The Weight of a Man’s Shoe

The third and final piece in a short series on naming and disciplinary representation. Marysia Zalewski is Professor in the School of Social Science at the University of Aberdeen, where she was previously Head of School and Director of Research. Marysia is the author of many text, most recently Feminist International Relations: Exquisite Corpse (Routledge, 2013), and before that Feminism After Postmodernism: Theorising Through Practice (Routledge, 2000) and (edited with Jane Parpart) The “Man” Question in International Relations (Westview, 1998) and Re-thinking the Man Question: Sex, Gender and Violence in International Relations (Zed Press, 2008).

I don’t usually work with definitions of feminism as they so often wrap feminism up too tightly. But this one offers a lot of openings: ‘Feminist theory is one of the ways in which feminism tries to challenge misogyny’s history and refuse its inheritance’ (Morris 1987: 176). I know misogyny isn’t a very comfortable word and not used much contemporarily, but there is something about the idea of challenging work (thinking, ideas, beliefs) which nurture misogyny and its close relations (e.g. sexism), and perhaps more, refusing its inheritance, the trails of which we so consistently witness personally, intellectually, emotionally and politically.

Refusing damaging historical, philosophical and disciplinary inheritances is something that was at the heart of the disquiet at an event planned for the EISA conference in Sicily in September 2015. What was planned was the naming of some of the panel rooms (attaching name plates to doors) after scholars deemed fundamentally important to the founding of the discipline: 18 names in total. All white, all men, all dead. The absence of women in such a list proffers symbolic injury of course; as delegates trooped in and out of panel rooms, constantly being reminded, if subtly, like a ‘casual reminder’ (el Malik, 2015) that the ‘world of international studies’ still belongs to (white) men, even the dead ones. And it’s not as if the spectre of ‘all white/male line-ups’ hadn’t been of serious concern in the year previous to the EISA conference in two of the other professional organisations associated with academic theorising of the international. This was detailed in a letter prepared to send to the EISA organising committee by a group of students and scholars to protest the planned ‘naming event’:

  • The February 2015 International Studies Association annual convention was criticised for the almost complete absence of non-white scholars, and the scarcity of female scholars in its Sapphire Series meant to showcase contemporary International Relations.
  • The April 2015 Political Studies Association annual conference starred an all-male keynote speaker line-up. The Association has since decided to ensure their 2016 conference would have an all-female keynote speaker line-up.

It seems it is still far too easy to readily remember and showcase the already and always remembered, revered and honoured, as Saara Särmä’s ‘All-Male Panels’ tumblr strikingly and creatively illustrates.

And the issue is not only that there are women who have visibly mattered in the pursuance of theorizing the ‘international’, remembering that there are ‘others’ who labour in the arena of the international who are not male or white, perhaps helps us to know better (and maybe for longer) that there are other ‘worlds of politics’ than the one(s) disciplinary boundaries capture and insist are natural. Worlds where ‘different’ people matter and not just those who insist, by any means, on retaining the centre and locus of importance; the omnipresent white men.

The letter was sent to EISA’s organising committee before the conference took place asking for an explanation and for some form of reparation. Additionally, action to draw attention to the ‘all male line up’ at the conference was planned.[1] I did wonder what response we might get, I imagined that the organisers would be puzzled by the levels of frustration and anger, possibly irritated and a touch defensive too. These kinds of reactions are not unusual when sexism and even misogyny are explicitly pointed out; think of the fiasco around the new UK passport design announced in late 2015. The redesign focuses on UK figures and landmarks from the past 500 years and features 7 men and 2 women. In his defence (or really ‘assertion of innocence’) of the design, Mark Thomson, director general of the Passport Office, said, ‘it wasn’t something where we said ‘let’s set out to only have two women’ (that’s ok then …). When asked about the omission of female icons such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, he said: ‘Whenever we do these things there is always someone who wants their favourite rock band or icon in the book’. The issue was also discussed on the BBC’s ‘Any Questions’ radio programme; one of the male panellists expressed his exasperation at the complaints retorting that history could not ‘simply be re-written’.

The thing is – it is really not that hard, not difficult at all to demonstrate what is wrong with these views. Of course it matters in terms of symbolism, equality and justice – at a minimum – that women should be properly represented and included. Of course there ARE women who could be named and included, even on the traditional (and thus male defined) standards of conventional institutions like academic professional associations and governmental departments. And of course naming has enormous power, not least those names that propel into the future unwanted legacies of the past, nurturing them through the apparent innocence of a name, or indeed a ‘title’. This is my ‘business card’:


Well ok, it’s not really my business card; I was just getting increasingly frustrated by the constant question asked of me (and countless other women I am sure) in stores, on the phone or online (where the first available title in the drop down menu is most often ‘Mr’): ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ Really? In 2015?

