Skip to main content Accessibility help

Does ‘gender’ make the world go round? Feminist critiques of international relations*

  • Adam Jones

In the last two decades, the classical tradition in international relations has come under sustained attack on a number of fronts, and from a diverse range of critics. Most recently, feminist thinkers, following in the footsteps of neo-Marxists and critical theorists, have denounced IR as ‘one of the most gender-blind, indeed crudely patriarchal, of all the institutionalized forms of contemporary social and political analysis’. Feminists have sought to subvert some of the most basic elements of the classical paradigm: the assumption of the state as a given; conceptions of power and ‘international security’; and the model of a rational human individual standing apart from the realm of lived experience, manipulating it to maximize his own self-interest. Denouncing standard epistemological assumptions and theoretical approaches as inherently ‘masculinist’, feminists, particularly those from the radical band of the spectrum, have advanced an alternative vision of international relations: one that redefines power as ‘mutual enablement’ rather than domination, and offers normative values of cooperation, care giving, and compromise in place of patriarchal norms of competition, exploitation, and self-aggrandizement.

Hide All

1 I follow Holsti's use of the term ‘classical tradition’ to refer to the broad Realist and neo-Realist paradigm: Holsti, , The Dividing Discipline: Hegemony and Diversity in International Theory (Winchester, MA, 1987).

2 Walker, R. B. J., ‘Gender and Critique in the Theory of International Relations’, in Peterson, V. Spike (ed.), Gendered States: Feminist (Re) Visions of International Relations Theory (Boulder, CO, & London, 1992), p. 179.

3 Ibid., p. 196.

4 I use the term ‘post-positivist’ to encompass a wide variety of theories that have in common an emphasis on the social construction of knowledge, history, gender. By these lights, ‘all knowledge is socially constructed and is grounded in the time, place, and social context of the investigator’, as Tickner, J. Ann, writes in Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security (New York, 1992), p. 21.

5 Peterson, V. Spike, ‘Introduction’, in Peterson, (ed.), Gendered States, p. 9.

6 Hence the quotation marks around ‘gender’ in the title of this essay, which is drawn from the heading to ch. 1 of Enloe, Cynthia, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (London, 1989). On a personal note, readers of an earlier version of this article faulted me for failing to situate myself properly in the discussion. Let me first situate myself as someone who does not fully share the current obsession with self-situation. I am disturbed by assertions that one can look little further than the tip of one's gender, race, class, or sexual orientation and, indeed, that it is politically suspect and invasive to seek to do so. Beyond this, I have found that the demand to divulge ‘where I’m coming from’ in analyzing feminist critiques often amounts to a test of loyalty-by-group-affiliation. This holds little appeal for someone who belongs to most of the ‘wrong’ groups (male, white, Western, etc.). It also goes against the grain of my left-individualist political leanings. Philosophically, if I am suspicious of perceived excesses in ‘relational’ thinking, my lifelong affection for social anarchism (of the Giovanni Baldelli variety) does render me susceptible to the charms of post-positivist playfulness, insolence, and rebelliousness.

7 Sapiro, Virginia, ‘Gender Politics, Gendered Politics: The State of the Field’, in Crotty, William (ed.), Political Science: Looking to the Future, vol.1: The Theory ami Practice of Political Science (Evanston, IL, 1991), p. 166.

8 Ruddick, Sara, Maternal Thinking: Toward A Politics of Peace (Boston, MA, 1989), p. 235.

9 Walker, , ‘Gender and Critique’, p. 192.

10 Tickner, , Gender in International Relations, pp. 4, 17.

11 Peterson, , ‘Introduction’, p. 7.

12 In this vein, see Peterson, V. Spike, ‘Transgressing Boundaries: Theories of Knowledge, Gender and International Relations’, Millennium, 21:2 (1992). ‘What critiques of positivism require is a shift from oppositional to relational thinking. This insight is obscured by binary logic that precludes the possibility of understanding a critique of “A” as entailing anything other than “not-A.” … [In fact], contrasting but non-oppositional terms may be related along multiple dimensions and their non-binary structure permits more than two possibilities’, p. 188.

