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‘I don't even know what gender is’: a discussion of the connections between gender, gender mainstreaming and feminist theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2010


In this article I discuss some of the connections between gender, gender mainstreaming and feminist theory. As a global initiative, gender mainstreaming is now well established; but the role of feminism and feminists in achieving this success is questionable. Some, including Harvard Law Professor Janet Halley claim that feminists, particularly in the realm of governance feminism, have been extremely successful. Yet despite this success Halley invites us to ‘take a break from feminism’. I consider this political and intellectual invitation in this article in order to shed some light on the relationship between gender mainstreaming and feminism but also to probe what Robyn Wiegman refers to as a ‘critical incomprehension’ around feminism. My discussion includes a brief analysis of the imagery used in documentation relating to the United Kingdom's Gender Equality Duty Legislation; the latter a contemporary example of a legislative attempt to properly mainstream gender. In conclusion I return to the Halley's invitation to ‘take a break from feminism’ and introduce, by way of contrast, Angela McRobbie's recent discussion of post-feminism ultimately suggesting that we might see Halley's call, as well as the popularity (and ‘failures’) of gender mainstreaming as examples of post-feminist practice. Image 1.

Pop-art images advertising the ‘Gender Agenda’ on the Internet {} which is part of the UK's legislation on gender equality produced by the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission (formerly the Equal Opportunities Commission).

If you look around the United States, Canada, the European Union, the human rights establishment, even the World Bank, you see plenty of places where feminism, far from operating underground, is running things.1

Any force as powerful as feminism must find itself occasionally looking down at its own bloody hands.2

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2010

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1 Janet Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a break from Feminism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 20.

2 Halley, Split Decisions, p. 33.

3 Former trainer for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), in conversation with Nina Hall, Dili, 23 November 2007. Quoted in Nina Hall and Jacqui True, ‘Gender Mainstreaming in a Post-conflict State’, in Bina D’Costa and Katrina Lee-Koo (eds), Gender and Global Politics in the Asia-Pacific (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), pp. 159–74, p. 164.

4 Former director of the East Timorese women's organisation Fokupers. This group works on the empowerment of women from a women's human rights perspective. See {} accessed on 23 June 2009.

5 Hall and True, ‘Gender and Global Politics’, p. 165.

6 Mary Daly, ‘Gender Mainstreaming in Theory and Practice’, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society, 12:3 (2005), pp. 433–50, p. 433.

7 A selection of this literature includes: Gillian Youngs, ‘From Practice to Theory: Feminist International Relations and ‘Gender Mainstreaming’, International Politics, 45 (2008), pp. 688–702; Daly, ‘Gender Mainstreaming in Theory and Practice’, Special issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics, on ‘Comparative Gender Mainstreaming’, 7:4 (2005); Teresa Rees, ‘Reflections on the Uneven Development of Gender Mainstreaming in Europe’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 7:4 (2005), pp. 555–74; Sylvia Walby, ‘Introduction: Comparative Gender Mainstreaming in a Global Era’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 7:4 (2005), pp. 453–70; Diane Perrons, ‘Gender Mainstreaming and Gender Equality in the New (Market) Economy: An Analysis of Contradictions’, Social Politics (2005), pp. 389–411; Fiona Beveridge and Sue Nott, ‘Mainstreaming: A Case for Optimism and Cynicism’, Feminist Legal Studies, 10 (2002), pp. 299–311; E. Hafner-Burton and M.A. Pollock, ‘Mainstreaming Gender in Global Governance’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 8:3 (2000), pp. 339–73.

8 Robyn Wiegman, ‘Object Lessons: Men, Masculinity, and the Sign Women’, Signs, 26:2 (2001), pp. 355–88.

9 See discussions in: Maria Stern and Marysia Zalewski, ‘Feminist Fatigue(s): reflections on feminism and familiar fables of militarisation’, Review of International Studies, 35:3 (2009), pp. 611–30; M. Zalewski, J. A Tickner, C. Sylvester, M. Light, V. Jabri, K. Hutchings and F. 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.

10 I do not mean to suggest that gender has agency; though I do wish to imply that gender may not be as amenable to isolation and removal as discussions within policy making arenas tend to imply.

11 Halley, Split Decisions, p. 21.

12 The ‘we’ is of interest here – Halley is, I think, largely speaking to feminist scholars but also those active in governance feminism.

