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International Relations - Feminism

Updated on March 24, 2013


International Relations (I.R.) Feminism emerged in the late 1980s, but only arrived in the I.R. spotlight in 1990 with the publication of Cynthia Enloe's "Bananas, Beaches and Bases." This was a book which looked at the roles women play in international politics, such as being the wives of diplomats, unpaid domestic workers, and prostitutes on military bases.

Feminists were dissatisfied with the current I.R. system as they believed that it was very masculine in character, ignoring the roles women played as workers and victims in the global political system. Thus, they urged I.R. theorists to begin looking at the world through 'Gendered Lenses.'

Author's note: I would highlight recommend reading 'Bananas, Beaches and Bases' if you want to expand your knowledge on the topic. Cynthia Enloe is an excellent and provocative writer.

Is Gender Ignored in International Relations Studies?

Feminist I.R. deals with the issue of I.R. theories ignoring the roles women play in international relations and global society. Thus, they argue that we should apply gendered lenses when we look at international relations. Prior to feminist analysis I.R. had been considered a neutral discipline. Feminist I.R. demolished the validity of this belief when it highlighted that male experiences in I.R. cannot necessarily be universal ones, and that women are not irrelevant or entirely absent from the international political system.

Some of the examples of ignored gender roles that feminism has uncovered are that women and children formed 80% of causalities in modern wars, making it more dangerous to be a woman or child than a soldier. In addition to this, the vast majority of refugees are women and children.

Feminist I.R. also provides a critical perspective from those not traditionally in power. They highlight how most world leaders are male, in addition to the senior roles in the U.N., W.T.O., World Bank etc. being occupied predominantly by men.

Furthermore, feminism asks how we remember wars and what kind of ceremonies we hold. They argue that fact that society focuses upon building statues of soldiers to remember those who fell, and commemorates the soldiers who lost their lives whilst ignoring the vast majority of causalities who were women and children reflects a hyper-masculinised culture. Feminists ask why there are nowhere near as many statues to the women and children who suffered. In addition this, they question why victims of violence in the public sphere are remembered, but little is done to remember or honour victims of violence in the private/domestic sphere.

Feminist I.R. has also raised an awareness of a wide range of other issues ranging from the pay gap in the labour markets around the world between men and women, the growing issues of sex tourism/human trafficking, and the widening gap of work hours when domestic housework is taken into account.

Gender and War

I.R. Feminists have highlighted how gender and war are inextricably linked. They often talk about 'gendered weapons' of war, such as rape. For example, in the battle for Bangladeshi independence there were an estimated 200'000 women raped.1 They argue that war is used to subdue and punish a population, damage morale of enemy combatants, and satisfy the urges of soldiers in conflict who are often far away from companions at home.



Malala: A Feminist Icon?


I.R. Feminism as a Critical Theory

Feminism is similar to other critical theories. It argues that the current system seeks to privilege certain groups of people, whilst marginalising others from the history of ideas and actions. This partially explains why I.R. Feminism has fragmented into so many subsets. Different feminists see inequality and privilege existing in different areas.

Other Feminist authors, such as Judith Butler, question the role theory plays in I.R. more broadly. They ask questions such as 'who is the author of theory?', 'What are the implications of using theory for feminist analysis when most theory has masculinist and Euro-centric roots?' etc.

Within I.R., as feminists emerged they set up feminist courses and established feminists agendas within the education/academic sphere. Thus they impacted upon politics more broadly as time went on. They attempted to change the system from within, by bringing academic critique and critical thinking which encompasses gender roles to I.R. theorism.


Liberal Feminism

Draws upon much of what is common to liberal thought and ideas. They believe that female subordination comes from legal restraints which prevent women from participating equally in the public sphere. They focus on equal rights in the workplace and in the domestic sphere.

Constructivist Feminism

Feminist constructivism builds upon the core ideas of constructivism, but adds a gendered lens when viewing the world. Thus they seek to understand how gender roles influence global politics.

Post-Structuralist Feminism.

Post-Structuralist feminism derives from Post-Structuralist thought and theory. They highlighted the lack of a universal category of a 'woman' and showed connections between subjugation of people with characteristics such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, and sex. Gender was not the sole factor that I.R. theories had ignored when they viewed the world.

Post-Colonial Feminism

Post-Colonial Feminism takes the issue of feminism attempts to make it relevant to the Non-Western world. In an ironic twist, I.R. Feminism had sprung up in reaction to the unrepresentative nature of modern I.R. theories, but had become a Western theory itself when it focused on the plight of Western women. Post-Colonial Feminists highlight how the economic models, definition and roles of 'a woman' were very different in many countries. Thus, the cookie cutter that worked for the MEDC's of Europe and America, would not necessarily work for the women in Egypt, China or Nigeria.

Marxist Feminism

They see capitalism and private property as the cause for women's oppression. Capitalism has ensnared women in a role as household workers, child bearers and put them in a state of economic dependence. Marxist feminists use the statistic that women own only 1% of the world's property, but perform approximately 60% of the world's labour.

Post-Modern Feminism

Post-Modern Feminists are best left to last. Even in a group of feminists they are out on their own. They argue that, 'to understand what it means to be a women is an impossible task.' Thus they try to move away from what it means to be a woman and instead question what it is to be represented in society. They seek groups which lack representation and try to highlight inequalities.

Summing up...

Despite their disparities and differences they share one thing in common, public and private, and the personal and political. The personal is political, what happens in the private sphere matters, it is as political as it is in the public sphere.

Key Theorists and Characters

  • Cynthia Enloe
    Enloe is one of the most prominent I.R. Feminist scholars and writers. She has written several books on the topic of feminism's role in world politics, and has contributed to many journal articles.

    Author's note: I would appreciate people recommending me any further I.R. Feminists; I know there are a lot, which is why picking out a key theorist or character so difficult.


Which Feminist I.R. theory do you agree with most?

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