Feminist Fatigues; Or, What Can Feminism Be in International Relations?

What is feminist IR and what does it do? Not a new question, by any means, but one worth mulling over in light of Laura Sjoberg’s attempts to make the case, or just plain describe, feminist IR across several posts at The Duck Of Minerva, spurred on by some less than charitable peer reviews. The complaints, and the responses alternating between outright hostility, condescension and general bemusement, happily confirm critical (European) prejudices. The American mainstream doesn’t think something counts as a knowledge practice unless it can be co-opted into a regression analysis, and lacks what would pass as an undergraduate understanding of feminism elsewhere.

So far, so self-satisfying. Educational-cum-critical interventions of this kind clearly do have their place. As Joe put it to me, marginal and critical perspectives (no less than others) require constant re-inscription and repetition. Different students, different times, different world-historical events: all call for a re-engagement through our preferred lenses, which is how we absorb and become committed to them. It’s not enough for people to just be referred back to de Beauvoir or Enloe.

That said, these are also acts of performance. As Sjoberg herself notes, the conversation repeats itself. Repeats on itself, even. You Just Don’t Understand. Like an algorithmic inter-paradigm debate. The steps are as obvious and stale now as they were decades ago. Feminists are humourless; feminism is inherently a negative critique; there is no place for men in feminism; feminism isn’t really IR, even if it has some purpose somewhere;  feminism is obtuse; feminists lack research projects and cumulative understanding. A stack of intellectual veneers on one big trope of man-hating idealist sex-phobic anti-rationalist frigidity.

So why doesn’t the conversation ever seem to go anywhere? A valid, but somewhat weak, answer is that these back-and-forths can never end. The desire for an air-tight resolution is one that cannot but be frustrated, partly because of the problem of reinscription and rearticulation and partly because all approaches (yes, even invincible Realism) are constantly contested, whether they admit it or not. Moreover, without some disciplinary others laying siege, there is no pressure and no impetus to make the case and invest emotionally in transformative intellectual projects [1].

In addition, there is a more substantive answer concerning the peculiar status of feminism as a political and analytical set of approaches, as a kind of critical theory. I say peculiar, although this will come as no surprise to those who recognise the tension as constitutive of all social ‘science’. The difficulties in telling stories about a single thing called ‘feminism’ (or ‘women’s studies’) has been a consistent problem for feminist theory over the decades, although that too is easily accommodated within the dismissive critique (feminists themselves don’t  even know what they’re doing!). Maria Stern and Marysia Zalewski have recently addressed just these fatigued roles of marginality and the apparent ‘failure’ of IR feminism:

There are two interlaced ways in which we might see how this emerges currently…One is that feminism comes to be understood as indelibly secured to its imaginary uni-identity and past (giving life to the constant demand: what is the definition/solution/genesis [of feminism] – there must be one…) and secondly as necessarily and always related (reduced) to a particular type of a political protest movement with comprehensive, transparent and transformative goals and objectives. Understood in this way, feminism’s failure to achieve these imagined inaugural goals, together with its failure to successfully resolve its sexgender performative practices (re)positions feminism in temporally limited ways.

Their suggestion is to replace feminist ‘comfort stories’ with a ‘politics/pedagogy of surprise’. In the context of appealing to the mainstream, this urges a double caution. First, the criticism that feminists should just get on with it rather than appealing to the hegemon gains some traction. Reproducing stories of marginality confirms that marginality, and feminists should already be more alive than most to this performativity and its dangers. Second, the mere designation ‘feminist’ conceals a vicious loop of definition and justification. As with Sjoberg’s posts and many introductory accounts, we are quickly pulled into the difficult balancing act of simultaneously accounting for variety and unity; for overlaps with non-feminist theory and relative autonomy; for analytical claims and political projects.

Feminism may have a particular history and set of dilemmas, but this is not only a feminist problem. All approaches of any weight and scope are marked by diversity and disagreement. Some aren’t used to being challenged on that, and some scholars just don’t read the critiques. So one way of avoiding the fatigue would be to turn the tables. Feminism as a political movement has been successful in important ways. Institutionally, it has achieved real success and currency. Its research problems are inescapable, and wash through every aspect of human existence. Let the non- and anti-feminists innovate superior understandings of sexual violence, or of the gendered practices of war, or of differential patterns of labour in a global economy. Let the burden of proof fall on them for a few decades. And when scholars do engage in this way, the results are exciting, if not quite as far from feminism as some might wish to claim.

But there is a final sense in which attempts to convince the intellectual Big Other of the virtues of feminism may be misplaced. This is the great unmentionable, bad faith. We are happy to acknowledge that power works in certain ways in IR, but not often enough to follow that through to think about why certain approaches are consistently ignored. By continuing to engage in the performance of feminist marginality, we enact the politics of demand in academic form. There is a disciplinary stronghold, and we dispatch our missives and appeals to it. As if the problem is an absence of information, rather than a function of power. Several decades into the feminist IR ‘movement’, no serious scholar can claim to lack the opportunity to learn about feminism. There may only be a week on feminism in most theory courses, but then there’s only a week on the English School. The failing is not one of feminist exposition, but of interest from those more comfortable with tired stereotypes than with intellectual engagement. Well-reasoned, empirically-supported, politically-charged work can’t cure an intellectual blind-spot.

Of course, the danger here is of a different kind of ‘comfort story’, one in which all criticism is dismissed out-of-hand. Intellectual honesty demands a regular, although not full-time, openness to contestation. But what marks IR is not a torrent of anti-feminist scholarship but a neglect, or strategic ignorance, of its history and purposes. This is what angers feminists, and what drives us to keep shouting. But that only underlies the point. This is not a battle fought and won in peer-reviewed reams, but in the division of intellectual labour, and the implicit place assigned to feminism and feminists. So long as the question is about how to do feminism in International Relations, rather than the feminist analysis of global politics, the space for performance will remain. Fatigued tropes will recur in parallel. The confident, and self-satisfied, mainstream vs. the angry, and self-righteous, feminist insurgency.

Me, I’m with Ani Difranco. Either you’re a feminist or you’re a misogynist. There is no box marked ‘other’. Consequently the interesting issue is what kind of feminism you want to defend and what kind of feminists you think there should be. And those questions can be as fraught as those between feminists and non-feminists. The institutional treatment of feminist scholarship matters, as does explaining again and again what feminists think. Myth-busting may be a never-ending mission, but committing fully to marginal performance turns feminism into an empty position defined only negatively (and not in a good way). Doing feminism, in scholarship and politics, promises much more than that.


[1] This was part of Raluca Soreanu’s argument at October’s Millennium conference.

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