13 Halley, Split Decisions, pp. 17–21.

14 See Judith Squires, ‘Is Mainstreaming Transformative? Theorizing Mainstreaming in the Context of Diversity and Deliberation’, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society, 12:3, pp. 366–88; Olena Hankivsky, ‘Gender Mainstreaming vs. Diversity Mainstreaming: A Preliminary Examination of the Role and Transformative Potential of Feminist Theory’, Canadian Journal of Political Science (2005).

15 Tyson Smith and Michael Kimmel, ‘The Hidden Discourse of Masculinity on Gender Discrimination Law’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30:3 (2005), pp. 1827–849.

16 There is a literature in the generic field of International Relations on neofeminism which argues this to be the case. See International Studies Perspectives, Pedagogy Forum: Mainstreaming Gender into the IR Curriculum, 8:3, 2007; 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.

17 Stern and Zalewski, ‘Feminist Fatigue(s)’.

18 Moya Lloyd, Judith Butler (Oxford: Polity Press, 2007), p. 32.

19 Susan Hekman, Private Selves, Public Identities: Reconsidering Identity Politics (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 2004).

20 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004); Kath Weston, Gender in Real Time: Power and Transcience in a Visual Age (New York: Routledge, 2002).

21 See Youngs, ‘From Practice to Theory: Feminist International Relations’, p. 693; Walby, ‘Introduction: Comparative Gender Mainstreaming in a Global Era’, p. 454.

22 Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (London: Sage, 2009), p. 151.

23 Teresa Rees, Reflections. See also Elisabeth Prugl, ‘Does Gender Mainstreaming Work?: Feminist Engagements with the German Agricultural State’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 11:2 (2009), pp. 174–195.

24 Teresa Rees, Reflections.

25 Christine Booth and Cinnamon Bennett, ‘Gender Mainstreaming in the European Union: Towards a New Conception and Practice of Equal Opportunities?’, The European Journal of Women's Studies, 9:4 (2002), pp. 430–46, p. 442.

26 Hafner-Burton and Pollock, Mainstreaming Gender in Global Governance.

27 Walby, ‘Introduction;’ p. 465.

28 Teresa Rees, ‘Gender Mainstreaming: Misappropriated and Misunderstood?’ Paper presented to the Department of Sociology, University of Sweden, 21 February 2002, p. 13.

29 See articles in special issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics, on ‘Comparative Gender Mainstreaming’ 7:4 (2005).

30 See Hafner-Burton and Pollack's ‘Appendix 3: What the [World] Bank Would look like if Gender were Mainstreamed’, in ‘Gender Mainstreaming’, p. 369. Though what appears here is a list of recommendations for mainstreaming gender; a tangible sense of a ‘gender-free’ world remains elusive.

31 In the context of gender mainstreaming, some scholars have suggested that the concept be abandoned, though most wish to retain it. See discussion in Booth and Bennett, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’.

32 Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1996); Mary Evans Killing Thinking: The Death of Universities (London: Continuum, 2004).

33 The inadequacies of feminism or problems created by and through feminism are the subject of persistent analysis both within academia (across disciplines) as well as more popularly, particularly in the media. See Mary Hawkesworth, Feminist Inquiry; Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism; 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 (2008), pp. 153–79.

34 Youngs, ‘From Practice to Theory’; Daly, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’.

35 Subsequently referred to as the Duty.

36 McRobbie. The Aftermath of Feminism.

37 See note 3.

38 Diane Perrons, ‘Gender Mainstreaming and Gender Equality in the New (Market) Economy: An Analysis of Contradictions’, Social Politics (2005), pp. 389–411, p. 405.

39 Gillian Youngs, ‘G.I. Jane: Women and Bodybags’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 1:3 (1999), pp. 476–77; Marysia Zalewski, ‘Tampons and Cigars: (No) Escaping Sexual Difference in G.I. Jane’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 1:3 (1999), pp. 479–81; Linda Williams, ‘Ready for Action: G.I. Jane, Demi Moore's Body and the Female Combat Movie’ in Yvonne Tasker (ed.), Action and Adventure Cinema (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 169–85; Terrell Carver, ‘GI Jane: What are the ‘Manners’ that ‘Maketh a Man’?’ in British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9:2 (2007), pp. 312–17.

40 An observation of some theoretical significance in the context of the discussion in this article.

41 This includes conventional popular culture such as ‘Hollywood movies’ but also involves the ‘global gender industry’ which includes, for example NGOs (see Maria Stern and Marysia Zalewski (2009).

