Feminism in International Relations (IR) begins by inverting Jeremy Bentham’s famous aphorism: “knowledge is power”. In other words, power controls what we know, and if gender is a determinant of power, then gender is a relation that shapes what we know.

Gender is more than a supplement to the social sciences and humanities—it constitutes an entire approach to understanding everyday life. The feminist undertaking is a study of power (revealing, as philosophers before them, namely Michel Foucault and writer Virginia Woolf) that who constructed academic disciplines is equally important to how they were constructed. Within International Relations, feminists examine how patriarchal relationships shape the international narrative, international relations of power, and IR academia.

Dr. J Ann Tickner, Professor Emerita of International Relations at the University of Southern California and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at American University spoke with Hippo Reads on her motivations behind studying Feminism in IR, discusses the field of Feminism in IR and its importance, and summarizes the field’s achievements and challenges today.

CE: What books, authors, and events influence your work?

AT: My interest in International Relations stemmed from being in London during World War II. As a young child who experienced bombing, my interest was to study war, or more accurately how it could be prevented. But my interests were always somewhat outside the mainstream of IR —in peace studies and in social justice particularly as to how it related to issues in the Global South.

I first came to feminist IR through reading Evelyn Fox Keller’s book Gender and Science. She talks about how the natural sciences are gendered in the questions they ask and how they go about answering them. I thought the same questions could be asked of IR theory. (This was how I got the idea for my Hans Morgenthau piece, the first feminist piece I wrote in 1988). This was in the 1980s and there was really no work then in feminist IR, so, in order to get started, I had to go outside the discipline to find authors in feminist theory. Cynthia Enloe is one of the earliest feminist IR authors who did start writing in the 1980s well before most of us and her work has had a huge influence on me. As has the work of Sandra Harding—a feminist philosopher who does history of science and was one of the founders of feminist standpoint theory. (Feminist theory itself started earlier—just not feminist theory in IR, which I would put at the late 1980s.

CE: What generated your interest in “bottom-up” approaches to IR theory? What turned you away from elite-centered approaches?

AT: I think asking feminist questions fit quite well with my interest in peace studies and global justice and also with “bottom up” questions. I was always puzzled by the fact that there appeared to be no people in IR. (If you start at the top, it is mostly states). So when you start thinking about how war and economic injustices affect real people’s lives, both women and men, you start looking from the ground up. The feminist question first asked by Cynthia Enloe is “where are the women?”. That is an important feminist question—you need to be able to see people to answer it. And many of my women students seemed rather uninterested in studying nuclear weapons and military strategy, which was an important topic in the introduction to IR courses that I taught in the 1980s and which the literature addressed from a very top down perspective. I always wanted to ask about the devastating loss of life should these weapons be used but that did not seem to be part of the conversation.

CE: What is the difference between International Relations and Feminism in International Relations? Is feminism its own paradigm in IR much along the lines of realism (world states take steps to increase their power relative to other states, i.e., the world is a dangerous place and world states have to obtain as much power as they can to preserve their country) or liberalism (not all states are interested in becoming bigger, tougher and stronger. Social power also matters, and international rules and organizations foster cooperation and trust worldwide, not just self-preservation)?

Feminist IR looks at IR through gendered lenses. Feminists generally define gender as a variable social construction signifying unequal power relations. Gender is a relational concept: masculinity and femininity depend on each other for their construction. In the West, conceptual dichotomies such as objectivity versus subjectivity, reason versus emotion, mind versus body, and public versus private have typically been used to describe male/female differences. Even though these characteristics don’t fit all men and all women, the characteristics associated with masculinity are more highly valued by both men and women and describe what an “ideal” man should aspire to be. Obviously this is complicated by the fact that biology is not fixed either: nevertheless, women are associated with “femininity” and men with “masculinity”. Therefore feminists would argue that gender is constitutive of International Relations generally—meaning that all IR is gendered and that looking at IR through gender lenses would be transformative. Feminists would say there is realist feminism (although not so much for obvious reasons!), liberal feminism, etc. So no, it’s not really a paradigm in the sense you describe it although this is very hard for the field to grasp so I would say feminism is another approach and is being treated as such in many IR textbooks.

There are liberal feminists, constructivist feminists, poststructural feminists and postcolonial feminists in IR just to name some. For example, one of the basic questions that feminists ask is why, in just about every society, are women subordinated to men in some way and what effect might this have on global politics and the global economy? Or, conversely, how does the global polity and global economy contribute to the subordination of women? Of course, there are many other questions that feminists are asking. But I am suggesting that IR feminists use different approaches to answer such questions. Depending on the tools they choose to use, one might label them as liberal, constructivist etc., etc.