Though decisions are regularly made to change names, as Regina Reni demonstrates in her blog piece ‘Should we rename institutions that honor dead racists?’ – referring to calls to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, a Princeton institution in the United States. Given Wilson’s racist credentials Rini asks whether it is simply reasonable to wish not to study in a place that honors a man who would have you keep to your own, segregated end of the lecture hall. For students of colour, living in a society that preaches equality and practises something else suggests we should think very seriously about’ whose histories are most in the weighing’. Will we choose to continue and nurture the embarrassment of very sticky chains of racist, sexist and misogynist reference? Or will we disrupt them?

The Weight of a Man’s Shoe

Mary Ellmann’s riotous book Thinking about Women (1968) begins with an interview. Ellmann is being interviewed by a man who asks why she is writing about women. Ellmann’s reply? ‘I didn’t want to overreach. Right from the start I thought, ME, you must limit yourself to half the human race. Man: Then you were not prompted by feminism? ME: Please. Man: Oh. Feminism is out isn’t it? ME: Well, yes, in the way principles all go out before they’re practiced. Man: Then, you do not have a female program of your own? ME: You phrase things peculiarly. Man: I scarcely know what word will not offend you. I will try again. You don’t have a program for women? ME: No. No program. Man: Ah! But perhaps you will define the attitude of the woman toward the gun, the ship and the helicopter? ME: Impossible. Man: It’s been done. A man has done it for men. ME: Indeed.[2]

This conversation sounds very contemporarily familiar (even if the wording might change somewhat today). And further, in a wonderful section on ‘differences in tone’, Ellmann discusses intellectual matters and specifically ‘the symposium’ – a conference of sorts. She suggests there are ‘distinctions’ between men and women in the realm of ‘intellectual tone’ (Ellmann is working with ‘social constructionism’ if not using term; she is also very much writing ‘comedy'[3]). The first distinction is that the male body lends credence to assertions, while the female takes it away; perhaps a statement that may not be overly palatable for a 21st century audience. But here’s the key phrase: ‘the subliminal assumption is that from weight must come weight: men’s shoes alone seem a promise of truth’ [a glorious phrase!] The effect is heightened by the vogue of the symposium, at least it is [persistently it seems] arithmetically intensified.

An emblem of confidence: four men and a moderator on stage, sitting behind a long table, each with his own glass and pitcher of water. (Men also drink more water on stage than women do, and the effect of these pauses, unless the water spills, is again sober and deliberate). Even to an audience of faint impressionability [like we might think at an ISA, EISA or BISA conference] it seems inconceivable that wisdom should not issue from such an assemblage.[4]

Ellmann’s 1960’s observations reverberate well into the 21st century and notably around the debacle of the ‘EISA naming’ event. Do we have the authority or the entitlement to refuse these kinds of inheritances? Yes. But resistance to curtailing sexism, misogyny and racism remains very strong and materializes in many different forms. Few would simply say no to the call to curtail these violences. But many choose not to notice and not to think. And to choose to be unthinking, as well as to be ‘offended’. Do we really want one persistent answer to Regina Rini’s question – ‘Whose histories are most in the weighing’?


el-Malik, S (2015) ‘Why Orientalism still matters: Reading ‘casual forgetting’ and ‘active remembering’ as neoliberal forms of contestation in international politics’, Review of International Studies, 41, 503-525.

Elmann, M (1968) Thinking about Women, New York: Harvest Brace Jovanovich.

Rini, R (2015)

[1] Facebook playing a huge part in the pre-conference organisation of this.

[2] Truncated extract from Thinking about Women (1968: ix-x).

[3] And on ‘gender and tone’ see

[4] Truncated extract from Thinking about Women (1968: 148-9).


12 thoughts on “The Weight of a Man’s Shoe

  1. Maybe I missed it, but did any of the contributors here actually point to female scholars who made foundational contributions to European IR, which was the basis of the naming decisions made? Or is it simply the case that, at that time, there were no such female scholars?


  2. Thanks for this post, Marysia. I was surprised that at the EISA convention my co-panellists and I had to use ballpoint pens to add the names of important women scholars (including Hannah Arendt, Susan Strange, Simone Weil – all of whom, Lee Jones, were working ‘at that time’) to the nameplates. However, it is a significant issue that the named scholars must be dead, when so many feminist and female contributors are very much alive and kicking. It says quite a lot about a discipline when its canonising practices exclude living thinkers and emerging traditions. In the future, I want to see the names of the innovators and groundbreakers of living IR – female, male, non-white, white elderly and young – on the doors of our conference rooms. It is these doors that tell us who is welcome, who the spaces are ‘for’. Until then, I’m bringing my ballpoint pen.


