly considered “unproblematic” (Peterson, 1992, p.191). After World War II, women were rather credited for their publishing of DIY-books on cookery1 than academic articles2 ; albeit even cookbooks mirror contemporary social, political and economic circumstances (Tutt, 2010, p.10). However, as the political movement gained momentum, the ‘feminist spirit’ entered the theoretical branches of social science in general, and IR theory in particular.

First of all, two distinctions have to be made. On the one hand, a distinction between the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, and on the other hand a disambiguation between ‘feminism in political science’, established in the 1970s, and ‘feminism in IR’, recognised in the late 1980s (Tickner, 1997, p.611). The term ‘sex’ refers to the biological distinction of male and female, while ‘gender’ means ”the social construction of sexual differences” (Keohane, 1998, p.194). ‘Gender’ serves as a center category of feminism, analysing “social construction and relationship” among male and female (Krell, 2009, p.319). Within IR theory, in terms of marginalization and re-structuring tendencies, feminist theorising could be compared to ‘orthodox’ post-structuralism. Feminists problematise ‘gender’ as post-structuralists look at ‘discourse’.

Sandra Harding (1986), herself a philosopher and not an IR theorist, formulated three shapes of feminist studies, which are discussed and adapted by various (IR-)scholars:

1. Feminist empiricism can be referred to as the ‘mainstream-position’ in feminist IR theory. It is probably the most palatable approach to those who are skeptical or suspicious about feminist theorising (cf. Tickner, 2005, p.2). Therefore, it might constitute a ‘diplomatic bridge’ between ‘orthodox’ and feminist IR theory, allowing cross-fertilising cooperation. Basically, feminist empiricism identifies a male bias in social science (cf. Ibid.).
2. Standpoint feminism seeks to “critically examine international relations” from the vantage point of human beings, “who have been systematically excluded from power” (Keohane, 1989, p.245; cf. id., 1998, p.193). Keohane supports this particular approach, stating that it gives feminist theorists an opportunity to “re-analyse key-concepts such as power, sovereignty, and reciprocity”, acknowledging that predominant thought inside IR might change during that course (Keohane, 1989, p.246). In other words, Keohane anticipates standpoint feminism as a valid extension to ‘traditional’ IR theory.
3. Postmodern feminism, as aptly summarised by J. L. Parpart (1993), “is not easily encapsulated in one phrase or idea, but is rather an amalgam of ideas put forward by a number of scholars” (p. 439). Among others, Harding and Sylvester (1994) mainly focus here on male definitions of female gender, making use of a linguistic approach.

Jean B. Elshtain created a new modus operandi in order to sort out “the hotly contested world of feminist theory”, re-analysing Waltz’ (1959) three (realist) analytical levels or ‘images’: human nature, state and international system (Elshtain, 2009, p.290). Firstly, Elshtain criticises a wrong handling of Waltz’ analytical triad, stating that unskilful analysts tend to simply connect the first and the third image in order to examine state behaviour (p.297). Human nature should be looked upon as a factor of institutional change, rather than a fixed and rigid phenomenon (cf. ibid.). Early feminist theorising of the second image is equally criticised, since it predominantly followed an unrealistic Marxist path (cf. p.298). A ‘pure’ application of Waltz’ second image on feminist theory is just as hard to produce, as a “mono-causal or even mono-maniacal way” of applying the third image (p.301). Consequently, Elshtain advocates that only a concerted application of all three images promises acceptable results for realist feminist theorising (cf. p.289).

Another differentiated classification of several feminist theories is given by Tickner (2011, p.266- 267), who ranks liberal feminism, feminist social-constructivism, feminist critical theory, post- modern and -colonial feminism among the most important thrusts. As insinuated by their prefixation, these five approaches may represent enrichment and/or refutation of their ‘orthodox’ IR theory counterparts. In the following, each approach is shortly described and evaluated, respectively.

Liberal feminism focuses on “women’s subordination” on aspects of human rights, income inequalities and policy-making, while asking “what a world with more women in positions of power might look like” (p.266). It might be set equal with Harding’s shaping of feminist empiricism (see above), being the most ‘main-stream’ contribution to feminist theory in IR. Liberal feminists hold the view that women’s equality can be achieved through a removal of legal obstacles (Ibid.).

Applied to social constructivism, feminist theorising looks upon normative structures inside world politics, mostly focusing on gender-based social hierarchies in respect to working conditions (cf. p. 267). Feminist critical theory “explores both the ideational and material manifestations of gendered identities and gendered power in global politics” (p.266), rooting in Gramscian Marxism in the same way that ‘orthodox’ critical theory does. In this regard, qualitative and quantitative enrichment of ‘male’ IR theorising becomes apparent.

Poststructuralist approaches on feminism have their focal point on the codifying power of language (cf. p.267.). In the late 1980s, the very beginning of feminist IR theorising, Tickner (1988) already argued that “the use of language and its claims of objectivity must continually be questioned” (p. 432). Blanchard (2003), concentrating on “feminist security theory scholarship (FST)” (p.1290), identifies “gendered language” as a major theme in “everyday politics of security” (p.1294). The


1 Among others, I especially allude to Marguerite Patten, who was appointed ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire’ in 2010, honoring her “services to the Food Industry” (London Gazette, 2010, p.8).

2 Interactively arranged data on scholarly publications on JSTOR is carried together by the Eigenfactor Project, led by Jevin West. Following this data set, female authors account only for 7,4% of published articles in the field of ‘International relations’ from 1665-1989 (West, J. et al., 2012).

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How does feminist theorising enrich our understanding of International Relations theory?
International Relations Theory
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IR Theory, International Relations Theory, International Relations, Feminist Theory, Feminism
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Alexander Tutt (Author), 2012, How does feminist theorising enrich our understanding of International Relations theory?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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