Feminism and Security by J. Ann Tickner

J. Ann Tickner – Feminism and Security

Source: Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security (NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1992), pp. 1–25.

Engendered insecurities: Feminist perspectives on international relations

Too often the great decisions are originated and given form in bodies made up wholly of men, or so completely dominated by them that what- ever of special value women have to offer is shunted aside without expression.

Eleanor Roosevelt : Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.

Simone De Beauvoir, As Eleanor Roosevelt and countless others have observed, international politics is a man’s world. It is a world inhabited by diplomats, soldiers, and international civil servants, most of whom are men. Apart from the occasional head of state, there is little evidence to suggest that women have played much of a role in shaping foreign policy in any country in the twentieth century. In the United States in 1987, women constituted less than 5 percent of the senior Foreign Service ranks, and in the same year, less than 4 percent of the executive positions in the Department of Defense were held by women.1 Although it is true that women are underrepre- sented in all top-level government positions in the United States and elsewhere, they encounter additional difficulties in positions having to do with international politics. […]

[…] [There is] the belief, widely held in the United States and throughout the world by both men and women, that military and foreign policy are arenas of policy- making least appropriate for women. Strength, power, autonomy, independence, and rationality, all typically associated with men and masculinity, are characteristics we most value in those to whom we entrust the conduct of our foreign policy and the defense of our national interest.Those women in the peace movements, whom femi- nist critics […] cited as evidence for women’s involvement in international affairs, are frequently branded as naive, weak, and even unpatriotic. When we think about the definition of a patriot, we generally think of a man, often a soldier who defends his homeland, most especially his women and children, from dangerous outsiders. […] [E]ven women who have experience in foreign policy issues are perceived as being too emotional and too weak for the tough life-and-death decisions required for the nation’s defense.Weakness is always considered a danger when issues of national secu- rity are at stake: the president’s dual role as commander in chief reinforces our belief that qualities we associate with “manliness” are of utmost importance in the selection of our presidents.

The few women who do make it into the foreign policy establishment often suffer from this negative perception […]. The[ir] experiences […] are examples of the dif- ficulties that women face when they try to enter the élite world of foreign policy decision-making. […] I believe that these gender-related difficulties are symptomatic of a much deeper issue that I do wish to address: the extent to which international politics is such a thoroughly masculinized sphere of activity that women’s voices are considered inauthentic. […] By analyzing some of the writings of those who have tried to describe, explain, and prescribe for the behavior of states in the international system, we can begin to understand some of the deeper reasons for women’s perva- sive exclusion from foreign policy-making – for it is in the way that we are taught to think about international politics that the attitudes I have described are shaped.

With its focus on the “high” politics of war and Realpolitik, the traditionalWestern academic discipline of international relations privileges issues that grow out of men’s experiences; we are socialized into believing that war and power politics are spheres of activity with which men have a special affinity and that their voices in describing and prescribing for this world are therefore likely to be more authentic. The roles traditionally ascribed to women – in reproduction, in households, and even in the economy – are generally considered irrelevant to the traditional construction of the field. Ignoring women’s experiences contributes not only to their exclusion but also to a process of self-selection that results in an overwhelmingly male population both in the foreign policy world and in the academic field of international relations. This selection process begins with the way we are taught to think about world politics; if women’s experiences were to be included, a radical redefinition of the field would have to take place. […]

Gender in international relations

[…] [T]he marginalization of women in the arena of foreign policy-making through the kind of gender stereotyping that I have described suggests that international poli- tics has always been a gendered activity in the modern state system. Since foreign and military policy-making has been largely conducted by men, the discipline that analyzes these activities is bound to be primarily about men and masculinity. […] Any attempt to introduce a more explicitly gendered analysis into the field must therefore begin with a discussion of masculinity.

