Feminist Theory in International Relations | CSS Notes

Feminist theory in International Relations is not a new phenomenon. Since the end of the Cold War and the increased interdependence resulting from the globalization process, the field of international relations has faced major challenges to its core theoretical structure. So here in this article, I am going to analyze the Feminist Theory in International Relations.

Feminist Theory in International Relations

It no longer revolves solely around the realist issues of war and security, but rather, international relations have broadened to include traditional liberal concerns, such as the international political economy, socioeconomic development, human rights, non-state actors, and civil society. Apart from the two main theories of realism and liberalism, the feminist theory brings new perspectives to the international relations table.

The first section will provide some key terms and main ideas in feminist theory and will share its viewpoint with respect to world politics. The second section will present feminist critiques of existing international relations theory, and discuss how feminist theory explains the shortcomings of realism and liberalism. The paper will conclude by assessing the feminist theory in relation to the frameworks of realist and liberal theories.

This section will ask: Does the feminist theory have a separate argument strong enough to transform the field of international relations? Or if it is more a subset of other theories, can it still enhance and expand the discourse of international relations in significant ways?

Prior to presenting the main ideas in feminist international relations theory, we need to define two— key terms ‘gender’ and ‘patriarchy’. That is central to the feminist discussion. ‘Gender’ is not a synonym for the term ‘sex’ or the biological difference between men and women. But instead “refers to the complex social construction of men’s and women’s identities and behaviors in relation to each other.

Fundamental in the discourse on gender is the notion of power and power dynamics between genders.” Simply put, using the concept of gender, feminists analyze relations of power involving men and women, how that power is exerted, and how that interaction has been habitually, historically, and socially implemented over time.

How do feminists use gender and patriarchy to describe the field of international relations? Overall, the feminist theory says that most of the key players in IR, such as diplomats, policymakers, heads of government, and academic professionals, have been, and still are, males who come from patriarchal social and political backgrounds.

Thus, discussions within IR remain largely constrained by those who lack consideration of women’s roles in world politics (because they have not been trained to value and include the perspective of women).

Should IR perpetuate the exclusion of women from its discipline, along with their potential contributions and additional viewpoints, IR will remain a prime example of patriarchy, in both its practice and accomplishments. Indeed, IR is frequently referred to as the “last bastion of the social sciences,” indicating how rigid it remains in reconsidering itself through the ‘gender lens.

Feminists also apply the terms ‘gender’ and ‘patriarchy’ when analyzing how situations have been shaped to exclude women from the international political arena.

This significantly limits a woman’s chances to attain a national government position directly involved with international issues of defense and security.

From this example alone, we can understand how the areas of domestic politics, the military, and even the topic of education (which is directly related to this example), are issues with respect to which feminists would argue that gender and patriarchy do not allow women equal access to power positions in world politics.

As with many theories, “feminist theory” reflects a wide range of perspectives generating many internal debates concerning how it should be represented, there can never be a truly singular voice of feminist foreign policy simply because of the diversity of views within feminism itself.

However, a brief look at some relevant facets of the discipline can be seen through Lorraine Codes’ summary of two salient areas within feminist IR theory, standpoint feminism and radical feminism.

Standpoint theory considers how “the gendered construction of knowledge to understand traditional topics in international relations” and is “alerting us to the idea that gender may be structuring how we think in the international context.”

Author Martin Griffiths classifies feminist scholar J. Ann Tickner as a standpoint feminist. Before even addressing existing IR theory, Griffiths first argues that the purpose and definition of ‘theory’ are in itself male-centered, because it is “oppressing normative rather than conjectural and analytic.”

Simply put, the processes of forming and learning theory are constructed around automatically-accepted ideas of what is standard and normal, rather than first challenging the ‘norm’ and questioning if the ‘standard’ is objective enough. In this case, ‘theory’ lacks a female perspective because it is not objectively sought at the onset of formulating ideas.

Tickner argues that IR is gendered to “marginalize women’s voices,” and stresses “that women have knowledge, perspectives, and experiences that should be brought to bear on the study of international relations.”

For example, Tickner would argue that security, the main topic in IR, should not only be understood as “defending the state from attack,” but should also consider that security for women “might be different because women are more likely to be attacked by men they know, rather than strangers from other states.”

In other words, in contrast to traditional IR views that view security as protecting the state from other states, feminists argue the topic of security should address acts of rape and violence, not only from foreign perpetrators but from their own fellow citizens as well.

Feminists would also add that occurrence of rape increase during times of war, and are even used as a method of ethnic cleansing among the rivalries within their state, yet would never enter into typical IR discussions that focus solely on state-to-state interaction, simply because IR discussions traditionally remain focused on states as the key actors.

Thus, the topic of security shows how gender consideration, is excluded from the very beginning of the discussion. That results in policymaking that would be subsequently exclusive of, and likely detrimental to, women.

Prior to discussing any IR topic, standpoint feminist IR theory would first challenge those participating in the discussion, and those defining the key terms and issues, by critically asking them if the normative perspectives and working vocabulary are broad enough to effectively accommodate issues affecting women.

In addition to standpoint feminism, Griffiths also presents an explanation of the radical feminist theory. “The radical feminist focus[es] on the lives and experiences of women. showing how women’s activities are made invisible on the international scene.

Following this method of inquiry leads to consideration of more marginalized issues or “low politics” in IR issues e.g., concerning sex trafficking and migration of labor.

Radical feminism stresses that women have never really been excluded from the core of international relations. But have simply not been publicly or professionally acknowledged for their past and present contributions to central issues in IR.

This leads to the next question: what are the main topics in IR, and what do feminists have to say about these issues?

Theories of realism and liberalism will be considered in presenting feminist critiques of how IR issues are traditionally framed and addressed.