13 By ‘normative engagement’ I mean Realism's traditional concern with the problem of peace and war.

14 Tickner, , Gender in International Relations, p. 42.

15 Ibid.

16 MacKinnon, Catharine A., Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, MA, 1989), p. 163. Note the strong echoes of post-positivist feminism's rejection of empiricism/objectivity, given a feminist tinge through definition of ‘this epistemological stance’ as male at its roots. Radical feminism and post-positivist feminism regularly overlap in this manner.

17 Ibid., p. 170.

18 See, e.g., Harrington, Mona, ‘What Exactly Is Wrong with the Liberal State as an Agent of Change?’, in Peterson, (ed.), Gendered States.

19 Peterson, V. Spike and Runyan, Anne Sisson, Global Gender Issues (Boulder, CO, 1993), p. 32.

20 A good example is Enloe's Bananas, Beaches and Bases.

21 Tickner, , Gender in Internationa! Relations, p. 91.

22 Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Women and War (New York, 1987), p. 91.

23 Peterson, , ‘Introduction’, p. 14.

24 ‘Structural violence’ is defined by Tickner as ‘the economic insecurity of individuals whose life expectancy was reduced, not by the direct violence of war but by domestic and international structures of political and economic oppression’. Tickner, , Gender in International Relations, p. 69.

25 Peterson, V. Spike, ‘Security and Sovereign States: What is at Stake in Taking Feminism Seriously?’, in Peterson, (ed.), Gendered States, pp. 3164.

26 Ibid., p. 32.

27 Tickner, , Gender in International Relations, p. 23.

28 Enloe, , Bananas, Beaches and Bases, pp. 197–8.

29 Ibid., p. 194.

30 Runyan, Anne Sisson and Peterson, V. Spike, ‘The Radical Future of Realism: Feminist Subversions of IR Theory’, Alternatives, 16:1 (1991), p. 85, paraphrasing Wilmette Brown.

31 Tickner, , Gender in International Relations, p. 65, citing the work of David McClelland.

32 Tong, Rosemarie, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction (Boulder, CO, & San Francisco, 1989), p. 101. See also Peterson, and Runyan, , Global Gender Issues, pp. 7980. It could be argued, of course, that a similar emphasis on ‘enabling’ rather than ‘dominating’ power strategies is a hallmark of institutional liberals like Keohane, Robert O. and Nye, Joseph S., See their Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition (Boston, MA, 1977).

33 Ann Tickner, J., ‘Hans Morgenthau's Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation’, Millennium 17:3 (1988), p. 431. Tickner's piece and other articles from this special issue of Millennium were subsequently published in book form: Grant, Rebecca and Newland, Kathleen (eds.), Gender and International Relations (Buckingham, 1991). They first came to my attention as journal articles, however, and I have referenced them accordingly.

34 Ibid., pp. 437 (emphasis added), 438.

35 Ferguson, , quoted in Sylvester, Feminist Theory, p. 3.

36 Enloe, , Bananas, Beaches and Bases, p. 98.

37 Ibid., p. 123.

38 Ibid., p. 114.

39 Sylvester, , Feminist Theory, p. 134; see also Keohane, Robert, ‘International Relations Theory: Contributions of a Feminist Standpoint’, Millennium, 18:2 (1989), pp. 245–54.

40 Sylvester, , Feminist Theory, p. 121.

41 Ibid., pp. 167, 209. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘marginal’ land as ‘difficult to cultivate and yielding little profit’.

42 Burguieres, Mary K., ‘Feminist Approaches to Peace: Another Step for Peace Studies’, Millennium, 19:1 (1990), p. 1.

43 Caldicott, Helen, Missile Envy: The Arms Race and Nuclear War (New York, 1985), especially the penultimate chapter, ‘Etiology: Missile Envy and Other Psychopathology’. On the link between masculinism and nuclear militarism, see also Cohn, Carol, ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals’, Signs, 12:4 (1987).