    • I suppose it hinges on how you define “scholars”, “IR” and “at that time”, as I think Jørgensen was trying to say. But if you take the broadest possible definition on the first two, then Arendt would definitely fit. And certainly if one calls Gramsci a foundational member of European IR then a remarkably broad definition was indeed used. Indeed, I would say that Arendt was far more influential than several of the men on Jørgensen’s list, a few of whom I have never even heard of. As for Strange, here it hinges on what “at that time” means; but, if Bull is included, the time period seems to span the 1970s, when Strange was highly active. Are there other candidates? I ask partly out of genuine curiosity and partly because I think it is a more powerful critique of Jørgensen if you can prove that he excluded women even when using his own criteria.


      • Off the top of my head, I think one could, on Jørgensen’s own criteria, easily include the following:

        Helena Swanwick
        Virginia Woolf
        The Pankhursts (Sylvia and Christabel separately, given their divergent views on empire and the like)
        Simone de Beauvoir (certainly not explicitly “international”, but no less so than Gramsci)

        And we might also add such names as Aime Cesaire or Fanon, if only to illustrate the hypocritical boundaries of Europe and its memorialisation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ohhh yes, clever. Since Algerian territories were “départmentes” of France, Algeria was legally “European”, and of course Martinique still is!

        While we are on boundaries, where are the Russians – what about Lenin? If you include Gramsci it seems perverse not to include him.

        De Beauvoir, certainly. Not sure the others have made a really significant contribution to IR qua discipline, though happy to be corrected/ educated on that.


      • Lucian Ashworth has a nice piece on Swanwick as early IR feminist, and the political theoretical impact of feminists associated with WILPF and similar was significant – in terms of discourses of anti-militarism, collective security, complex interdependence but also empire and standards of civilisation – although for obvious reasons this thinking less often appeared in the form of the academic treatise.


      • Thanks for your reply, and for raising these points. First of all, I think there is a problem with the phrase ‘at that time’. It entrenches a foundational understanding of IR that presumes to pinpoint its origins in particular historical moments. Jorgensen, for instance, suggests that the Paris Peace Treaty is the starting point for IR, while others locate it at the ‘Westphalian moment’. Both of these approaches consider formal international treaties to the be definitive origins of discourses and actions in the sphere of the international. In fact, if we understand the ‘international’ (or perhaps more appropriately, the global, or even planetary) to include phenomena such as globalisation, interaction between diverse cultural groups and other transnational issues, then it becomes much more difficult to pinpoint a punctual ‘moment’ for the beginning of IR. And if the ‘international’ does not include these phenomena, then I fail to see how a discipline dedicated to the study of it can say anything interesting about contemporary affairs. I would also point out that EISA is an association for international studies, not IR in particular. IR constitutes a particular subsection of international studies, but one that is hegemonic in its claims to authority in marking boundaries of the discipline. I would also argue, as you have above if I am reading you correctly, that the important element here is influence rather than membership or even self-identification as an ‘IR scholar’. If first-year IR texts can continue to cite Thucydides and Hobbes as the ‘fathers of IR theory’, then I fail to see how the exclusion of female thinkers such as Luxemburg can be excluded. Jurgensen’s criteria – that the names reflect contributors to the ‘early development of the discipline in Europe’ is hardly defensible as a reflection of the diversity of international thought and its history. In terms of other candidates, if we dismiss Jurgensen’s arbitrary temporal and cultural restrictions, then there is nothing wrong with putting forward candidates like Enloe, Sikkink, Tickner, Sylvester (or even Marysia herself) who have helped to define feminist IR. I would count their work as contributing to the development of a discipline which is very much still in its early stages of formation.


      • I accept all you say here. A core problem, yet again, is that the criteria Jørgenson uses are not narrow enough to justify the exclusions on their own. It may be legit to try to identify people who made a foundational contribution to IR qua academic discipline, i.e. getting the thing going in universities. But then you could not include Gramsci – so again that simply cannot have been the criterion used.

        I think what EISA should be celebrating, in any case, is what Europeans have contributed to international studies that is truly distinctive to other regions – regardless of the timing of their contribution. That was supposed to be the point, and in that sense Jørgenson failed miserably by drawing from his own limited notions. As this conversation shows, discussion generates far better ideas than one person alone. Maybe EISA should ask its members who they think the conference rooms should honour, and the name plaques could be supplemented with an explanation by the nominator. That would actually be educational for attendees.

        Thanks Pablo for the follow-up.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I guess it’s also an issue of ‘place’ as well as ‘time’ – as in – ‘at that time’ (is problematic as pointed out in this thread) . We can also ask ”which place’ – which place(s) are we finding international politics? Intervening (disrupting)
    . the ‘ownership’ of IR is surely major part of the work of ‘critical scholars’? For me ‘feminist IR – is ‘just IR! (Why not?)


  4. Pingback: Feminist perspectives on global politics, in poems | feminist academic collective

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