Feminist Contributions to Our Understanding of World Politics

 Despite harsh criticism from classical and conventional theorists, feminist thinkers have successfully contributed to the International Relations (IR) discipline by expanding its fields of study and its methods.


Making its first appearance in the late 1980s, all feminist approaches are dedicated to achieving political, social, economic and legal equality of sexes. With the aim of improving women’s lives and achieving greater gender equality, these feminist movements have sought to put women on the international agenda. The achievement of such goals has been attempted on practical terms by implementing new international policies and organizing various intergovernmental and NGO conferences. These mainly focus on women’s relation to poverty, health, education, violence and armed conflicts. Feminists have, therefore, succeeded in putting women’s rights on the international agenda as well as implementing gender-sensitive and ‘‘women-friendly’’ policies. The UN’s adoption in 1996 of gender mainstreaming as official policy, which requires to evaluate the gendered effects of policy action and formulation, is a great example of this move forward greater gender equality in the IR discipline. However, even if conferences and international policies have helped improving the status of women around the globe and are considered as victories for better gender equality, many feminists claim that gender hierarchies are still strongly embedded in our culture.

Women world leaders join Mrs Bachelet, the former UN Women Executive Director to sign a ‘Call to Action: The Future Women Want’ in June 2012 : (from left to right) Dalia Grybauskaitė, Julia Gillard, Dilma Rousseff, Michelle Bachelet, Portia Simpson-Miller, Laura Chinchilla, Doris Leuthard, Helle Thorning-Schmidt
By introducing gender as a central approach, feminist thinkers have, therefore, shed light on the gendered inequalities on the state level and in the IR discipline. Accordingly, our vision of masculinity and femininity  is interpreted as a hierarchical and unequal cultural construction which deeply affects both social and political life. Gendered dichotomies are, in fact, deeply embedded in our culture and thinking, in particular in relation to our language and words’ meanings. Thus, men are often associated with reason, independence, courage, and morality whereas women are related to emotions, intuition, and sensibility. For example, military trainings denigrate behaviors associated with femininity: a soldier is told not to act ‘like a woman’ or like a ’sissy’ but should instead be brave and courageous. The pattern followed is, then, that of subordination of supposedly ‘feminine’ behaviors in comparison to ‘masculine’ behaviors. Women’s exclusion from world politics can also be noticed through our use of words: when referring to ‘all people’ we use the words ‘man’ or ‘mankind’ instead of ‘humanity’ for instance.
A sexist vintage ad 
Not only do gender inequalities appear in our language and social relations, but they are also present in IR theories. By renaming ‘mainstream’ IR ‘malestream’, feminists denounce the ‘masculinity’ of the recurrent themes in classical IR theories: war, state, sovereignty, power, and security. Indeed, ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ politics dealing with themes such as environmental issues, inequality,  and poverty, is subordinated to the ‘manly’ study of IR. Feminists therefore propose new definitions of ‘manly’ key themes, such as power and security, in order to rebuild IR in a more gender-neutral way.
The classical conceptualization of power is one of domination and destruction, and is associated with control, force; these are mainly looked at in regard of states. On the contrary, feminists’ conception of power is one of collaboration and of “mutual enablement“ which ‘‘creates and furthers pleasure for everyone’’ (Jones). Their conception is nonviolent and concentrates on the power of individuals gathering in collective movements and in NGOs. Similarly, the classical conceptualization of security is defined in political and military terms with a focus on war, diplomatic conflicts and terrorism. Feminists offer new dimensions to this partial concept: the security of the individuals – in particular of women -, ecological and economic concerns such as water pollution, deforestation, and environmental toxin, as well as slow wages and unpaid labour too often affecting women. To sum up, feminists propose broader IR concepts by defining power as less violent and more pacifist, and by adding individual, economic and ecological issues to the concept of security.
Rather than using a scientific method and empirical research to study states as classical IR theorists do, feminists study concrete human stories and experiences, and consider individual as agents in world politics. This focus on individuals has broadened the partial view of classical theories by adding storytellings to more abstract and empirical ones. IR should not only focus on empirical facts and abstract concepts but should also mix them with testimonies in order to ‘humanize’ these events. For instance, wars are not only a matter of military power, security and disagreements between states as populations are affected and sometimes involved in these conflicts: thus, according to feminists, individuals should be present in IR theories.
Most Syrians are fleeing their war-torn country as they fear sexual violence, which affects both men and women
Feminist thinkers take women as the central subject of their analysis and denounce their marginalized role in world politics. Feminists claim that classical theorists too often privilege the realm and experiences of elite men and posit these male ‘‘experiences as human universals’’ (Jones). Therefore, feminists have followed women to places that are usually dismissed by conventional foreign affairs experts. For instance, where classical IR theorists may focus on the power and decisions of the President of the United States, feminist thinkers concentrate on the political influence of the First Lady: despite her unofficial title, feminists might argue that Michelle Obama can improve or deteriorate diplomatic relations during state visits and state banquets. Also, in war contexts women are depicted as victims who cannot protect themselves and thus, need the protection of self-sacrificially male soldiers. Therefore, despite their vital contribution to war efforts as cooks, laundresses, nurses, or even as female soldiers such as in the Gulf War in 2011, women also suffer from a lack of visibility in IR theories and in the media. This is complemented in the feminist discourse by the further mention of marginalized and disempowered individuals, such as prisoners of war, soldiers with post-battle traumas, or soldiers refusing to obey orders during mutinies.
Thanks to feminism, world politics is no more regarded as only composed of states and diplomatic relations but first and foremost of individuals who should be considered as actors in the IR discipline.

Jones, A. (1996) Does ‘gender’ make the world go round? Feminist critiques of international relations, Review of International Studies, pp. 405-429


Meet Clara Neergård Delcourt, a new writer fort the Women & Politics Blog! She is currently studying Politics, and is originally from Copenhagen. With the aim of a future career in an international organization, she’s passionate about women’s rights, and contemporary issues such as terrorism, global health, and nuclear proliferation. 


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