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Feminism & International Relations

In general terms, feminist scholarship has influenced the development of scientific knowledge, mainly but not limited to the social sciences. Consequently, the study of International Relations benefitted much from feminist work that started challenging some pre-established tenets in the area that overlooked gender dynamics as a relevant factor in international politics. The fact is that “feminist theory has challenged women’s near complete absence from traditional IR theory and practice”, which can be found in “women’s marginalisation from decision-making and in the assumption that the reality of women’s day-to-day lives is not impacted by or important to international relations” (Smith, 2017, p. 62).

Making women’s issues visible

Feminism, despite the benefits it provides to International Relations, has been challenged in its methodological approaches. In that regard, it has been pointed out that feminist research in the field focuses on improving women’s living conditions, for women’s experiences have been deemed irrelevant unless they align with men’s interests (Tickner, 2005). Accordingly, feminist endeavors “study the routine aspects of everyday life that help sustain gender inequality; they acknowledge the pervasive influence of gender and understand that what has passed as knowledge about human behavior is, in fact, frequently knowledge about male behavior” (Tickner, 2005, p.7). Assessments such as this one challenge the pre-conceived ideas that have been established by the International Relations field, highlighting the need to implement the feminist perspective in the analysis of international politics.

Figure 1. Feminist demonstration in Spain

To make women visible in global politics means to address their struggles, as they are not endemic to any particular nation or culture, but are experienced across nations. On the contrary, it appears that gender inequality is a reality virtually everywhere, and the same goes for violence against women, whether it is domestic violence or sexual violence in armed conflicts (Smith, 2017). Because of it, feminist perspectives approach a wide variety of topics. Pioneering feminists in the field, such as Cynthia Enloe, for example, have underscored that international phenomena depend on constructions of femininity and masculinity and that the conceptions of a ‘respectable’ woman and an ‘honorable’ man have been shaped by colonization, military traditions, and economic interactions (Peterson, 1998). Enloe’s work casts light on how international phenomena are embedded in political and personal issues (Peterson, 1998), and highlights the necessity of thinking of gender as a key factor in political developments.

Masculinity-femininity and war

Feminist work, while clearly focusing on gender issues that relate to women, often analyzes the implications of femininity and masculinity under a patriarchal system. Accordingly, the notions of gender are socially constructed: “Masculinity is often associated with rationality, power, independence and the public sphere. Femininity is often associated with irrationality, in need of protection, domesticity and the private sphere” (Smith, 2017, p. 64). Patriarchy then subordinates femininity to masculinity in their power dynamics, and as a result, gender identities determine the subjects’ positioning in international politics (Smith, 2017).

Figure 2. Masculinity and war are constructed together

Consequently, if masculinity is the gender in power within the patriarchal structures, then it is relevant to observe masculinity in international politics. In particular, security policies are framed as being part of the masculine ‘realm’ of politics.

Through its association with war, national security has been valorised in several cultures […]. Hegemonic masculinity cannot be applied generically to all males but is sustained through subordinated and devalued masculinities, such as homosexuality and, more importantly, through its relation to various devalued femininities.

Narain, 2014, p. 189

This logic embeds hegemonic masculinity in war and in the process, women are excluded from any decision power in security issues, as their role resides at home, performing nurturing and mothering duties. However, this patriarchal structure also entraps men into a difficult position. Participating in war becomes a male-exclusive job that is deeply rooted in hegemonic masculinity; not participating in war is emasculating and feminine (Hooper, 1999). Men inevitably maintain the war enterprise that ends up killing them, while simultaneously embracing their own hegemonic masculinity, and in this hypermasculine exercise, women, devaluated masculinities and other subordinated gender categories are also dragged as victims of war, as can be seen in war crimes such as sexual violence.

Figure 3. Gendered perspectives are at play when approaching war

Intersectionality and International Relations

However, as feminists have noted throughout the years, understanding women’s issues through gender only can sometimes bring a narrower perspective when analyzing international dynamics. Intersectionality, in general terms, can be understood as “the idea that disadvantage is conditioned by multiple interacting systems of oppression. Feminists of color developed the idea of intersectionality to disrupt the subjugation of their knowledge and to avoid the erasure of their voice” (Tormos, 2017, p. 708). This is important because categories such as class, ethnicity, or sexuality expose subjects to different types of violence and oppression. Even within the scholarship of International Relations, not only women are rendered invisible, but also racialized subjects are often overlooked in a similar fashion (Ackerly & True, 2018).

Hence, the utilization of gender as an analytical category is useful, but there are also some sub-contexts to be taken into account. The work of intersectional feminism in International Relations is gaining traction, although it has also been subject to critiques, mainly due to its fluid nature. Nonetheless, it is a work in progress when trying to understand the phenomena experienced by women in the international sphere (Tormos, 2017).

Figure 4. Intersectional feminism sign at a demonstration


Feminism has undoubtedly positioned itself as one of the most influential theoretical approaches within the reflectivist group of theories in the study of International Relations. In a similar venue, as all reflectivist theories, feminism challenges the pre-established tenets in the International Relations scholarship, criticizing the construction of masculinity and femininity, and how this binarism has been applied in the analysis of international politics. Through an understanding of how patriarchy along with other systems of oppression function, feminist scholarship casts light on issues that have affected women and other marginalized gender identities and expressions, with the aim of improving their living conditions and dismantling the patriarchal enterprise.

Bibliographical References

Ackerly, B., & True, J. (2008). An Intersectional Analysis of International Relations: Recasting the Discipline. Politics & Gender, 4(01).

Hooper, C. (1999). Masculinities, IR and the ‘gender variable’: a cost‐benefit analysis for (sympathetic) gender sceptics. Review of International Studies, 25(3), 475–491.

Narain, S. (2014). Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives of J. Ann Tickner. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 21(2), 179–197.

Peterson, V. S. (1998). Feminisms and International Relations. Gender & History, 10(3), 581–589.

Prügl, E., & Tickner, J. A. (2018). Feminist international relations: some research agendas for a world in transition. European Journal of Politics and Gender, 1(1–2), 75–91.

Smith, S. (2015). Feminism. In M. S. McGlinchey, W. R. Walters, & S. C. Scheinpflug (Eds.), International Relations Theory (pp. 62–68). E-International Relations Publishing.

Tickner, J. A. (2005). What Is Your Research Program? Some Feminist Answers to International Relations Methodological Questions. International Studies Quarterly, 49(1), 1–22.

Tormos, F. (2017). Intersectional solidarity. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 5(4), 707–720.

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Rodrigo Bielma Silva

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