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Feminist fatigue(s): reflections on feminism and familiar fables of militarisation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 July 2009


In this article we critically consider the idea that feminism has performatively failed within the discipline of International Relations. One aspect of this failure relates to the production of sexgender through feminism which we suggest is partly responsible for a weariness inflecting feminist scholarship, in particular as a critical theoretical resource. We reflect on this weariness in the context of the study and practice of international politics – arenas still reaping the potent benefits of the virile political energies reverberating since 9/11. To illustrate our arguments we re-count a familiar feminist fable of militarisation – a story which we use to exemplify how the production of feminist IR is ‘set’ up to ‘fail’. In so doing we clarify our depiction of feminism as seemingly haunted by its inherent paradoxes as well as explaining why it matters to discuss feminism within the locale of the academic study of international politics. We conclude with a consideration of the grammar of temporality that delimits representations of feminism and move to recast feminist failure as aporetic and concomitantly implicated in the process of intervening politically.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2009

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1 Robyn Ferrell, Copula: Sexual Technologies, Reproductive Powers (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006), p. 49.

2 Karena Shaw and R. B. J Walker, ‘Situating Academic Practice: Pedagogy, Critique and Responsibility’, Millennium, 35: 1 (2006), pp. 155–65, p. 157.

3 Zillah Eisenstein, Against Empire: Feminisms, Racism, and the West (London: Zed Books, 2004); Zakia Salime, ‘The War on Terrorism: Appropriation and Subversion by Moroccan Women’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 3:1 (2007), pp. 1–24.

4 Judith Squires and Jutta Weldes, ‘Beyond Being Marginal: Gender and International Relations in Britain’, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9:2, (2007), pp. 185–203; Janet Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Wendy Brown, States of Injury (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

5 Squires and Weldes, ‘Beyond’; Christine Sylvester, ‘Anatomy of a Footnote’, Security Dialogue, 38:4 (2007), pp. 547–58; Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the future in Gender and International Relations; Marysia Zalewski, Ann Tickner, Christine Sylvester, Margot Light, Vivienne Jabri, Kimberly Hutchings, and Fred Halliday, ‘Roundtable Discussion: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future in Gender and International Relations’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 37:1 (2008), pp. 153–79.

6 The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, has spurred widespread local and global policy engagement for its implementation. Numerous reports have since documented the instance of sexual violence as an important matter for the Security Council, and for world security and peace-building more generally. See for example, Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Women, War and Peace – The Independent Expert's Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women's Role in Peace-Building, (New York: UNIFEM, 2002); Council of Europe, Democratisation, Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding: The Perspectives and the Roles of Women, (Council of Europe, 2003); International Alert, Protection of Civilians: Gender Considerations for Disarmament, Conflict Transformation and the establishment of Human security, (London: International Alert, 2003); International Alert, Engendering Peace, (London: International Alert, 2004); UNIFEM Report on the Status of Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, (New York: UNIFEM, 2003); United Nations, Women Peace and Security at a Glance – Security Council Resolution 1325, (New York: United Nations, 2003); United Nations, Faces – Women as Partners in Peace and Security, (New York: United Nations, 2004); UN Security Council, Resolution 1325, (New York: United Nations, October 2000) UN Security Council, Women Peace and Security: Report of the Secretary General, (New York: United Nations, October 2004).

7 For further discussions on the political potential of failure see Judith Butler and William Connolly, ‘Politics, Power and Ethics: A Discussion Between Judith Butler and William Connolly’, Theory & Even,t 4:2 (2000); available at (accessed 10 March 2006); Ewa Plonowska Ziarek ‘From Euthanasia to the Other of Reason’ in Ellen K. Feder, Mary C. Rawlinson, and Emily Zakin (eds), Derrida and Feminism (New York and London: Routledge, 1997); Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, The Rhetoric of Failure: Deconstruction of Skepticism, Reinvention of Modernism, (New York: State University of New York, 1995).

8 Cressida J. Heyes, ‘Introduction’, in Cressida J. Heyes (ed.), The Grammar of politics: Wittgenstein and Political Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 1–17.