Masculinity and politics have a long and close association. Characteristics associ- ated with “manliness,” such as toughness, courage, power, independence, and even physical strength, have, throughout history, been those most valued in the conduct of politics, particularly international politics. Frequently, manliness has also been associ- ated with violence and the use of force, a type of behavior, that, when conducted in the international arena, has been valorized and applauded in the name of defending one’s country. […]

[…] Socially constructed gender differences are based on socially sanctioned, unequal relationships between men and women that reinforce compliance with men’s stated superiority. Nowhere in the public realm are these stereotypical gender images more apparent than in the realm of international politics, where the characteristics associated with hegemonic masculinity are projected onto the behavior of states whose success as international actors is measured in terms of their power capabilities and capacity for self-help and autonomy. […]

[…] Historically, differences between men and women have usually been ascribed to biology. But when feminists use the term gender today, they are not generally refer- ring to biological differences between males and females, but to a set of culturally shaped and defined characteristics associated with masculinity and femininity. These characteristics can and do vary across time and place. In this view, biology may con- strain behavior, but it should not be used “deterministically” or “naturally” to justify practices, institutions, or choices that could be other than they are.While what it means to be a man or a woman varies across cultures and history, in most cultures gender dif- ferences signify relationships of inequality and the domination of women by men. […] [Joan] Scott claims that the way in which our understanding of gender signifies relationships of power is through a set of normative concepts that set forth interpreta- tions of the meanings of symbols. In Western culture, these concepts take the form of fixed binary oppositions that categorically assert the meaning of masculine and femi- nine and hence legitimize a set of unequal social relationships.2 Scott and many other contemporary feminists assert that, through our use of language, we come to per- ceive the world through these binary oppositions. Our Western understanding of gender is based on a set of culturally determined binary distinctions, such as public versus private, objective versus subjective, self versus other, reason versus emotion, autonomy versus relatedness, and culture versus nature; the first of each pair of char- acteristics is typically associated with masculinity, the second with femininity.3 Scott claims that the hierarchical construction of these distinctions can take on a fixed and permanent quality that perpetuates women’s oppression: therefore they must be challenged.To do so we must analyze the way these binary oppositions operate in dif- ferent contexts and, rather than accepting them as fixed, seek to displace their hierar- chical construction.4 When many of these differences between women and men are no longer assumed to be natural or fixed, we can examine how relations of gender inequality are constructed and sustained in various arenas of public and private life. In committing itself to gender as a category of analysis, contemporary feminism also commits itself to gender equality as a social goal.

Extending Scott’s challenge to the field of international relations, we can immediately detect a similar set of hierarchical binary oppositions. But in spite of the seemingly obvious association of international politics with the masculine character- istics described above, the field of international relations is one of the last of the social sciences to be touched by gender analysis and feminist perspectives.5 The reason for this, I believe, is not that the field is gender neutral, meaning that the introduction of gender is irrelevant to its subject matter as many scholars believe, but that it is so thoroughly masculinized that the workings of these hierarchical gender relations are hidden.

Framed in its own set of binary distinctions, the discipline of international rela- tions assumes similarly hierarchical relationships when it posits an anarchic world “outside” to be defended against through the accumulation and rational use of power. In political discourse, this becomes translated into stereotypical notions about those who inhabit the outside. Like women, foreigners are frequently portrayed as “the other”: nonwhites and tropical countries are often depicted as irrational, emotional, and unstable, characteristics that are also attributed to women. The construction of this discourse and the way in which we are taught to think about international politics closely parallel the way in which we are socialized into understanding gender differ- ences.To ignore these hierarchical constructions and their relevance to power is there- fore to risk perpetuating these relationships of domination and subordination. […]

Contemporary feminist theories

Just as there are multiple approaches within the discipline of international relations, there are also multiple approaches in contemporary feminist theory that come out of various disciplinary traditions and paradigms. While it is obvious that not all women are feminists, feminist theories are constructed out of the experiences of women in their many and varied circumstances, experiences that have generally been rendered invisible by most intellectual disciplines.

Most contemporary feminist perspectives define themselves in terms of reacting to traditional liberal feminism that, since its classic formulation in the works of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, has sought to draw attention to and eliminate the legal restraints barring women’s access to full participation in the public world.6 Most contemporary feminist scholars, other than liberals, claim that the sources of dis- crimination against women run much deeper than legal restraints: they are enmeshed in the economic, cultural, and social structures of society and thus do not end when legal restraints are removed. Almost all feminist perspectives have been motivated by the common goal of attempting to describe and explain the sources of gender inequal- ity, and hence women’s oppression, and to seek strategies to end them.