44 Both passages cited in Elshtain, Women and War, pp. 147–8 (emphasis added). On the link between masculinism and militarism, see also Diana Russell's, E. H. revealingly titled article, ‘The Nuclear Mentality: An Outgrowth of the Masculine Mentality’, Atlantis, 12:2 (Spring 1987). She writes (at p. 15): ‘the very real threat to everyone's survival posed by nuclear war is not what makes it a feminist issue. Nuclear war is a feminist issue because the threat of nuclear obliteration is a consequence of the distorted values, psyches, and institutions that sexist arrangements have bred … We must face the fact that at this point in history the nuclear mentality and the masculine mentality are one and the same. To rid ourselves of one, we must rid ourselves of the other.’

45 Elshtain, , Women and War, p. 164.

46 Ibid., p. 140.

47 Ibid., pp. 111–16.

48 Elshtain, Jean Bethke, ‘Sovereignty, Identity, Sacrifice’, in , Peterson (ed.), Gendered States, p. 145.

49 Elshtain, , Women and War, p. 145.

50 Burguieres, , ‘Feminist Approaches’, p. 15.

51 Ibid., p. 14.

52 Ibid., p. 8. One of the most sophisticated and extensive treatments of this theme is Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking (see n.8 above). Ruddick joins Elshtain in believing that ‘War is exciting; women, like men, are prey to the excitements of violence and community sacrifice it promises’ (p. 154). In a powerful passage, she writes: ‘A pure maternal peacefulness does not exist; what does exist is far more complicated: a deep unease with military endeavors not easily disentangled from patriotic and maternal impulses to applaud, connect, and heal; a history of caring labor interwoven with the romance of violence and the parochial self-righteousness on which militarism depends’ (p. 156). The link between ‘mothering’ and peace that she seeks to establish is contingent upon a non-gender-exclusive definition of the initial term in the equation (p. 40). This nimble move perhaps does not fully answer the most common concern of her critics, which she addresses at p. 43.

53 Grant, Rebecca, ‘The Quagmire of Gender and International Security’, in Peterson, (ed.), Gendered States, p. 84. Emphasis in original. Enloe, Cynthia also points out that ‘feminists start from the conditions of women's lives’, in The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War (Berkeley, CA, 1993), p. 65.

54 Peterson, and Runyan, , Global Gender Issues, pp. 13, 21.

55 Enloe, , Bananas, Beaches and Bases, p. 13.

56 Ibid., p. 200.

57 Ibid., p. 137.

58 Ibid., p. 169.

59 In Canada between 1972 and 1981, men accounted for 97.4 per cent of deaths on the job (at a time when women constituted over 40 per cent of the full-time workforce); and men suffer nearly four times as many ‘time-loss injuries’ as women. See Employment Injuries and Occupational Illnesses 1972–1981 (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1984), p. 10; Statistics Canada, Work Injuries 1986–1988, p. 13.

60 Tetrault in Peterson, (ed.), Gendered States, p. 108. Peterson and Runyan likewise note that, as a result of the migration of US transnational corporations to maquiladora zones in Mexico, ‘Between 1979 and 1983, 35 percent of the workers who lost their jobs because of plant closings in the United States were women’ (Global Gender Issues, p. 101). This means that 65 per cent, a substantial majority, were men, but this fact is present only by implication. It is never explored, nor offered as grounds for normative concern or protest. Elsewhere Peterson and Runyan point a finger at ‘men … [who] are flooding into the informal economy, usurping some of the income generating activities women, particularly as heads of households, have traditionally turned to in an effort to feed themselves and their children’ (p. 104). Would the authors view the massive movement worldwide in the other direction—that is, women moving into traditionally male-dominated occupational spheres—as a cause for worry, a ‘usurping’ of ‘the income generating activities [men], particularly as heads of households, have traditionally turned to’?

61 Tickner, , Gender in International Relations, p. 43.

62 Ibid., p. 53.

63 Ibid., p. 56.

64 Sylvester, , Feminist Theory and International Relations, p. 179. Emphasis added.

65 Likewise, despite her postmodernist commitments, Sylvester readily draws upon highly mechanistic and rationalist—‘masculinist’?—images and metaphors. Hence her references to ‘tools of selfevaluation’; ‘Our toolboxes of knowledge at our sides, we keep up the effort to unravel the fences…’ Feminist Theory and International Relations, pp. 65, 168.