9 Elizabeth Grosz, Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2005).

10 Though we are not suggesting that feminism has really failed – we will not continually use inverted commas around ‘failure’ to indicate this.

11 Kath Weston, Gender in Real Time: Power and Transience in a Visual Age (London: Routledge, 2002).

12 On ‘thinking otherwise’ see Robyn Wiegman, Women's Studies on It's Own, (Duke University Press, 2003); Anthony Burke, Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence: War Against the Other, (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 30–1; Jacques Derrida, ‘Sending: on representation’, Social Research (1982) 49.2, pp. 294–326; Jacques Derrida, Aporias (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).

13 Wendy Brown, States of Injury (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

14 See Jill Steans, ‘Engaging from the margins: feminist encounters with the ‘mainstream’ of international relations’ British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 5:3 (2003) pp. 428–54; also Squires and Weldes, ‘Beyond’.

15 Squires and Weldes, ‘Beyond’.

16 Marysia Zalewski, ‘Distracted reflections on the production, narration, and refusal of feminist knowledge in International Relations’ in Brooke. A. Ackerly, Maria Stern and Jacqui True (eds), Feminist Methodologies for International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2006).

17 See also Sylvester, ‘Anatomy’.

18 See Squires and Weldes, ‘Beyond’; Halley, ‘Split Decisions’; Brown, ‘States of Injury’; Robyn Wiegman, ‘Feminism, Institutionalism, and the Idiom of Failure’ differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 11:3 (2001); Robyn Wiegman, ‘On Being in Time With Feminism’ Modern Languages Quarterly, 65:1 (2004).

19 Wiegman, ‘Feminism, Institutionalism’; Mary Hawkesworth, ‘The Semiotics of Premature Burial: Feminism in a Postfeminist Age’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 29:4 (2004); Halley, ‘Split Decisions’; Weston, ‘Gender’ p. 1.

20 Squires and Weldes, ‘Beyond’.

21 Shaw and Walker, ‘Situating Academic Practice; Hawkesworth, 'Feminist Inquiry’.

22 Hawkesworth, ‘Feminist Inquiry’, p. 6.

23 Charlotte Hooper, Manly States: Masculinities, International Relations and Gender Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

24 Eisenstein, ‘Against Empire’.

25 Kevin Dunn, ‘Interrogating White Male Privilege in International Relations’ in Jane Parpart and Marysia Zalewski, (eds), Rethinking the Man Question; sex, gender and violence in International Relations (London: Zed Press, 2008).

26 Jenny Edkins and Maija Zehfuss, ‘Generalising the international,’ Review of International Studies, 31 (2005) pp. 451–72.

27 Mary Hawkesworth, Feminist Enquiry (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006). p. 213.

28 Hawkesworth, ‘Feminist Inquiry’

29 Ackerly, Stern, and True, ‘Feminist Methodologies’, p. 240. See also Weston, ‘Gender in Real Time’ and Ferrel, ‘Copula’.

30 See discussion in Craig Murphy, ‘The promise of critical IR, partly kept’, Review of International Studies, 33 (2007), pp. 117–33.

31 Hawkesworth, ‘Feminist Inquiry’.

32 Elizabeth Grosz, The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004).

33 For example, Universities, students, policy makers, NGOs.

34 See, for example, Maria Stern and Malin Nystrand, Gender and Armed Conflict, (Stockholm: SIDA, 2006).

35 See special issue on ‘Comparative Gender Mainstreaming’ International Feminist Journal of Politics 7:4 (2005); Pedagogy Forum, International Studies Perspectives, 8:3 (August 2007).

36 Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993); Brown, ‘States of Injury’.

37 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990); Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, Drucilla Cornell, Nancy Fraser, Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange (New York: Routledge, 1995); Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: London, 2004).

38 Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

39 Denise Riley, ‘Am I That Name?’ Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History (London: The MacMillan Press, 1988).

