Feminism Meets International Relations

  • Citation: Thorburn, D. (2000). Feminism Meets International Relations. SAIS Review, 20(2), 1-10. doi:10.1353/sais.2000.0051
    • Topics:
    • IR Theories
    • Keywords:
    • gender
    • feminist international relations
    • political economy

SAIS Review 20.2 (2000) 1-10 The cover of a recent introductory text on gender and international relations features a photograph of a woman striking a decidedly confident pose as speaker on a platform, surrounded by other women, and juxtaposed against a battalion of heavily-armed male soldiers in fatigues. The significance of this description is not only that it conveys an overly simplified and literal image of gender (with the picture of women) and international relations (armed soldiers), but that this image graces the cover of an introductory text focused solely on gender and international relations. The inclusion of gender and international relations not only in but also as mainstream texts can be considered a mark of the extent to which this sub-field has become a part of mainstream discourse. Another mark of the arrival of feminism to international politics is the abundance of articles in mainstream international relations journals, such as Foreign Affairs, International Organization, and indeed in this journal, SAIS Review. At the same time, monographs and edited volumes have proliferated in the past twelve to thirteen years since the publication in 1988 of what is considered to be the first volume in the field. The International Studies Association has a section on Feminist Theory and Gender Studies and its 2000 Annual Congress featured panels focusing specifically on gender and international relations and on other topics that were presented from a feminist perspective, such as the role of the internet in international relations. In just over a decade, gender and international relations, or, as it is also called, feminist international relations, has situated itself in the discipline of international relations at many different levels: from reassessing mainstream theoretical approaches to international relations, to advocating alternative perspectives and conceptuali-zations of international relations, to inserting women into the international relations discourse. Given the recent exponential growth in the theories of feminist international relations, and what appears to be increased interest in the field, one might venture to say that it is in the process of becoming fully established as an accepted and legitimate sub-field of international relations throughout the academy. The term gender, as defined within contemporary discourse, refers to the complex social construction of men’s and women’s identities. One’s gender reflects not simply or necessarily even one’s biological characteristics, but rather culturally specific notions of men’s and women’s behaviors, particularly in relation to each other. Fundamental in the discourse on gender is the notion of power and the power dynamics between genders. A feminist approach, then, aims to reveal the gendered dimensions of theories, structures, and actions; in the context of international relations, this amounts to an epistemological approach of interrogating international relations theory and, in so doing, placing and/or bringing to light women’s and gender issues in foreign policy and in the broader international arena. As Marysia Zalewski put it quite simply, this approach asks two main questions: “What work is gender doing?” and “Where are the women?” The ultimate result — or at least the objective — is to bring to the study and practice of international relations a more critical and grounded understanding of the world and the way it works, as well and particularly to better understand the gender dynamics that create inequities of power between men and women. The emergence of a feminist approach in the field of international relations can be traced to different sources. First is the international feminist movement of the early 1970s, both in the academy and in the field of women and development as marked by the first United Nations Conference on Women in 1975 and the UN Decade for Women 1975-85. The emergence and growth of the Women in Development movement (WID), which has evolved into the Gender and Development movement (GAD), initiated a process of academic and policy research that, by the end of the Decade, led to the understanding that women’s lives cannot be understood apart from a gender approach that looks at the power relationships between men and women.

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