66 Sylvester's attempt to set masculine privilege against feminine underprivilege similarly leads her into a glaring logical fallacy: ‘[Alexander] George neglects to tell us that the decision maker is assumed unproblematically to be and, in fact, usually is a “man,” which means that “non-decision-makers” are unproblematically “not-men”’ (Feminist Theory and International Relations, p. 118, emphasis added). Of course, it means nothing of the sort, but it neatly elides the fact that most ‘men’ are not ‘decisionmakers’.

67 Ibid., p. 119.

68 Peterson, and Runyan, , Global Gender Issues, p. 151, emphasis added.

69 Enloe, , Morning After, p. 65.

70 New York Times, 22 October 1990, p. A10. Dilip Hiro also notes, again without apparent irony, that ’It was only after Saddam Hussein had … extended the [hostage] exemption to all women and children among the Western and Japanese hostages … that the malign consequences of Iraq's action were considerably reduced.’ Hiro, , Desert Shield to Desert Storm: The Second Gulf War (Hammersmith, 1992), p. 158. Most of the male hostages were held for another three months, until Saddam's decision on 6 December 1990 to release them.

71 Burki, Shahid Javed, ‘International Migration: Implications for Labor Exporting Countries’, The Middle East Journal, 38:4 (Autumn 1984), p. 668. The overall refugee figures are drawn from Miller, Judith, ‘Legacy of a Crisis: 5 Million Refugees’, The Gazette (Montreal) (from New York Times), 6 July 1991, p. B6. The examples I cite are those apparently related to migrant labour patterns, where one can expect an uneven gendering of refugee flow; the Kurdish influx to Turkey and Iran, on the other hand, would likely be differently gendered. Gender patterning among migrant communities also shifts according to whether or not dependants join the worker in the field, but one study found that Jordanian migrant workers, for example, were ‘male (over 95 per cent)’ as of 1984. Keely, Charles B. and Saket, Bassam, ‘Jordanian Migrant Workers in the Arab Region: A Case Study of Consequences for Labor Supplying Countries’, The Middle East Journal, 38:4 (Autumn 1984), p. 689.

72 In fairness, a fuller exploration of the larger issue of refugees would have to acknowledge that ‘the majority of all refugees worldwide—not just labour refugees—are women. Interestingly, the majority of all refugee-claimants worldwide are men. Men are more likely to come forward with refugee claims because they can more regularly “demonstrate” persecution; that is, the types of persecution men face are easier to document within a legal discourse … This is not to suggest that the persecutions faced by male refugee-claimants are in any way trivial or unimportant, but rather that it is equally important that legal systems often do not recognize, are unable to “see,” the particular persecutions faced by women.’ I am grateful for these comments by a reader of an earlier version of this article.

73 ‘Iraqis Slaughter Hundreds of Shiites at Camp, Exiles Say’, Associated Press dispatch in The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 22 February 1994. The campaign against the southern Shias was, of course, only the continuation of a long-standing campaign, the most brutal manifestations of which came in the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi eviction from Kuwait: ‘Those [Shia civilians] who remained in the south were at the mercy of advancing government troops, who went through neighborhoods, summarily executing hundreds of young men and rounding up thousands of others.’ Middle East Watch, Endless Torment: The 1991 Uprising in Iraq and Its Aftermath (New York, June 1992), pp. 31–2. The brutal suppression of rebellious Iraqi Kurds in 1988 similarly contained a blatant gender dimension. Middle East Watch reported instances of ‘men and boys among the captured villagers [who] were executed on the spot … Virtually all of the remaining men and older boys disappeared at the hands of security agents; the whereabouts of many tens of thousands of Kurdish males who disappeared in the hands of Iraqi government forces is unknown’, though the organization believes that ‘most, if not all, those who disappeared … were murdered by Iraqi security forces’. Middle East Watch/Physicians for Human Rights, The Anfal Campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan: The Destruction of Koreme (New York, Jan. 1993).

