First year · Gender studies · International Relations

IPIR essay: How and on what levels are ‘gender issues’ marginalised in mainstream IR analysis?

Since the publication of Bananas, Beaches and Bases by US academic Cynthia Enloe in 1989, feminist analyses have attempted to access the field of international relations. Despite the fact that today feminist approaches in international relations are known and recognized, their development remains largely marginalised. Feminism and International relations might seem to be rather incompatible and for many years, the only articles and studies written by women that were not ignored were about peace and environmental issues (such as ecology and sustainable development), which are traditionally associated to “femininity”. However feminist writings have analysed key concepts in International Relations such as power and war. The concept of gender emerged in the 1950s in psychiatric and medical settings in the United States and from the 1970s onwards, gender has often been used by feminists to demonstrate that the inequalities between women and men come from social, cultural and economic fields rather than biological reasons. This presentation of gender as a social construction has led to a critical analysis of patriarchy and what has been termed the “malestream” view.  If one considers how arduous it has been for gender issues to be integrated in most disciplines, International relations has been notably reluctant. Consequently, in a first part we will present some examples of gender issues and then position them within the historical context of the opening of the field of international relations to these issues. Then we will focus on two specific examples of gender issues and examine more particularly on what levels they have been marginalised by mainstream international relations.


Gender issues are everywhere and permeate most aspects of life:  In the access to education, or to the workplace, the practice of certain sports, the representation in media, the preconceptions about sexuality etc.  Gender characteristics are dichotomous, numerous and include, among others: masculinity/femininity, public/private, sovereignty/anarchy, rational/emotional, etc. The first term, being associated to the male gender, is consistently privileged and often presented as ideal compared to the second one, the female characteristic, which is devalued.  As a matter of fact social roles have always been gendered in the private sphere, such as family (inequitable division of labour within households), education, and healthcare. But these issues precisely because they are said to belong to the private sphere are invisible on the global agenda of International relations. This can contribute to understanding why the situation in terms of gender equality remains critical. One telling example is in education, insofar as 85 million girls are unable to attend school globally, compared to 45 million boys. Another main gender concern is security of the individual, and since the control of the female body has always been central to mark the boundaries of the nation and its sustainability, this gender issue does not belong only to the private life and should become part of a more global vision of what security means. As Peterson points out, the state is more or less directly complicit in the violence perpetrated against women by defining rape from a male point of view (in some U.S. states, for example, one must accumulate up to twelve pieces of evidence), promoting a heterosexist ideology in the mass media and a military indoctrination (Peterson 1992). Therefore women bear a specific burden, and suffer differently from the consequences of insecurity. That there are some gender-specific needs during times of unrest (rapes, loss of homes, and isolation from community) is now quite generally acknowledged and yet International relations focuses more on global military security than on women’s insecurity locally. Thus because of a conflict, 90% of victims are civilians and 80% of Refugees and IDPs are women and children.

Inequalities are also still very present in jobs and access to well-paid employment. Indeed in the global economy, women earn less than men, do more unpaid labour, and enjoy less protection. Finally women are subject to more specific health constraints, such as pregnancies or HIV which is linked to subordination. Concerning the global health, it is important to mark again the fact that 1,440 women die each day in childbirth (one every minute) globally. However, in International relations, all these examples of gendered realities continue to be subsidiary to what could be termed higher politics such as world security and economic development. An overview of the introduction of gender issues in International relations highlights the mechanisms by which they were first ignored, and then relegated to the edge of core issues.


Gender has been progressively put on the agenda of International Relations, but it has been a really long process. Gender has either been straightforwardly termed “not belonging to the core subject matter” or seen as ” interesting but to be included within other topics”. To understand the hostility or at best the indifference shown by International relations, it is necessary to recall how the discipline came to existence. International Relations emerged as a discipline after the First World War. The focus was on preventing another conflict, or another war, and this idea led to the creation of the League of Nations, which failed but formed the basis of the United Nations. After the Second World War, a more realistic approach appeared, saying that war was inevitable. As a consequence the discipline had to focus on state activities that can balance power (that is to say, power dynamics). Because states were over-valued, International Relations had to insist on military and economic power, which are global powers based on traditionally male-dominated structures. Any considerations of gender were totally absent from the subject-matter of International Relations. To put it in a different way, until recently, the study of international relations was largely limited to the study of war and its causes, diplomacy or international trade. The use of categories such as “the State” “the market” or “the system” in the terminology had the effect of erasing individuals, men and women, with their social and historical contexts, from the international relations theories (True 2001: 231). Asexual, ahistorical, individuals within the international relations are hidden behind ideas presented as universal or as abstractions. Thus, gender relations, their influence in the organization of the social and political order, and the unequal characteristics between genders became ignored.