Feminists claim that women are oppressed in a multiplicity of ways that depend on culture, class, and race as well as on gender. Rosemary Tong suggests that we can categorize various contemporary feminist theories according to the ways in which they view the causes of women’s oppression. While Marxist feminists believe that capitalism is the source of women’s oppression, radical feminists claim that women are oppressed by the system of patriarchy that has existed under almost all modes of production. Patriarchy is institutionalized through legal and economic, as well as social and cultural institutions. Some radical feminists argue that the low value assigned to the feminine characteristics described above also contributes to women’s oppression. Feminists in the psychoanalytic tradition look for the source of women’s oppression deep in the psyche, in gender relationships into which we are socialized from birth.

Socialist feminists have tried to weave these various approaches together into some kind of a comprehensive explanation of women’s oppression. Socialist feminists claim that women’s position in society is determined both by structures of production in the economy and by structures of reproduction in the household, structures that are reinforced by the early socialization of children into gender roles. Women’s unequal status in all these structures must be eliminated for full equality to be achieved. Socialist feminism thus tries to understand the position of women in their multiple roles in order to find a single standpoint from which to explain their condi- tion. Using standpoint in the sense that it has been used by Marxists, these theorists claim that those who are oppressed have a better understanding of the sources of their oppression than their oppressors. “A standpoint is an engaged vision of the world opposed and superior to dominant ways of thinking.”7

This notion of standpoint has been seriously criticized by postmodern feminists who argue that a unified representation of women across class, racial, and cultural lines is an impossibility. Just as feminists more generally have criticized existing knowledge that is grounded in the experiences of white Western males, postmodern- ists claim that feminists themselves are in danger of essentializing the meaning of woman when they draw exclusively on the experiences of white Western women: such an approach runs the additional risk of reproducing the same dualizing distinc- tions that feminists object to in patriarchal discourse.8 Postmodernists believe that a multiplicity of women’s voices must be heard lest feminism itself become one more hierarchical system of knowledge construction.

Any attempt to construct feminist perspectives on international relations must take this concern of postmodernists seriously; as described above, dominant approaches to international relations have been Western-centered and have focused their theoretical investigations on the activities of the great powers. An important goal for many feminists has been to attempt to speak for the marginalized and oppressed: much of contemporary feminism has also recognized the need to be sensi- tive to the multiple voices of women and the variety of circumstances out of which they speak. Developing perspectives that can shed light on gender hierarchies as they contribute to women’s oppression worldwide must therefore be sensitive to the dan- gers of constructing a Western-centered approach. Many Western feminists are understandably apprehensive about replicating men’s knowledge by generalizing from the experiences of white Western women.Yet to be unable to speak for women only further reinforces the voices of those who have constructed approaches to interna- tional relations out of the experiences of men.

“[Feminists] need a home in which everyone has a room of her own, but one in which the walls are thin enough to permit a conversation.”9 Nowhere is this more true than in these early attempts to bring feminist perspectives to bear on international politics, a realm that has been divisive in both its theory and its practice. […]

Feminist theories and international relations

Since, as I have suggested, the world of international politics is a masculine domain, how could feminist perspectives contribute anything new to its academic discourses? Many male scholars have already noted that, given our current technologies of destruction and the high degree of economic inequality and environmental degrada- tion that now exists, we are desperately in need of changes in the way world politics is conducted; many of them are attempting to prescribe such changes. For the most part, however, these critics have ignored the extent to which the values and assump- tions that drive our contemporary international system are intrinsically related to concepts of masculinity; privileging these values constrains the options available to states and their policymakers. All knowledge is partial and is a function of the know- er’s lived experience in the world. Since knowledge about the behavior of states in the international system depends on assumptions that come out of men’s experiences, it ignores a large body of human experience that has the potential for increasing the range of options and opening up new ways of thinking about interstate practices. Theoretical perspectives that depend on a broader range of human experience are important for women and men alike, as we seek new ways of thinking about our con- temporary dilemmas.

Conventional international relations theory has concentrated on the activities of the great powers at the center of the system. Feminist theories, which speak out of the various experiences of women – who are usually on the margins of society and interstate politics – can offer us some new insights on the behavior of states and the needs of individuals, particularly those on the peripheries of the international system. Feminist perspectives, constructed out of the experiences of women, can add a new dimension to our understanding of the world economy; since women are frequently the first casualties in times of economic hardship, we might also gain some new insight into the relationship between militarism and structural violence.

However, feminist theories must go beyond injecting women’s experiences into different disciplines and attempt to challenge the core concepts of the disciplines themselves.

Concepts central to international relations theory and practice, such as power, sovereignty, and security, have been framed in terms that we associate with masculin- ity. Drawing on feminist theories to examine and critique the meaning of these and other concepts fundamental to international politics could help us to reformulate these concepts in ways that might allow us to see new possibilities for solving our current insecurities. Suggesting that the personal is political, feminist scholars have brought to our attention distinctions between public and private in the domestic polity: examining these artificial boundary distinctions in the domestic polity could shed new light on international boundaries, such as those between anarchy and order, which are so fundamental to the conceptual framework of realist discourse.

Most contemporary feminist perspectives take the gender inequalities that I have described above as a basic assumption. Feminists in various disciplines claim that fem- inist theories, by revealing and challenging these gender hierarchies, have the poten- tial to transform disciplinary paradigms. By introducing gender into the discipline of international relations, I hope to challenge the way in which the field has traditionally been constructed and to examine the extent to which the practices of international politics are related to these gender inequalities. The construction of hierarchical binary oppositions has been central to theorizing about international relations.10 Distinctions between domestic and foreign, inside and outside, order and anarchy, and center and periphery have served as important assumptions in theory construc- tion and as organizing principles for the way we view the world. Just as realists center their explanations on the hierarchical relations between states and Marxists on unequal class relations, feminists can bring to light gender hierarchies embedded in the theo- ries and practices of world politics and allow us to see the extent to which all these systems of domination are interrelated.

As Sarah Brown argues, a feminist theory of international relations is an act of political commitment to understanding the world from the perspective of the socially subjugated. “There is the need to identify the as yet unspecified relation between the construction of power and the construction of gender in international relations.”11 Acknowledging, as most feminist theories do, that these hierarchies are socially constructed, also allows us to envisage conditions necessary for their transcendence. […]


Roosevelt epigraph from speech to the United Nations General Assembly (1952), quoted in Crapol, ed., Women and American Foreign Policy, p. 176; de Beauvoir epigraph from The Second Sex, p. 161.

  1. McGlen and Sarkees, “Leadership Styles of Women in Foreign Policy,” 17.
  2. Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 43. Scott’s chapter 2, entitled “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” on which my analysis of gender draws, was originally published in the American Historical Review (December 1986), 91(5):1053–75.
  3. Broverman et al., “Sex-Role Stereotypes: A Current Appraisal.” Although the original study was published in 1972, replication of this research in the 1980s confirmed that these perceptions still held in the United
  4. Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 43.
  5. As of 1986, a study showed that no major American international relations journal had published any articles that used gender as a category of See Steuernagel and Quinn, “Is Anyone Listening?” Apart from a special issue of the British interna- tional relations journal Millennium (Winter 1988),17(3), on women and interna- tional relations, very little attention has been paid to gender in any major international relations journal.
  6. Tong, Feminist Thought, 2. My description of the varieties of contemporary femi- nist thought draws heavily on her chapter 1.
  7. Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, 129. See also Hartsock, Money, Sex, and Power, ch. 10.
  8. Runyan and Peterson, “The Radical Future of Realism,” 7.
  9. Tong, Feminist Thought, 7.
  10. Runyan and Peterson, “The Radical Future of Realism,” 3.
  11. Brown, “Feminism, International Theory, and International Relations of Gender Inequality,” 469.


Broverman, Inge K., Susan R.Vogel, Donald M. Broverman, Frank E. Clarkson, and Paul

  1. Rosenkranz. “Sex-Role Stereotypes: A Current Appraisal.” Journal of Social Issues

28(2) (1972): 59–78.

Brown, Sarah. “Feminism, International Theory, and International Relations of Gender Inequality.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 17(3) (1988): 461–475.

Crapol, Edward P., ed. Women and American Foreign Policy: Lobbyists, Critics, and Insiders.

NewYork: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Hartsock, Nancy C. M. Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism.

Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983.

McGlen, Nancy E. and Meredith Reid Sarkees. “Leadership Styles of Women in Foreign Policy.” Unpublished paper, 1990.

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.

Runyan, Anne Sisson and V. Spike Peterson. “The Radical Future of Realism: Feminist Subversions of IR Theory.” Alternatives 16(1) (1991): 67–106.

Scott, Joan W. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Steuernagel, Gertrude A. and Laurel U. Quinn. “Is Anyone Listening? Political Science and the Response to the Feminist Challenge.” Unpublished paper, 1986.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder:Westview, 1989.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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