74 ‘Colombia violenta: 75 muertes diarias [Violent Colombia: 75 Deaths Daily]’, El Pais (Cali), 18 July 1994. The World Health Organization apparently utilizes older figures which place Colombia further down the list, but which also explore the gendering of suicide. ‘Men in St. Lucia had the highest homicide rate worldwide, with 22.6 men killed for every 100,000 on the Caribbean island. Ecuador and Puerto Rico followed, with 21.8 men killed per 100,000. For women, the highest homicide rate was in the Seychelles islands, with 5.5 women slain per 100,000. Worldwide, the highest suicide rates were in Hungary, where men committed suicide at the rate of 48.4 per 100,000 and women at a rate of 14.6.’ WHO statistics quoted in ‘Injury Main Cause of Death among Young, Report Says’, Associated Press dispatch in The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 7 April 1993, p. A7.

75 On the decline in male life expectancy, see York, Geoffrey, ‘Health Crisis Growing in Russia’, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 1 September 1994, p. A1. ‘A typical Russian man now can expect to die at 59, more than a decade earlier than men in Western countries. Just two years ago, male life expectancy was 62. The latest decline has plunged life expectancy in Russia to levels comparable to those in India and Egypt.’ Enloe's Morning After ably examines the Eastern European transformations in chs. 1 and 8, but men remain peripheral to the analysis. Hence, the Soviet army, guilty of staggering abuses against male conscript troops, is described as ‘an inhumane machine devouring the sons of mothers' (p. 13, emphasis added). It is the concerns and actions of the mothers that are the focus in this analysis of ‘sexual politics at the end of the Cold War’.

76 Vilas, Carlos M., The Sandinista Revolution: National Liberation and Social Transformation in Central America (New York, 1986), p. 108. The survey was conducted to determine state compensation for victims' families.

77 Navarro, Marysa, ‘The Personal Is Political’, in Eckstein, Susan (ed.), Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements (Berkeley, CA, & Los Angeles, 1989), pp. 245–6.

78 Dermota, Ken, ‘Workers Caught in Clutches of Fatal Conflict’, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 21 September 1995. Emphasis added.

79 In the USA, up to 80 per cent of the homeless are males, mostly single men. This pattern might well be evident in other societies, particularly given the tendency to view males as more able to take care of themselves and thus more prone to be cast onto the street when family resources are scarce or nonexistent. Peter Marin, ‘Why Are the Homeless Mainly Single Men?’, The Nation, 8 July 1991.

80 Apart from this quoted statement in Feminist Theory and International Relations (p. 214), Sylvester's only concession to the real-life phenomenon is a reference (p. 61) to ‘the very real and painful condition of bag-lady homelessness, so common in the world‘s urban centers’ (emphasis added); she provides a footnote directing readers to ‘a discussion of how “women” become homeless in this way and how bag-ladies are perceived by others’ (p. 231, n.12).

81 The most prominent feminist legal theorist is MacKinnon, Catharine; see her Towards A Feminist Theory of the State, esp. chs. 12–13. On sexual assault in prisons, see Stephen Donaldson, ‘The Rape Crisis Behind Bars’, New York Times, 29 December 1993, p. A13. Donaldson, who was gang-raped in prison in 1973, notes that ‘The catastrophic experience of sexual violence usually extends beyond a single incident, often becoming a daily assault. Psychologists and rape counselors believe that the pent-up rage caused by these assaults can cause victims, especially if they don't receive psychological treatment, to erupt in violence once they return to their communities. Some will become rapists, seeking to “regain their manhood” through the same violent means by which they believe it was lost.’ Donaldson makes ‘a conservative estimate’ of 290,000 males ‘sexually assaulted behind bars every year [in the United States]. By comparison, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that there are 135,000 rapes of women a year nationwide, though many groups believe the number is higher.’

82 Jones, Adam, ‘Gender and Ethnic Conflict in ex-Yugoslavia’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 17:1 (1994), pp. 115–34. This article devotes extended attention to the gender-specific and gender-selective war experiences of women and men alike, including the mass rapes of Bosnian and Croatian women.

83 Kishwar, Madhu, ‘Delhi: Gangster Rule’, in Singh, Patwant and Malik, Harji (eds.), Punjab: The Fatal Miscalculation (New Delhi, 1985), pp. 171–8. My thanks to Hamish Telford for bringing this source to my attention.

* The author is grateful to Kal Holsti for his encouragement and many insights.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
  • EISSN: 1469-9044
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-international-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed