Feminism in International Relations (and why it matters)

By Nile Pierce*

With the backdrop of the US presidential election, the world continues to turn, international markets, government leaders, and the global citizenry anxiously await the outcome of this dramatic debacle that will decide the fate of diplomacy, business, war, the environment, and human life. Several things are at stake and the prospects are looking arguably dim for many, no matter which political orientation one is aligned with. This report considers the topic of feminism in international relations, and attempts to answer the question of why the presence of women and women’s issues matter in domains of governance and diplomacy, and concludes with a few relevant questions about our future as radical feminists navigating a rigged system that seeks to maintain itself through our erasure and oppression.

While the world is focused on the 2016 US presidential election, the hegemonic power exercised by the United States and its transnational state-corporate allies is an important feature that often gets overlooked, lost in the subtexts and array of debates, and the American public’s fixation on things that only happen to them on a local/national level. So, broadening our scope outward then, there is the rest of the world citizenry who, despite not being able to vote in the US election, are frequently and intimately affected by the decisions made by the United States government on a daily basis. From Europe to Syria, Yemen, Honduras, Haiti, Iraq, and the United Kingdom, the world is watching the reality TV show of the 2016 US election. And this is obviously a unique election, because aside from the drama, we also have a female candidate who is running for the highest office of the land.

The presence (or more appropriately, absence) of women in the highest positions of state governmental power is an ongoing challenge for feminists all over the world. That is not to say that women are not ever elected to political office, only that the instances of this happening at the highest levels are remarkably few and very far between. Of course, there are examples within the Unites States, of women getting close to the office of the president: Madeline Albright, Condoleeza Rice, and most recently Hillary Clinton; likewise in the UK and Europe with Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, and Angela Merkel – all of whom are able to exercise considerable executive power. But for many feminists in the US, there was a bitter irony and disappointment in the 2008 Obama campaign’s choice of running under the slogan ‘CHANGE’ – after 240 years of United States history and 44 presidents at the helm in the oval office, electing another man wasn’t much of a change at all. Is it any wonder, when we consider that (white) American women weren’t legally allowed to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920; while our black sisters had to wait until 1965 to fully exercise their voting rights. The ugly truth is that women all over the world have been deliberately disenfranchised and systematically excluded from leadership positions and spaces of executive governance for as long as the existence of the modern nation-state. Prior to the French Revolution, women in the so-called ‘Western’ world had no political rights; and while there were slight gains made afterward, the Napoleonic Code of 1804 destroyed those movements, effectively relegating women back to the end of the line, again. Fast-forward in time to the ‘late 1970s and early 80s – it wasn’t until then that women or women’s issues were even considered worthy of being on the international relations agenda; [in fact], peace theorists during that time embraced the concept of structural violence but [ironically and simultaneously] also excluded women from those very discussions’ despite their experience of having been direct victims of that violence (Sylvester 2010:607; see also Stern and Wibben 2014). ‘As of January 2015, women constituted only 22% of the world’s parliaments and legislatures’ (Shea and Christian 2016:1). Now, in 2016, there is a very real chance that the United States will indeed elect its first woman to the executive office of the president. There are, depending on whom you talk to, good and bad things about this; as a result of her candidacy and the obviously misogynist idiocy of her opponent, many important women’s issues are being brought to the forefront of public awareness, which is good, and will hopefully initiate positive changes, even if Clinton doesn’t win. What is obviously worse, however, according to many people, is that Clinton – even though she is a woman – is not a true feminist because she is a ‘war hawk’, is blamed for instigating the violent regime changes in Libya, Syria, and for the murders in Honduras while acting in the capacity of Secretary of State, is not concerned enough about environmental issues such as fracking and the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP) agreement, among a variety of other things. Can a wealthy white woman be a ‘war hawk’ and a feminist too?