During the 80’s and 90’s, thanks to feminist researchers and scholars, gender entered the subject-matter of International Relations quite forcefully but by the side door. Forums, journals, and debates made gender become more and more important yet as an auxiliary variable. Stressing the fact that gender is not “natural”, does not refer to the biological but is a social construction obliged thinkers to accept that it could be linked to political, social and economic issues. This is why “Making women visible” and thereby questioning supposedly neutral models (“rational man” and “balance of power”), is one of the main goals of feminists in International Relations. This questioning about the so-called neutrality of analysis by International relations can politicize what seems out of the normal order, and can bring awareness and a questioning of the sources of power that were previously unnoticed (Enloe 2004: 2-3). Feminists highlight how the discipline of International Relations and their organization (such as militarization process, capitalist globalization and the practice of state sovereignty) are constructions with deeply embedded gender issues (True 2001: 237). Therefore, it is not enough to just include the notion of gender or encourage women to adopt a feminist approach. In short, despite the fact that gender has been integrated by international institutions, it is marginalised in the sense that it is never presented as a major cause of international disruption, and many feminists continue to believe that relevant gender analysis demands radical changes because simply adding gender to the agenda of International relations will not fundamentally change the traditional male-centered perspective. It is worth noting that among the social sciences, International Relations, which is considered as particularly male-centered and male-dominated, has been the last discipline to include gender issues and to accept the contribution of feminist scholarship.


The historical mechanisms that show how gender issues were treated separately from other issues having been decrypted,  we are now going to focus on some of the levels at which they are still marginalized: academia and power positions. Firstly, let’s bear in mind that, either the process is through sheer ignorance of the problem (such as not belonging to the main problems), or it is shelved, that is to say referred to other disciplines or integrated with other issues considered as more important. Thus in the academic field, it is obvious that many scholars in International Relations are still opposed to considering gender issues as a pertinent material and an often stated argument is that the discipline is “gender-neutral”.  As a result of this very definition the marginalisation consists in pure and simple suppression of the issue. The contribution of feminist studies has been and still is precisely to break this myth of neutrality and show that the approach is rather very “gendered” but only on one side. Feminist approaches highlight how the discourse of international relations, in realistic and liberal approaches in particular, far from being neutral, objective and universal is in fact including gender bias. It shows the reality of a white male elite in the Anglo-American tradition. For instance, in the list of the 23 most influential researchers and professors in the field of international relations published in Foreign Policy in December 2005, the profiles are very similar: with few exceptions, they are all white male Americans older than 50 years (Peterson, Tierney and Maliniak 2005). Moreover gender is not systematically integrated in the academic study of international relations. Indeed, when one looks at the course syllabi in International relations provided by various universities worldwide, one usually finds “Gender and Global issues” alongside traditional topics. This shows that academia in International Relations has finally accepted to include “gender issues” but has failed to make it a key determinant. Another way of avoiding gender issues has been through a process of dismissal in which the main argument amounts to saying that gender issues do not concern International Relations, but may well be included in other analyses, studied by other human sciences disciplines, or left to voluntary organizations like NGOs and social movements.

The fact that women are underrepresented in governments and decision-making makes it more difficult for gender issues, such as women’s security during conflicts, to emerge. Indeed, “Women’s parliamentary representation in the 27 long-established but “unfinished democracies” of the world varies between 2.3% in Japan’s lower house to 39.0% in unicameral Finland.” (Web 1) This leads to the following debate: are women more peaceful than men? (Heywood, 2011: 425) This question remains valid because it has been proved that, when there is a higher proportion of women in decision-making, sexual issues as well as gender issues are taken into account (war rape, sexual attack, mutilation, military prostitution).

Finally, feminist approaches are now considered more seriously in academic international relations theories. Nevertheless, they are much more timidly exported and applied in other areas of the field of international relations, for example in political economy, in safety studies or in foreign policy. As has been noted before International Relations was one of the last disciplines from social sciences to include gender issues in its program and to accept the perspective offered by feminist studies in International Relations. In 1996, Craig N. Murphy presented Berenice Carroll’s article (Peace research: the cult of power, 1972) as the first feminist contribution to an International Relations journal (Journal of Conflict Resolution). This author said the key concepts of IR would have to be reconsidered to include the dimension of gender issues, and to move towards a new approach and structure. But it was not until the late 80s that the IR started paying closer attention to gender issues. Feminist approaches are more than theories “by women, for women”. They reflect the adverse effects of masculinism, and the idea one has about international relations, the practices of the state, security and gender relations men/women. We can now consider that the situation is getting better. Some scholars talk about a “gender mainstream” and the UN has started classifying countries on the basis of the Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM).


Reference list


  • Enloe, C., (1989), Bananas, Beaches and Bases, Berkeley, California University Press.
  • Enloe, C., (2004), The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire, Berkeley, University of California Press.
  • Heywood, A. (2011), “Gender in Global Politics” in Global Politics, Palgrave Macmillan pp. 412-431
  • Murphy, Craig N. (1996), ‘Seeing Women, Recognizing Gender, Recasting International Relations’, International Organization, volume 50, number 3, p.514
  • Peterson, V.S. (1992), Gendered States: Feminist (Re)Visions of International Relations Theory, Boulder & London, Lynne Rienner.
  • Peterson, V.S. (2004), « Feminist Theories Within, Invisible To, and Beyond IR », Brown Journal of World Affairs, vol. 10, n° 2, p. 35-46.
  • Peterson, S., Tierney M.J. & Maliniak D. (2005), « Inside the Ivory Tower », Foreign Policy, 151, p. 58-64.
  • Tickner, J.A. (2011), “Gender in world politics”, in Baylis, Smith & Owens, The Globalization of World Politics, Oxford University Press, pp.262-277.
  • True, J. (2001), «Feminism», in S. Burchill et al, Theories of International Relations, Houndmills, Palgrave, 2nd ed, pp.231-276.

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