40 Moya Lloyd, Judith Butler (Oxford: Polity press, 2007), p. 32.

41 Butler, ‘Bodies That Matter’, p. 241.

42 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, (New York: Routledge, 1978); idem, ‘Sending: on representation’.

43 Wiegman, ‘Feminism, Insitutionalism’, p. 119.

44 Wendy Brown, Politics out of History, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 62.

45 Seyla Benhabib, ‘Sexual Difference and Collective Identities: The New Global Constellation’, Signs 24:2 (1999), pp. 335–61; bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984); idem, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1989); idem, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1999); Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-coloniality (London: Routledge, 2000); Valentine M., Moghadam (ed.), Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in an International Perspective (Boulder: Westview, 1994); Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, (New York: Routledge, 1995); A. Loomba Colonialism/Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 1998); Chandra Talpade Mohanty ‘Introduction: Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism’ in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (ed.), Chandra Talpade Mohanty Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 1–47; idem, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ in Mohanty, Russo and Torres (eds), pp. 51–80; Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998); Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak,, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in C.Nelson, and L. Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1998), pp. 271–313.

46 Lloyd, ‘Judith’, p. 26.

47 As academics we are not freelance researchers but increasingly accountable workers.

48 See for example, Amnesty International's ‘Stop Violence Against Women’ campaign ( (accessed 1 August 2007); ‘Eliminating World Poverty: Making Governance Work for the Poor’ (June 2006) see (accessed July 2007); Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), Paper 20: Gendering Demilitarization as a Peacebuilding Tool, (Bonn: Bonn International Center for Conversion, 2002); Tsjeard Bouta, and Georg Frerks, Women's Roles in Conflict Prevention, Conflict Resolution and Post-Conflict Reconstruction (Netherlands: Conflict Research Unit, Netherlands Institute of International Relations (‘Clingendael’) (2002); Eugenia Date-Bah, et al. Gender and Armed Conflicts, (Geneva: International Labour Office, 2001); Judy El Bushra, Women Building Peace – Sharing Know How, (London: International Alert, 2003); Amani El Jack, Gender and Armed Conflict – Overview Report, BRIDGE, (Brighton: Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex, 2003); Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Engendering Peace Agreement Processes: Preparation for the Commission on the Status of Women 2004, (New York: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 1325 Peacewomen E-news, Issue 33, 2003); Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Gender and the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations 2004 Meeting (New York: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 1325 Peacewomen E-news, Issue 39, 2004); Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, No Women, No Peace: The Importance of Women's Participation to Achieve Peace and Security, (New York: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 1325 Peacewomen E-news, Issue 40, 2004); see also;

