Feminist Theory and International Relations Essay

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The Central Question

How important is it that IR (International Relations) scholars reflect on the relationship between power and knowledge? From a feminist theory perspective, it is critical for IR scholars to highlight the relationship between power and knowledge in order to uncover the gender dynamics of power and knowledge in an IR setting. Feminism is more than simply a theory about women—it also provides a framework for understanding gender and gender constructs and how these constructs impact international relations.[footnoteRef:2] In order for IR scholars to excel in their work and more fully understand the parameters of IR, they have to be attentive to the socio-political implications of the political structures within which they work. [2: Christine Sylvester, “The Contributions of Feminist Theory to International Relations,” International Theory: positivism and beyond (1996), 254.]

Key Terms

Feminist IR theory proceeds from Critical theory, which is based on past fundamentally disruptive theories like Marxism in order to understand the relationship between laborers and the owners of the means of production. Feminist IR theory focuses on the relationship between gender construction and expressions of power. As Hofstede showed in his model of cultural dimensions, every culture has its own dominant expressions of gender, which in turn impact power dynamics, power distance, attitudes about work, life, leadership and so on.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Geert Hofstede, "Cultural dimensions in management and planning." Asia Pacific Journal of Management 1, no. 2 (1984), 83.]

Critical theory is based on the idea that “to be critical, an inquiry must challenge directly underlying human interests and ideologies.”[footnoteRef:4] The first critical theorists particularly those of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer et al.) examined society and its constructs by unpacking the assumptions and behaviors that were commonplace in society and examining the underlying meaning and raison d’être for the constructs in the first place. In IR, critical theory refers to the critical examination of international relations from the standpoint of identifying the underlying power dynamics that facilitate the expression of those relations. [4: Edmund Short, Forms of curriculum inquiry (SUNY Press, 1991), 245.]

Reflection refers to one’s personal perspective, history and experiences. From an IR point of view it refers to the need to critically reflect on the constructs that we pass on from one generation to the next. Tickner describes the need for critical reflection in terms of “how the knowledge we teach our students has been constructed historically and how the research traditions to which we subscribe are formulated.”[footnoteRef:5] [5: J. Ann Tickner, "Retelling IR's foundational stories: some feminist and postcolonial perspectives." Global Change, Peace & Security 23, no. 1 (2011), 5.]

Epistemic Injustice refers to the injustice that stems from the ways in which knowledge is conceived, passed on, communicated and understood.

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Freire defines epistemic injustice as a pedagogy of oppression.[footnoteRef:6] In order to free oneself from epistemic injustice, one must be willing to challenge the established epistemic order—and Feminist IR theory enables IR scholars to do exactly that.

Purpose [6: Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 1.]

This paper will use Tickner and other Feminist IR scholars, such as Cynthia Enloe, Carol Cohn, and Charlotte Hooper to explore the manner in which Feminism can…

[…… parts of this paper are missing, click here to view the entire document ]

…of losing.

The prevailing ideologies in IR maintain a rigid view of international order that ignores and diminishes the female perspective. Only “positivist” IR constructs that communicate a conservative take on things (and that thus perpetuate the “epistemic injustice” that comes from not questioning foundations and consequences of the way in which knowledge and power are passed on) are allowed to be expressed when a Feminist critique is absent. Feminism allows for the personal to be brought to fore, for the subjective experience to take part in the processing of power.


Feminist IR theory is an expression of the need to question the established order and system of thought that defines the communication of power. Hermeneutical injustice is ultimately a problem of knowledge, wherein a lack of knowledge equates to a lack of power. When one is unable to understand or articulate a problem one is ipso facto going to be unable to solve the problem, which limits one’s power. Gender issues do not receive sufficient attention or focus in the IR debate because mainstream IR really only sees women as notable in history by their lack of presence and lack of contribution to our knowledge. Tickner points out how women in the U.S. are routinely kept out of leadership positions, especially in the military.[footnoteRef:12] In short, Tickner understands the emotive and argumentative power of knowledge, and in particular the objectivity of facts, which she considers to be used all too frequently to strengthen the male perspective at the expense of women in IR.  Feminist IR theory seeks to challenge this dynamic.


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Cohn, Carol. \"Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals.\" Signs: Journal of women in culture and society12, no. 4 (1987): 687-718.
Cox, Robert W. \"Social forces, states and world orders: beyond international relations theory.\" Millennium 10, no. 2 (1981): 126-155.
Enloe, Cynthia. Bananas, beaches and bases: Making feminist sense of international politics. Univ of California Press, 2014.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2018.
Hofstede, Geert. \"Cultural dimensions in management and planning.\" Asia Pacific Journal of Management 1, no. 2 (1984): 81-99.
Hooper, Charlotte. Manly states: Masculinities, international relations, and gender politics. Columbia University Press, 2001.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Rousseau: The Social Contract and other later political writings. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Short, Edmund C., ed. Forms of curriculum inquiry. SUNY Press, 1991.
Sylvester, Christine. \"12 The contributions of feminist theory to international relations.\"  International Theory: positivism and beyond (1996): 254.
Tickner, J. Ann. \"Hans Morgenthau\'s principles of political realism: A feminist reformulation.\" Millennium 17, no. 3 (1988): 429-440.
Tickner, J. Ann. \"Retelling IR\'s foundational stories: some feminist and postcolonial perspectives.\" Global Change, Peace & Security 23, no. 1 (2011): 5-13.

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