In order to help answer this question, we can turn our attention to two vibrant subfields within international relations and political science calling attention to women’s issues and the presence/absence of women in the power spectrum of global governance: the first is Feminist Security Studies (FSS) and the second is Feminist Political Economy (FPE) respectively. That is not to say that things are altogether theoretically harmonious in the halls of academia, however, or that these are the only two fields dealing with these important questions. Sylvester (2010) points out that within these fields there are ‘two main points of tension’: the first being the ‘concern to maintain the stance that security is a peace issue as some venture systematically into feminist war studies’; and second, the ‘tendency to issue harsh judgments [against] feminists whose views challenge the accommodation of cultural difference.’ Many contend that ‘true feminists’ are anti-war (and anti-capitalist, anti-racist, peace-loving nature enthusiasts), and that Hillary Clinton does not represent these qualities and therefore does not embody ‘true feminism’. There is some research to support such claims, making the case through empirical data that ‘women are [generally] less supportive of the use of force than men’ (Shea and Christian 2016:24); that is, women in both public and private spheres are less inclined to support going to war when presented with the possibility. However, there is also research that argues that there are instances when military intervention becomes a feminist cause and is supported by women. For example, a recent academic study (Shea and Christian 2016:1) ‘compiled a data set of [so-called] ‘humanitarian military interventions’ and women legislators from 1946 to 2003’ and found that as the number of women legislators increased in positions of government over this time period, the impact and likelihood that a state would become involved in a military intervention was higher if the crisis was a humanitarian one. The research found that there were ‘two issues of particular saliency’ for women legislators in their motivation to increase military spending: the first was ‘the prevention of sexual violence’, and the second, ‘the protection of children’. The article did not address the question of epistemology within these processes however; for instance, while women legislators may have a proclivity to vote in favor of certain humanitarian military interventions, we do not know how the ‘humanitarian crises’ were constructed for argument’s sake nor by whom. The article also seemed to take the concept of ‘humanitarian military intervention’ at face value, and did not provide a working definition for it. What is also notable is that one of the authors of this article is male, which may have affected the interpretation of the data and/or framing of the research question. The article did not examine the role of emotions in governance: is there a possibility that women legislators are being duped by their male counterparts, superiors, or other knowledge-creators in office who have vested interests in manipulating the system and are playing into women’s emotions for votes? These are questions left unanswered. The article does however acknowledge not only the need for further research on these issues but also the obvious point that ‘military interventions may have the opposite effect, hurting more women and children [in the process of war], rather than saving women and children (Peksen 2011)’. So it goes in the halls of academia; endless theories are one thing, whereas reality on the ground for real human lives is something else entirely, and ever distant.

Why do women and women’s issues matter in foreign policy?

Nevertheless, women and women’s issues should be at the forefront of both domestic and foreign policy due to the ‘crucial asymmetries of power’ (Allison 2012:684) that exist in the world, particularly at the levels of government, international trade, and security. Women and women’s issues matter in foreign policy and security studies because we make up over half of the world’s entire human population. Society literally wouldn’t exist without us. This goes without saying, but unfortunately, in a culture that devalues women and girls at every level, it still needs to be said. While it is encouraging that women are beginning to have a voice in both academia and the halls of power around the issues of interstate diplomacy and security studies, we would be remiss to go without acknowledging that these little victories have been incremental and slow, or that the dominant arguments are still very much reflective of and embedded within patriarchal conceptual frameworks and knowledge foundations – which is obviously a problem. Women are still regarded as an underclass in societies all over the world; our voice, our choices, and our rights as human beings continue to remain marginalized and deliberately shut-out of certain discourses that threaten the long-standing rule of men.