49 See for example, Brooke Ackerly, Maria Stern, and Jaqui True, (eds), ‘Feminist Methodologies’; Elisabetta Addiss et al., Women Soldiers, Images and Realities (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994); Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); idem, The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993): idem, Globalization and Militarism: Feminists Make the Link, (Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, inc., 2007); Carol Cohn, ‘War, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War’, in M. Cooke and A. Woolacott, (eds), Gendering War Talk (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War (New York: Basic Books, 1987); Joshua S. Goldstein, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001); Rebecca Grant and Kathleen Newland, (eds), Gender and International Relations (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1991); Tamara Mayer, Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing The Nation (London: Routledge, 2000); Caroline Moser and Fiona Clark, Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence (London: Zed Press, 2001); Helen Kinsella, ‘Understanding a War That Is Not a War: A Review Essay’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 33:1 (2007), pp. 209–32; Jane Parpart and Marysia Zalewski, (eds), Re-thinking the Man Question: Sex, Gender and Violence in International Relations, (London: Zed Press, 2008); Jan Jindy Pettman, Worlding Women: A Feminist International Politics (London: Routledge, 1996); V. Spike Peterson, ‘Transgressing Boundaries: Theories of Knowledge, Gender, and International Relations,’ Millennium, 21:2 (1992); V. Spike Peterson and A. Sisson Runyan, Global Gender Issues (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999); Véronique Pin-Fat, and Maria Stern ‘The Scripting of Private Jessica Lynch: Biopolitics, Gender and the ‘Feminization’ of the US Military’, Alternatives, 30:1 (2005); Betty Reardon, Sexism and the War System (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); Betty Reardon, Woman and Peace: Feminist Versions of Global Security (New York: SUNY Press, 1993); Jill Steans, Gender and International Relations (Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998); Ingrid Skjelsbaek, and Dan Smith, Gender, Peace and Conflict (Oslo: Prio/Sage Publications, 2001); Laura Sjoberg, Gender, Justice and the Wars in Iraq: A Feminist Reformulation of Just War Theory (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2006); Maria Stern, Naming Security – Constructing Identity: ‘Mayan-women’ in Guatemala on the Eve of ‘Peace’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005); Christine Sylvester, Feminist International Relations in a Post Modern Era, Cambridge Studies in International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); idem, Feminist International Relations: An Unfinished Journey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); J. A. Tickner, Gender in International Relations:, Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); idem, Gendering World Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001); Jean Vickers, Women and War, (London: Zed Press,1993); Sandra Whitworth, Feminism in International Relations: Towards a Political Economy of Gender in Interstate and Non-governmental Institutions (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 1994); idem, Men, Militarism, and UN Peacekeeping: A Gendered Analysis (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 2004); Marysia Zalewski and Jane Parpart, (eds), The “Man” Question in International Relations (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998); Marysia Zalewski ‘Well, what is the feminist perspective on Bosnia?’, International Affairs, 71:2 (1995), pp. 339–56; idem, Where is Woman in International Relations?: ‘To Return as a Woman and Be Heard’, Millennium, 27:4 (1999) pp. 847–67; idem ‘Distracted reflections’; idem, Do We Understand Each Other Yet? Troubling Feminist Encounters With(in) International Relations' British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9:2,pp. 302–12.

50 See notes 49 and 50 above. See also, for example, Scott Burchill; Andrew Linklater; Richard Devetak; Jack Donnelly; Matthew Paterson; Christian Reus-Smit; Jacqui True, Theories of International Relations, 2 (New York: Palgrave, 2005).

51 Stern and Nystrand, ‘Gender and Armed Conflict’.

52 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, (New York: Pantheon, 1972). We gesture towards this ‘discursive formation’ in footnotes 49 and 50.

53 See, for example, notes 49 and 50.

54 Moser and Clark, ‘Victims, Perpetrators or Actors?’

55 Stern, ‘Naming Security’.

56 See note 49 and Kinsella ‘Understanding a War That Is Not a War’.

57 Burke, ‘Beyond Security’, pp. 30–1.

58 As noted earlier – largely reproduced in Stern and Nystrand, 2006 which we suggest is an exemplar of many similar storylines.

59 Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 53.

60 See note 8 on the politics of failure.

61 Stern and Nystrand and notes 49 and 50.

62 See Pin-Fat and Stern, ‘Scripting Jessica’.

63 Lacquer, Making Sex; Butler, Gender Trouble; Bodies That Matter; Undoing Gender.

64 Hooper, ‘Manly States’.

65 Sandra Whitworth, ‘Militarized Masculinity and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ in Jane Parpart and Marysia Zalewski (eds), ‘Rethinking the Man Question’, pp. 109–26.

66 Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation (London: Sage, 1997).

67 See, for example, Rachel Brett and Irma Sprecht, Young Soldiers: Why they Choose to Fight, (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004); Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern,‘Making Sense of Violence: Voices of Soldiers in the DRC’ in Journal of Modern African Studies, 46:1(2008); Paul Higate (ed.), Military Masculinities: Identity and the State (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2003); Michael S Kimmel, Jeff Hearn, and R.W. Connell, Handbook of Studies on Men & Masculinities (London: Sage Publications, 2005); Theodore Nadelson, Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Mats Utas, ‘Fighting (in) the badlands of modernity: youth combatants and the Liberian Civil War’, Journal of Social Sciences & Management, 1:1 (2007), pp. 37–44.

68 The division public-private is both inappropriate and potentially harmful as an ideal and as a way of making sense of societies where these spheres blur. See Georgina Waylen and Vicky Randall, Gender, Politics and the State, (London: Routledge, 1998) as well as Pin-Fat and Stern, ‘Scripting Jessica’.

69 See, for example, discussions in Ackerly, Stern and True, ‘Feminist Methodologies’.

70 Weston, ‘Gender in Real Time’.

71 Moser and Clark, ‘Victims, Perpetrators or Actors?’

72 Wiegman, ‘On Being in Time’, p. 164.

73 For commentaries on this see: Robert O. Keohane, ‘Beyond Dichotomy: Conversations Between International Relations and Feminist Theory’, International Studies Quarterly, 42:1 (1998), pp. 193–97; J. Ann Tickner, ‘Continuing the Conversation …’ International Studies Quarterly, 42:1, (1998), pp. 205–10; International Studies Perspectives, Pedagogy Forum, International Studies Review, Forum on Gender and International Relations, 5:2 (2003); R. Charli Carpenter, ‘Gender Theory in World Politics: Contributions of a Nonfeminist Standpoint?’, International Studies Review, 4:3 (2002), pp. 153–65; Squires and Weldes, ‘Beyond Being Marginal’. See also Roundtable discussion in Millennium, forthcoming and Sylvester, ‘Anatomy’.

74 Weston, ‘Gender in Real Time’; Clare Hemmings, ‘Telling feminist stories’, Feminist Theory, 6 (2005), pp. 115–39.

75 Brown, ‘Edgework’.

76 Squires and Weldes, ‘Beyond’.

77 Vicki Kirby, Judith Butler: Live Thinking (Continuum: London, 2007), p. 130.

78 Shaw and Walker, ‘Situating’.

79 Wiegman, ‘On Being in Time’, p. 121.

80 Hemmings, ‘Feminist Stories’.

81 Weston, ‘Gender in Real Time’.

82 Wiegman, ‘On Being in Time’, p. 164.

83 Nancy Hartsock, ‘Masculinity, Heroism, and the Making of War’ in Arienne Harris and Ynestra King (eds), Rocking the Ship of State (Bolder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1989), p. 136.

84 Ernest Becker quoted in Hartsock, ‘Masculinity’, pp. 136–7.

85 Dorothy E Smith, The Everyday World as Problematic (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989).

86 Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989); Ruddick, ‘The Rationality of Care’ in. J. B. Elshtain and S. Tobias Savage, MD, (eds), Women, Militarism, and War (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 1990).

87 Hawkesworth, ‘The Semiotics of Premature Burial’, p. 972.

88 See Squires and Weldes, ‘Beyond’.

89 See Hemmings, ‘Telling feminist stories’.

90 Wiegman, ‘On Being in Time’, p. 165.

91 Ibid., p. 165.

92 Misha Kavka, ‘Introduction’ in Feminist Consequences: Theory for the New Century, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001) p. xi.

93 Wiegman, ‘Feminism Institutionalism’, p. 110.

94 Anthony Burke, Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence: War against the Other, (New York: Routledge, 2007); Marysia Zalewski and Jane Parpart, ‘Rethinking the man question, sex, gender and violence in international relations’ in Parpart and Zalewski, ‘Rethinking’.

95 Wiegman, ‘On Being in Time’.

96 Ibid., p. 161.

97 Ibid., p. 163.

98 Ellen K. Feder and Emily Zatkin, ‘Flirting with the Truth’ in Derrida and Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 24.

99 Laura Shepherd, Gender, Violence and Security: Discourse as Practice, (London: Zed Press, 2008).

100 Robin Redhead, Reading the Visual: Gender, Human Rights and International Relations, unpublished PhD dissertation (2007).

101 Burke, ‘Beyond Security’.

102 Butler, ‘Undoing’, p. 421.

103 Wiegman, ‘Feminism Institutionalism’, p. 7.

104 Grosz, ‘Time Travels’.

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