Research Paper: Feminists Critique of International Relations the Gendered Politics of International War and Peace

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Gender and International Relations

International Relations in perspective

Gendered issues in the realm of International Relations have not been widely discussed, questioned or researched until recently, according to author Jill Steans. The reason for this lack of investigation into gender and International Relations, Steans explains, is not necessarily based on bias against females or chauvinism to any degree. To wit, historically, the study of International Relations has been focused on relationship between sovereign states, and since the "processes" and the "structures" of relations between states were not understood on the basis of gender, there seemed no link in that regard (Steans, 1998, p. 1)

. However, feminist scholars in the field of International Relations have in recent years pointed to the fact that while, "frequently ignored," gender issues are indeed "deeply embedded" in what is generally regarded as the "mainstream" concerns of International Relations (Steans, p. 1). Scholars in the field of International Relations early on believed that the realistic purpose of the discipline was to attempt to understand why wars are fought and to search for strategies and principles that could build and sustain "an enduring peace" (Steans, p. 33). That is what Steans calls the "first phase" of political idealism, the initial foray into International Relations (p. 33).

However, when World War II ended, scholars could pretty much agree that the first phase was a failure, an unrealistic approach to International Relations, hence the next phase was ushered in, a phase dominated by "realism," Steans writes (p. 33). This phase in the study of International Relations addressed the "realities" of states' power in the world; a better grasp of the problems and social issues that were faced by states in terms of seeking out solutions. Steans explains that by the 1960s social scientists, political scientists and scholars abandoned the narrow "reality" approach and instead developed a "range of theories" on International Relations (Steans, p. 33). They borrowed theoretical approaches from other aspects of the social sciences -- hoping to find better insights into why elite states make certain decisions about war and peace. In the 1970s, Steans goes on, many scholars in the field of International Relations zeroed in on the "Qualitative changes" that have been made due to advances in states' technological advances (p. 33). Also in the 1970s a Marxist perspective was employed by some scholars to attempt to understand the "enduring structural inequalities which existed" on the planet at the time.

On page 34 Steans describes the debates that have raged through the last thirty years of so as to what the best approach is to the study of International Relations. The consensus among those scholars was that theories are ideological and they only represent the "political values of the theorist." In other words, theory cannot stop genocide in Africa, aggression in Afghanistan or terrorist attacks in India. Meantime, the feminist approach to gender and identity in International Relations helps to "critique the received wisdom" that the nation-state is the sole significant source of "political identification and allegiance in the world" (Steans, p. 63). That said, the feminist view of International Relations goes well beyond "critique," Steans continues. The feminist perspective is an attempt to bring to the fore the "complex ways in which gender and identity are relevant to understanding the world" (Steans, p. 63).

In addition, the feminist critique of International Relations serves to expose the "ideological exclusivity of the orthodoxy in International Relations," Steans writes (p. 64). Within that context, the feminist critique attempts to highlight "…what is lost, marginalized and excluded in the construction of the nation-state as an actor." Steans' book offers readers the clear impression that it's not just about a demand from feminists that they be allowed into the men's club of nation states. Rather, the feminist approach within the International Relations milieu is in large part designed to show that gender identities are "central" to the building of political identities -- and the feminine approach also raises questions about how identities are "formed and transformed" (Steans, p. 64). In the big picture, raising questions about how identities are formed in a gender-driven study also raises issues relative to how power is achieved in the "construction and ascription of identity" (Steans, p. 64).

Understanding the feminism perspective from liberal to radical

Before coming to terms with the feminism's link to international relations, it is essential to understand where feminists are coming from. Any one who believes that there is one homogenous feminist viewpoint regarding women and international relations is ill informed. Such a view is tantamount to believing all African-Americans are on the same cultural / social page or that every Muslim shares bin Laden's worldview. Steans offers several approaches to feminism, beginning with "Liberal feminism" which is concerned mainly with equal rights and is "content to advocate reformist measures" to address bias against women (p. 16-17). "Marxist feminism" posits that women are oppressed not because of bias or because of ignorance, but rather women's oppression is a byproduct of the "political, social and economic structures" that are aligned with the capitalist system (Steans, p. 18). In other words, it is the "class system" in society -- the fitting in well with society's need for a "reserve army" of labor to be exploited -- that keeps women at the back of the proverbial bus, according to Steans' explanation of Marxist feminism (pp. 18-19).

Steans explains that the "Radical feminism" perspective sees women's oppression as "…the root of all systems of oppression… [and they] are critical of liberal and Marxist feminism" because radical feminists see both as providing a model of women's liberation "which is based on male values" (p. 20). Some radical feminists believe that all male structures should be challenged and that the best values from women's society should be employed in creating a counter-culture that cherishes "female-identified roles and values" (Steans, p. 20). "Socialist feminism" is concerned with overcoming "both class and gender oppression," according to Steans on page 21. On page 24 Steans struggles to describe "Postmodern feminism"; in five pages the author takes many twists and turns in her descriptive narrative, ending up (p. 28) with this summation: "Postmodern feminists value the diversity in feminist thought" and they see the fact of many "feminisms" as proof that women's experiences take many social and political forms. They also espouse the notion that gender is to be viewed "not so much in terms of identity, or social structures, but rather in terms of discourse" (Steans, p. 27).

Labels, challenges and the backlash to feminism

V. Spike Peterson and Jacqui True (Peterson, et al., 1998, p. 15) hit the nail directly on the head regarding attempts to identify a woman, and label her with a particular brand of feminism. They quote Catherine Stimpson: "Every woman is more than a woman. She belongs, as well, to a class, a race, a nation, a family, a tribe, a time, a place" (Peterson, p. 15).

The diversity that women reflect poses substantial challenges to the "feminist praxis," Peterson explains. That praxis is pointed towards a goal of finding a way out of gender oppressions, and because there is no "one feminism," Peterson continues, labels and identities can complicate the movement toward fairness and participation in international relations for women.

Labels can be misleading and even cruel. To wit, calling a woman a "feminist" can elicit negative responses from conservatives and others frightened (or confused) by feminine challenges to the male status quo. An analogy with surfing is appropriate here. A man and woman walk along the beach and look out to sea, and there is a male on a surfboard, riding the waves. "There's a surfer," says the man. His wife adds, "I think surfers are pretty cool." Actually the male on the surfboard doesn't have long blond hair or tattoos. He is an attorney, not a "surfer" -- but because he surfs for his morning recreation, he's a surfer. Surfers have a certain aura about them, and people from Iowa visiting California's beaches look at the surfers and probably think that's all they do. They surf all day. Like pigeons in the park, surfers are always there.

Take the analogy to feminism. A housewife joins a group of women demonstrating outside the Iranian Embassy in New York City. They are protesting Iranian policies that require a woman to wear what they consider "oppressive clothing" in public in Tehran. Women who break this rule are subjected to ridicule or worse, incarceration. The protesting women in New York represent an activist feminist organization; and so every woman -- including the housewife who has never joined any gender-related organization in her life -- in that group is a "feminist" and thus is stuck with a label that, again, brings frowns on some faces, smiles on others.

There are respected academics that growl at the notion that women should participate more fully in international relations. Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics and Politics is certainly in that group. An essay by… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Feminists Critique of International Relations the Gendered Politics of International War and Peace."  Essaytown.com.  June 2, 2010.  Accessed June 20, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/feminists-critique-international-relations/5464762.