Realism centers its theoretical structure on how the state seeks power and defends its national interests against other competing states within global anarchy, or where there is a lack of authority higher than the state. States seek security through a balance of power in the international arena, primarily through military means, and resorting to war, if necessary.

Realists generally view the state as the key actor in international politics and de-emphasize feminist theory’s role – or, as argued, ignore -the of the individual.

Much feminist IR theory steins from a critique of realism, whose “socially constructed worldview continues to guide much thought about world politics.” First, feminists argue that realists overvalue the role of the state in defining international relations, without questioning how the state itself is internally structured, politically, and socially.

The feminist theory would consider how the state includes, or excludes, the views of its individual citizens, and how, in turn, the state’s domestic views translate into foreign policies.

In challenging the concepts of a state defending its national interests, feminists would ask: who is defining the national interests? If women were included in such discussions, would the national interest be interpreted differently, and if so, how? How would such an outlook change foreign policy?

How would the definition of ‘security’ change? Would military and defense capabilities still be atop the agenda? Would women necessarily be less militaristic in their approach to IR issues?

An example of how gender studies might reflect a state’s sociopolitical construction is reflected in a recent empirical study completed by Mark Tessler and Ina Warriner. To discover links between gender, feminism, and international relations within and among societies.

Tessler and Warriner based their analysis on survey data from four areas in the Middle East, each quite different from one other socially, politically, and ideologically: Israel, Egypt, Palestine, and Kuwait. Seeing as how the Middle East offers an ideal example of states acting as realist actors, their findings are quite relevant to feminist IR theory. Three points deserve emphasis:

“Women are not more pacific than men in their attitudes toward international conflict”

“Regardless of the sex (of the survey participant), persons who express greater concern for the status and role of women, and particularly for equality between women and men, are more likely than other[s] to believe that the international disputes in which their country is involved should be resolved through diplomacy and compromise”.

“The promotion of progressive values is likely to increase support in the Middle East for peace through diplomacy and compromise.”

Though the authors note these relationships can be better understood by including other countries in such studies, their analysis shows that first, women are not necessarily pacifists by nature, and second, having key actors in the state system who believe in gender equality can be linked to increased use of diplomacy and compromise in their state’s foreign policy.

Another feminist critique of realism concerns how realists define and emphasize power in IR discussions. Feminists would ask: who defines power, who has it, and how is it used?

If power is defined by a patriarchal and realist society, which seeks global balances of power, then power is equated with military and economic strength. But how would this change if the discussion included women’s viewpoints?

Would the indicators of power be measured differently? Would power be seen as leaders in peace agreements, or might it be measured in terms of the ability to achieve transnational cooperation?

In relation to realism, feminist theory is clear: realism is the antithesis to achieving gender equality, both in discussion and practice, and even in its tools of war and security, patriarchy remains the central theme.

States are the actors and the individual is of little importance. When the individual is de-emphasized, there is even less acknowledgment of the individual, which effectively excludes feminist discussion.

In contrast to realism, liberalist theory emphasizes the role of the individual over that of the state. Instead of seeing anarchy and “a struggle for power” as a defining feature of world politics. These thinkers emphasize an international “struggle for consensus” as central to explaining international relations.

Liberalist tools include free trade, education, and international institutions to protect and promote the economic and civil interests of the individual.

Feminist critiques of liberalism address the economic inequalities inherent to free trade, which disproportionately affect women. Jacqui True argues that “male-centered macroeconomic indicators, such as the Gross National Product” undervalue the work of women.

True also reports that “on a world scale, women are a disadvantaged group: they own one percent of the world’s property and resources, perform sixty percent of the labor, are the majority of refugees, illiterate and poor persons.”

This suggests that the capitalist structure is a patriarchal one, effectively marginalizing the participation and contributions of women in the economy since much of their work is reflected in unpaid illegal or domestic settings that are not included in economic assessments.

Indeed, liberalist institutions such as the WTO and multinational corporations have tended to create free trade agreements that weaken state protections on labor rights and public social funds, which has served to negatively affect the large proportion of women in the labor force.

This in turn camouflages issues of female exploitation, such as the gendered division of labor and the increase in sex trafficking worldwide.

Feminists also challenge liberalism’s claim that international institutions provide for ways in which women can become more politically and socially acknowledged and empowered.

Since the leaders and the processes of formal international organizations come from patriarchal systems, their work can keep women at a disadvantage.

Hilary Charles worth critiques some of the recent formal international conferences, such as the Beijing Declaration and Agenda 21 in Rio. She notes that the wording in the documents shows that while some consensus was achieved in progressing issues critical to women, not enough was achieved to arrive at the real changes proposed by feminists.

Charles’s worth outlines some of the disappointing results, such as the lack of agreement on the definition of gender, and the inability to secure benchmarks for measuring.

Such progress critiques underscore the challenges of feminist theory because they indicate that highly publicized and widely supported liberalist women’s movements do not necessarily equate with the goal of achieving real gender equality.

Additionally, there is room for gender reconstruction of liberalist institutions, especially with the expansion of civil society and when women lead grassroots efforts. Civil society generally provides strong arenas for feminist and liberalist discussion on the importance of the individual, regardless of gender.

Of course, the theory is not equivalent to implementation, and if in the future, liberalist global organizations do not reflect a more democratic structure inclusive of women’s issues, this may signify what some more radical feminists are already predicting: that gendered institutions cannot be changed, but must be remade, regardless of shared ideals of cooperation.

Still, liberalist processes of interdependence and globalization are fairly recent inclusions in IR discussions and continue to be challenged in constructive ways by criticism – liberalist, feminist, or otherwise. There is hope for a growing recognition of the importance of the individual in a cooperative global system.

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