A brief glance at the Wikipedia list of Feminist Political Parties shows that while there are a few parties around the world today, very few, if any, have representation in levels of governance above local councils and civil administration. Why are there no feminist political parties that actively campaign for the highest offices of our land? This is obviously a rhetorical question, but the point is made: there are virtually no feminist female candidates representing feminist political principles successfully campaigning and winning seats in the highest offices of government – anywhere. This is not an exaggeration. This is a fact. The answer is obvious though. Consider the recent article in the UK’s Telegraph titled: ‘How Do You Get More Women into Politics? Ask an All-Male Panel’ (Lytton 2016). The article is important as it calls out the exclusionary practices of white male Parliamentarians on the right AND the left. Most panels are made up of men. The exclusion of women from spaces of governmental power is perpetuated by those men that are often portrayed as ‘progressive’; however, when you consider the fact that the pornography industry is used by most males throughout all levels of the social hierarchy in every corner of the world, no matter what their political orientation, it’s easier to understand why the multivariate oppression of women does not change. With women in power, men’s daily oppression of women might be threatened. God forbid a feminist politician versed in Andrea Dworkin win the presidency – all hell might break loose! There would be no porn! Their entitlement to our bodies might be taken away! Crimes against women and children would actually be punished – heavily, as they deserve to be. Misogynist criminal ‘justice’ systems would be dismantled. Paedophiles would be done away with. Public bathrooms would be safe. In short, we would demand that they respect us, that they listen to us, that they include us, that they shut their mouths when we are talking, that they not interfere when we make decisions. But. That is not where we are.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this election is not the current environment of supercharged woman-hating (in fact, some might say it’s not supercharged at all but rather more visible), but the narrative being advanced by most mainstream media: that the importance and focus of the moment is (or should ideally be) on the possibility of the US electing a female president – NOT on women’s total liberation. In this environment it’s perplexing then when Hillary Clinton is touted by her campaign managers as a ‘champion’ of women; many radical feminists couldn’t disagree more. Her foreign and economic policy, her complete silence on male violence against women, her history of supporting mass incarceration and extreme racial profiling, defending child rapists in court, and her support for the trans lobby, raise many questions and concerns for radical feminists. In fact, her positions are all in line with white neoliberal capitalist patriarchy. Can a white wealthy woman be a war hawk and a feminist at the same time? Can a woman whose policies suffocate already struggling working class women and children be a ‘champion’ of women and children? Some of us have our doubts. Some of us are more sure of supporting her. In either case, one thing is clear: WE NEED OUR OWN MOVEMENT AND WE NEED IT YESTERDAY. WE NEED IT NOW AND BEYOND TWITTER AND TUMBLR. WE NEED LEADERS AND DIRECT ACTION IN EVERY CORNER OF THE WORLD. WE NEED OUR OWN SYSTEM. FAILING ALL OF THAT, WE, AT THE VERY LEAST, NEED OUR OWN PARTY. Because the way things are looking now is grim. I for one am not satisfied with the slow snail’s pace of our own liberation. Are you?


Allison, K. (2012) American Occidentalism and the Agential Muslim Woman. Review of International Studies, 39: 665-684.

Lytton, C. (2016) How do you get more women into politics? Ask an all-male panel – and Jeremy Corbyn. Seriously. The Telegraph. Accessed 13 October 2016.

Shea, P.E. and Christian, C. (2016) The Impact of Women Legislators on Humanitarian Military Interventions. Journal of Conflict Resolution, pp. 1-31. DOI: 10.1177/0022002716631105.

Stern, M. and Wibben, A. T.R. (Eds.) (2014) A Decade of Feminist Security Studies Revisited. Security Dialogue.

Sylvester, C. (2010) Tensions in Feminist Security Studies. Security Dialogue, 41(6): 607-614.

*This post was the feature report in our special 7th edition focusing on the US presidential election and feminism in politics. If you would like to listen to the entire podcast, you can find it here.


One response to “Feminism in International Relations (and why it matters)

  1. I suggest you read Sonia Johnson. And learn about politics and the deep state. Feminism is SO KEY, it is the reason for why the world is how it is mired in the rule of infant males… you must understand how the intell agencies and the deep state works. You’re not getting it here. Why bother with this crap? Why bother infiltrating the system? Useless. Women only become criminals by joining patriarchy.


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