CE: Why has it been so difficult to define gender and find a measure for gender equality?

AT: Measuring gender equality is very hard because we can’t use measureable social and economic indicators to understand the question I posed in the last answer. There are almost no legal restrictions in the US on women yet women comprise less than 20% of the US Congress. This has something to do with the social expectations that I talked about as to what women are “supposed” to do. (For example, why do we have to have conversations about whether a minority man or any woman is fit to be US president when we would not ask that question about a white heterosexual male?) The same difficulties about measurement apply to why there are a disproportionate number of women in low paying and non-paying jobs such as those associated with caregiving. It is important to stress, however, that what we can measure has been crucial in helping to draw attention to the plight of women. It was because of pressure from women’s movements that the UN and other international organizations began to disaggregate data by sex in the 1970s. This allowed us to see discrimination that women face in many societies in terms of health care, pay, education, etc.

I am not sure about the difficulties of defining gender. It’s just that it is now used to distinguish between biological males and biological females; this is not the way feminists use it (see above) which makes it hard to talk about the social construction of gender and the various forms of gender identity. And very importantly gender is not just about women. It is just as much about men and masculinity—particularly in the field of International Relations.

CE: In your article, “You Just Don’t Understand”what is the major take-away? How does feminism in IR interpret security?

AT: It is the problem that still exists in IR in that mainstream IR theorists think feminists are not doing “theory”. I have been trying to explain in all my conversations with the mainstream that IR feminists for the most part are not doing positivist theory so they have a different definition of theory—critical, post-structuralist, constructivist etc. It is still the case after all the years since I wrote YJDU that epistemological questions remain the most fraught for IR feminists and for their being accepted by the discipline as doing “valid” science. This is more of a problem in the US than elsewhere as there is more methodological pluralism outside the US.

I have defined security in many of my writings. I define it as multidimensional and multilevel. That is security in terms of freedom from direct violence, structural violence and violence against nature. Security should also be multi-level, meaning not just the security of states but of people also and of our natural environment.

CE: You’ve had such an impressive career, with numerous articles and four books on Gender and IR Theory. If readers could take one idea away from your work, what would it be?

AT: At the end of the course on Gender and Global issues that I taught for many years at USC, students would often say that the course changed how they see the world. I hope that my writing and teaching has helped students to always question what they have been told is  “common sense” when it really isn’t common sense at all just “what everyone thinks”.  I also hope I have given people the ability to see things that often remain invisible.

CE: What do you see as the major accomplishments in Feminism in IR over the past 30 years?

AT: Feminist IR has come a long way in that it is now recognized as a subfield of IR. There are a huge number of books on a wide variety of topics and feminist IR now has its own journal the International Feminist Journal of Politics. Student interest is high. And IR feminism has managed to break out of the narrow constraining bounds of IR and become truly an inter-discipline, which is what I feel IR should be. And feminists are doing careful empirical studies of previously unexplored issues.

CE: What issues should current Feminism in IR students research?

AT: There is so much more to do in so many areas—it is hard to say. But I will say that it is hard work doing feminist research because we are looking for things that have often been invisible and hard to measure and even hard to get people to talk about. (Sexual violence being such a topic). Previously invisible topics include work on military prostitution, domestic servants who travel across national boundaries to support their families, and women in low-paying garment factories, to name a few. The possibilities are endless. We need more training in the type of methodologies that feminists find useful for conducting their research, such as ethnography.


Further Reading of Anne Tickner’s Work:


Image Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development via flickr

About the Authors

Cameron Espinoza

Education: Selwyn College, University of Cambridge (Master's, International Relations) University of Southern California (Bachelor's, Political Science and English Literature) Research interests: political philosophy, the History of Continental Philosophy, democracy, and American foreign policy.

Dr. J Ann Tickner
Professor Emerita of International Relations, Southern California University

Dr. J Ann Tickner has written four books on gender and International Relations theory, including A Feminist Voyage Through International Relations (Oxford University Press, 2014), Feminism and International Relations: Conversations about the Past, Present, and Future (with Laura Sjoberg, Routledge, 2011), Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the Post-Cold War Era (Columbia University Press, 2001), and Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security (Columbia University Press, 1992[AT1] ). She is the only feminist IR theorist to have served as president of the International Studies Association (ISA), 2006-2007. Her research specialties are international theory, peace and security studies, international political economy, and gender studies.