42 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004). Mary Hawkesworth, Feminist Inquiry: From Political Conviction to Methodological Innovation (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006).

43 See {} reference: LP247 Low pay/Sexist Difference. Accessed 29 July 2008. The image in colour in the original and in the on-line version of this article. My thanks to Christine Hankinson of Leeds Postcards for granting permission to use this image here.

44 Photograph taken by the author in January 2007. The original photo is in colour as well as in the on-line version of this article.

45 Also interesting is the making of the statement into a question. See Janet Halley's discussion of Judith Butler and ‘the question of sexual difference’, Split Decisions, p. 217.

46 See feminist psychoanalytic work on the feminine as ‘lack’. See Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is not One (New York: Cornell University press, 1985), trans. Catherine Porter; Luce Irigaray Speculum of the Other Woman (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985) trans. Gillian C. Gill; (Juliet Mitchell and Sangay K. Mishra Feminism and Psychoanalysis (London: Basic Books. 2000).

47 Halley Split Decisions, p. 79.

48 There is a vast feminist literature on the constitutive character of sexed bodily difference, perhaps especially in regard to the production or representation of woman as ‘lack’ or absence. See Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

49 This assumed connection has been supported and justified by vast swathes of religious, scientific and intellectual dogmas and literatures.

50 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London: Penguin, 2004), with an Introduction by Miriam Brody.

51 Wollstonecraft, A Vindication.

52 It is not my intention to claim Mary Wollstonecraft as a social constructionist. Clearly the idea of ‘restoring’ she invokes suggests an essentialist understanding, though this is unsurprising given the philosophical influences on her writing. I include this example to demonstrate ideas about the possibility of change and the struggle to comprehend behaviours and practices which appear simultaneously natural (or inevitable) and unacceptable.

53 Susan Moller-Okin, Justice, Gender and the Family (New York: Basic Books, 1989).

54 See for example, Mary Wyer et al (eds), Women, Science and Technology (London: Routledge, 2001); Ruth Hubbard, The Politics of Women's Biology (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990); Andrea Nye, Feminist Theory and the Philosophies of Man (New York: Routledge, 1988); Emily Martin, The Woman in the Body (Milton Keyes: Open University Press, 1987); Ann Oakley, The Captured Womb (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984).

55 McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism.

56 Subsequently codified and categorised, for example as ‘the Cinderella Complex’ demonstrating femininity as ‘learned helplessness’ or fear of independence. See Collette Cowling, The Cinderella Complex (London: Pocket Books, 1982); also see Janet Halley, Split Decisions, on the feminine rendering of powerlessness as subjectivity, p. 44.

57 Halley, Split Decisions, p. 32.

58 R. W. Connell, Gender (Oxford: Polity Press, 2002), p. 34.

59 Daly, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’; Walby, ‘Introduction’; Hall and True, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’. See also Eveline and Bacchi, ‘What are we Mainstreaming?’ for a discussion on the concept of gender.

60 A brevity well captured in the cartoon images as well as in many introductory texts and courses on women and gender studies.

61 Halley, Split Decisions, p. 21, emphasis in original.

62 McRobbie, Aftermath, p. 55.

63 BBC Radio 4 ‘Woman's Hour’, 30 July 2008. That one woman in an important political role resists the opportunity to denounce feminism is clearly still only one woman.

65 Though I am dubious about this claim, and given the recent haemorrhaging of women from Gordon Brown's Westminster cabinet (June 2007), the idea that ‘feminists’ or indeed women ‘walk the halls of power’ is clearly contestable. See commentary from one exiting woman, Caroline Flint {} accessed on 7 June 2009.

66 Halley, Split Decisions, p. 20.

67 Hall and True, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’, p. 161.

68 Prugl, ‘Does Gender Mainstreaming Work?’, p. 174.

69 Convention on the elimination of ALL forms of discrimination against Women (1980) {} accessed on 11 June 2008.

70 Declaration on the elimination of violence against women (1993) {} accessed on 11 June 2008.

71 Carol Cohn, Helen Kinsella and Sheri Gibbings, ‘Women, Peace and Security: Resolution 1325’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 6:1 (2004), pp. 130–40; Laura Shepherd, Gender, Violence and Security (London: Zed Press, 2008).

