Political Science

Is there a ‘feminist approach’ to the theorization of IR or are there ‘feminisms’ associated with other theoretical frameworks?

The question as to whether there exists a “feminist approach” to the theorization of international relations can be understood whether a general inclination towards IR theory exists that is consistent with feminism in general. These would be feminist theories that develop in conjunction with the particular sociological, political and philosophical concerns that triggered feminism and are now applicable to IR. However, this is a somewhat misleading interpretation, insofar as no theory develops in a vacuum. Already existing concepts within IR have informed feminism, whereby feminism then transforms the concepts of IR. Another caveat, however, needs to be added: any glance at the literature will indicate that there is no homogeneous feminism in general and no homogeneous feminism of IR. As Samuel Beckett stated, “the danger is in the neatness of identifications.” (107) Arguably, what makes feminism so compelling, both within the field of IR and in other domains, is that it challenges such a “neatness of classification”, destabilizing traditional/hierarchical modes of thought. Thus, the following essay will argue that there is a feminist approach to IR, based upon the presuppositions of IR. The feminist approach to theory is the use of theory as a critical intervention that twists and “queers” the basic assumptions of IR, allowing for the articulation of voices within these same theories that have perhaps been deliberately silenced or unintentionally overlooked.

In order to develop this thesis further, it is first of all necessary to give an account of the history of the relationship between feminism and IR. A broader history of feminism would be valuable to understanding the exact terms of this encounter, however, according to the constraints of the paper, interpretations of this moment of encounter will have to suffice. The origins of feminism’s intervention into the theory of IR occurs, according to Ticker and Sjoberg, “in the late 1980s and early 1990s” (196), according to which “early IR feminists challenged the discipline to think about how its theories might be reformulated and how its understandings of global politics might be improved if attention were paid to women’s experiences.” (Tickner & Sjoberg, 196) Two points of this early encounter become apparent. Firstly, the feminist approach took a critical stance to IR, ascertaining a conceptual lack in its general framework. This critique, however, is not negative in its intent: indeed, a specific content is supplemented by the feminist approach to the existing body of IR, and that is the standpoint of women. The initial feminist approach towards IR can be defined as an attempt to surface various exclusions present in IR itself, in particular, women. However, when these exclusions are made clear, the terrain of the debate is entirely changed, since unconscious as well as deliberate omissions necessarily re-formulate the conceptual network of IR. The feminist approach is characterized by a positive criticism of IR.

Such a positive criticism has taken on a more precise form in the literature, possibly being reduced to the following statement from V. Spike Peterson: “What do feminists mean when we claim IR is gendered?” (1) This question is a basic orientation for the feminist approach that addresses exclusion in IR: IR is gendered, it incorporates theoretical exclusions. This detection of an absence, moreover, is not a suspicion, or an undisciplined application of feminism to a given theoretical field. Rather, there are explicit omissions within IR, and in politics in general: for example, “less than 10 per cent of the world’s heads of states are women.” (Tickner & Sjoberg, 96) Such data is a problem for feminism: can IR, according to its own theoretical conventions, accurately explain such under-representation? The feminist approach, by the very necessity of its intervention into IR, states that this is an unaddressed issue, and as such uncovers a theoretical blind-spot in IR. Or, in other words, “if…theory and practice of IR have all been masquerading as gender neutral but are instead full of implicit and explicit gendering” (Zalweski, 407), the feminist approach to IR attempts to rigorously define the terms of this “masquerade”, and thereby underscore the presence of “gendering” in IR.

This seems like a broad task for the feminist approach, and does not refer to, at first glance, very specific conceptual tenets of feminism, in regards to IR. However, this broadness is not without its sharper side, i.e., what appears to be at stake in the feminist approach is the introduction of the concept of gendering into IR. “Gendering” itself can be understood as the masquerade and the gesture of masking itself in relation to the role of women in IR. While this is a fairly general description, and is not a conceptual definition of gendering itself, the feminist approach can be seen as a view to attempt to develop gendering in its particular manifestation in IR. Hence, as Ruth Pearson notes, “a fuller understanding of gender would also incorporate the gendered structure of social relations both in work and outside it – in political structures, intra-household relations and in a wide range of social interactions in which gender, is an important, if not determinant factor, in determining the relative power and autonomy of different individuals to determine outcomes.” (839-840) This definition gives a broad account of gender. However if this approach is then situated in terms of IR, its conceptual upshot becomes clearer: i.e., the understanding of power and autonomy within IR in terms of gendering, whereby the latter becomes crucial to elaborating the former. The feminist approach can be understood in terms of being based on the following implicit wager: inasmuch as power and autonomy are crucial to IR, then feminism, as addressing power in the forms of i.e., the marginalization of women, can provide an enriched account of how power functions.