73 Halley, Split Decisions, p. 22.

74 {} See discussion in Judith Butler, ‘The End of Sexual Difference’? in Elisabeth Bronfen and Misha Kavka (eds), Feminist Consequences: Theory for the New Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

75 The impact of ‘gender theory’ and the ensuing ‘blurring of gender roles’ has most recently been identified a concern more serious that the destruction of the rainforests by the Pope in his New Year address for 2009. See {} accessed on 6 January 2009.

76 Clare Hemmings, ‘Telling feminist stories’, Feminist Theory, 6:2 (2005), pp. 115–39.

77 That this may say something about the global hegemony of US scholarship is not insignificant.

78 Janet Halley, Prabha Kotiswaran, Hila Shamir, Chantal Thomas, ‘From the International to the Local in Feminist Legal Responses to Rape, Prostitution/Sex Work, and Sex Trafficking: Four Studies in Contemporary Governance Feminism’, Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, 29:2 (2006), pp. 335–423, p. 342.

79 See ‘Roundtable Discussion’, Millennium.

80 Halley, Split Decisions, p. 32.

81 Ibid., p. 33.

82 Ibid., p. 17.

83 See discussion in Marysia Zalewski, ‘Making Feminist Sense of International Relations’, in Laura J. Shepherd (ed.), Gender Matters in Global Politics (London: Routledge: 2009).

84 Halley, Split Decisions, p. 31.

85 Ibid., p. 287.

86 Ibid., p. 287.

88 The Gender Agenda {} p. 3.

89 I will subsequently refer to this as the Duty.

91 Bradley, Gender, p. 181.

93 Hall and True, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’.

94 See article on ‘Unequal pay leaves women £369,000 worse off’ in The Guardian (15 November 2008), {}.

95 This is an interesting example of an intriguing use of ‘gender-neutral’ language. Which of the ‘pregnant employees’ will (currently) not be female? It gestures towards a profound misunderstanding of the work of gender.

96 {} accessed on 18 August 2007.

97 {} accessed on 1 December 2008. p. 7. This is for England and Wales. See {} accessed on 1 December 2008 for information on the Scottish approach.

98 {} accessed on 1 December 2008. I will subsequently refer to this as the Agenda.

99 See pop-art images which head up this article.

100 {} accessed on 1 December 2008.

101 See, for example the UN document ‘Women 2000 and Beyond: The Role of Men and Boys in Achieving Gender Equality’, December 2008,{}. This document references academic scholarship.

102 Though the current ‘credit crunch’ and banking fiasco may portend the possibility of change.

103 Wendy Brown, ‘Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics’, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 98–115.

104 Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam Books, 1970).

105 Firestone, Dialectic, p. 1.

106 {} accessed on 4 June 2008.

107 Again, demonstrating the permeation of ‘general knowledge’ about the cultural character of gender.

108 R. W. Connell, ‘Change among the Gatekeepers: Men, Masculinities, and Gender Equality in the Global Arena, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30: 3 (2005), pp. 1801–25.

One might also consider the idea that women ‘at home’ may have children or elderly or infirm parents to care for which also makes it difficult to get to the doctor's surgery during the day (and at all times if the sole or primary carer). Yet these kinds of (gendered) obstacles may still appear to be more surmountable than those faced by men who ‘go out to work’ suggesting the public/private binary has never been successfully eroded by feminist work.

109 Hemmings, ‘Feminist Stories’.

110 Ibid.

111 The Agenda, p. 3.

112 Ibid., p. 18.

113 Ibid.

115 The Agenda, p. 9.

116 Raewyn Connell, ‘Preface: the man question, gender and global power’, in Jane L. Parpart and Marysia Zalewski (eds), Rethinking the Man Question: Sex, Gender and Violence in International Relations (London: Zed Press, 2008), pp. viii–xix, p. ix.

117 Booth and Bennett, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’, p. 442.

118 Rees, ‘Reflections’.

119 Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

120 IFJP, (2005); Shepherd, Gender, p. 169.

121 Booth and Bennett, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’.

122 Eveline and Baachi, ‘What are we Mainstreaming?’

123 Elisabeth Prugl, ‘Does Gender Mainstreaming Work? Feminist Engagements with the German Agricultural State’, 11:2 (2009), pp. 174–95.

124 Halley et al, ‘From the International to the Local’.

125 Hankivsky, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’.

126 Kenny, p. 94.

127 Hankivsky, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’.

128 Halley, Split Decisions, p. 22.

129 McRobbie, Aftermath, p. 110.

130 Ibid., p. 2.

131 Ibid., p. 155.

132 Ibid., p. 1.