In terms of how feminism approaches IR, what becomes crucial thus is precisely the epitome of power within IR: the concept of the State. In terms of IR, Peterson notes that “neither ‘neutral’ nor ‘withering’, the state looms large not only as ‘an actor in its own right’ but one that is increasingly significant for understanding social relations more generally.” (3) In regards to social relations in general, the role of the State would be a more sociological and political analysis, whereas in terms of IR, it is arguably the State that is the crucial factor, if IR largely discusses relations between states, (“(there is a) privileging states of in traditional IR” (Cullifer, 48)), and it is precisely this privileging which feminism addresses: why is the State the privileged actor of IR? Certainly, this is not to say that IR is also not constituted by non-state actors, but this traditional privileging addresses one of the blind-spots that the feminist approach may attempt to expose.

Of course, this reference to the State is crucial in terms of the extent to which the State itself can be considered to be a homogeneous entity. All feminist approaches within IR arguably attempt a critique of this homogeneity, understanding that heterogeneous exclusions are as much a part of this illusory homogeneity as anything that is intrinsic to the positively expressed notion of the State itself. V. Spike Peterson provides a valuable synopsis of three precise presuppositions and characteristics of the State within the IR literature, from which a starting-point for feminist approaches seems most appropriate. According to Peterson, “the most striking feature of this literature, consonant with realist/neorealist depictions, is simply the “autonomy” accorded the state.” (3) This is immediately suspicious from the perspective of feminism in general: from where does the apparent autonomy of the State lie? What is the presupposition within IR that views the State as the ultimate and independent actor? And what kind of necessary exclusions of other forms of autonomy are necessary so as to proclaim the autonomy of the State itself? These characteristics related to the State’s dominance are best left in the form of questions, following the inspiration of feminism itself, insofar as the latter is precisely critiquing an exclusion practiced by the State: to give a definitive answer would be excluding other possible discourses. It would be practicing an exclusion consistent with gendering. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the feminist approach is constituted by a basic ambiguity, since the autonomy of the State is clear: it is this autonomy which must be put into question.

Returning to Peterson’s synopsis, the feminist approach can be said to build upon this ambiguity by emphasizing that “although the state may act independently, we are warned not to exaggerate either its unity or coherence.” (3) Whereas, as Peterson notes, this critique of homogeneity is present in “pluralist and decision-making perspectives in IR” (3), the value of such an approach to feminism in IR is clear, if that unity or coherence is premised on a phenomenon of exclusion. Daddow thus writes: “feminists argue that IR has excluded/marginalized women empirically (by not seeing them as valid subjects for study) and theoretically (by constructing the conceptual building blocks of the discipline on concepts associated with masculinity).” (146) The distinction between the empirical and the theoretical coincide in the State: the State empirically/theoretically excludes women, since only the State is granted autonomy, unity and coherence. Furthermore, the State as powerful and autonomous is a gendered category, since those who possess power or autonomy are given a voice. The feminist approach to IR, therefore, is a general critique of power, which arguably finds its most vivid form in the centrality of the State as autonomous/unitary/coherent object within IR.

Peterson provides a third view of the State, consistent with the feminist approach as we have defined it in this essay, and that is what is termed “the Janus-faced nature of states” (3), whereby the State’s homogeneity is challenged according to the “dichotomy” (3) of its “internal dynamics and “external relations.” (3) Hence, feminist approaches endeavor to collapsing this distinction within IR. By critiquing the homogeneous unity of the State, one questions the notion that the internal does not affect the external: for example, an internal policy that is gendered, will reflect itself in an external gendered policy and vice versa, whereas this separation itself can be viewed as an act of gendering in its practice of exclusion. The feminist approach is a critique of this neat delineation of boundaries.

Certainly, there are different views of feminisms in relation to International Theory. For example, in relation to the work of, on the one hand, Harding (1986), and of that of Keohane (1989), on the other, the former is described by Wibben as “look(ing) through feminist lenses at IR” (104), whereas the latter “looks at feminist IR.” (104) This implies that the unitary of feminism in relation to IR is questionable: however, this divergence has a similar starting point, since “debates about feminism in IR continue to revolve around similar themes.” (Wibben, 104) The reason for this revolving-around similar themes is the manner in which IR is based upon a series of preconceptions, which feminist approaches, in all fields of social science, have attempted to combat, as outlined in the aforementioned characteristics of the State cited by Peterson.  It is the “gendering” at the heart of IR, above all demonstrated in the centrality of the State, which remains crucial for feminists, insofar as this gendering implies notions of exclusion and power, whereby only dominant voices are deemed relevant in IR.

To delineate something like a “feminist approach to IR” may seem like a general betrayal of feminism. For is not feminism the identification of dominant discourses and contrasting them with suppressed discourses? Does any identification of feminist approach itself betray the principles of the feminist intervention? Thus, it is more accurate to think about this intervention in terms of the theoretical omissions and presuppositions of IR. This intervention is a crucial first step upon which all feminist approaches appear to be based, in particular in relation to the State, after which subsequent alternatives can be announced. Feminism should by definition be open to allowing for heterogeneous alternatives, since its very object of critique is the negation of the latter.


Works Cited

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