Promoting Ally Politics in the Liberal State during the Age of Paleo-Masculinism

The third in our series on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (edited by Swati Parashar, J. Ann Tickner and Jacqui True). In this first set of posts, contributors to the volume recap their contributions. Today, it is the turn of David Duriesmith. David is a UQ Fellow at the University of Queensland, where his research focuses on masculinities, peacebuilding and new wars. His latest article is ‘Hybrid Warriors and the Formation of New War Masculinities: A Case Study of Indonesian Foreign Fighters’, in Stability. The full series on Revisiting Gendered States may be viewed here.


Feminist activism often appears to bump up against the desire to appeal powerful masculine actors to use their privilege for good. These appeals are unavoidable for those who want to achieve concrete and immediate change due to the power that patriarchy affords masculine actors on the basis of gender. The success of these appeals in the international arena create uncomfortable alliances between feminist activists on one hand and state actors on the other, the latter of whom are increasingly keen to position themselves as feminists on the international stage.

My contribution to Revisiting Gendered States came out of my discomfort at some of the successes in getting state actors to adopt the language of feminism and gender equality. In particular, I was provoked by the emergence of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy and the rise of state leaders positioning themselves as feminist ‘agents of change’ through initiatives like #HeForShe.

These developments seem seductive, in that they utilise state power for feminist goals, while reinforcing the legitimacy of these state actors as protectors of the oppressed. However, the adoption of the label ‘feminist’ does not require that states are substantially remade, nor that they change the masculinist nature of their institutions, but instead seems to occasionally result in the cynical use of gender programming to legitimise other forms of violence that they themselves inflict.

With these dynamics in mind, I approached the question of revisiting gendered states with the intention of exploring some of the dangers of success; the ways in which successful advocacy might ossify patriarchal institutions while extracting merger gains as the price of admission to the feminist movement. At the heart of these concerns was not the idea of drawing on the state at all, but the worry that feminist work might end up falling into some of the challenges which have marred instances when cis-men position themselves as feminist agents of change. With that in mind, my chapter set about arguing for liberal state actors to adopt the position of reflexive feminist allies, rather than independent agents of change.

What I suggest from this chapter is that although the state plays an important role achieving feminist gaols in the international sphere, the positioning of the state as a feminist agent of change is inherently problematic. While states work towards particular feminist goals, such as the elimination of violence against women, the empowerment of women in leadership and the promotion of women’s health, their institutional construction is inseparable from the realities of patriarchy. This can be observed in the prioritisation of formal politics, which tend to be exclusory to women and other groups. States also rely on a range of patriarchal institutions such as the military, policing and the bureaucracy which institutionalise forms of gendered, racialized and classed authority.

The Republican Club

What also struck me about efforts to position liberal states a agents of feminist change is the similar set of dilemmas that exist in efforts to involve cis-men in feminist projects. Work with cis-men has emphasised the difficulty of disengaging men from patriarchy, even while they wish to adopt the position of pro-feminist activists. Work on men’s adoption of the position of feminist agents of change suggests that they tend to do so in patriarchal ways, dominating feminist spaces, demanding attention and acting defensively towards women who criticise their behaviour. This work has also suggested that to counter these tendencies the best recourse is the positioning of men as feminist allies, rather than agents of change. The position of ally, rather than agent, defuses some of the privilege which is already given to masculine actors, as it encourages a reflexive disposition toward one’s own actions and takes proactive steps to prevent men being put in a ‘glass escalator’ that rewards them for taking gender justice seriously.

My chapter explores how these politics might be applied to the state. It also suggests that the adoption of ally politics offers additional advantages for liberal states who are bound by colonial histories of trying to save brown women from brown men. While I continue to believe that the framing of ally politics has much to offer when it comes to theorising state action on feminist issues, some more recent shifts have left me increasingly uncomfortable with the tenor of my argument.

When rereading my chapter on feminist foreign policy I am struck by how markedly some of the concerns in public debate have changed. Rather than fighting for our pro-feminist allies to become more radical, revolutionary and reflexive, I find I am increasingly drawn to making broad and simplified critiques of state actors, as their own articulations of political masculinity have become more rudimentary, more explicitly anti-feminist and more successful in rolling back the kind of liberal feminist projects which my chapter critiqued.

The new salience of ‘paleo-masculinist’ state actors like Duterte, Bolsonaro, Orbán and Trump also leave me worried about how my critical work on masculinities programming might be used to dismantle feminist programming altogether (as flawed as these programs are). This form of political masculinity is positioned directly against the pro-feminist leadership style of previous actors which my chapter sort to critique. They explicitly demand a return to patriarchal leadership styles and no longer try to use the ‘agent of feminist change’ status in justifying their role. This can make the issue of identifying the role of masculinity in the state easier, as they seek to enshrine striped-back and brutalised masculinities as the form of political legitimacy in the state. This makes the liberal state masculinities that I critiqued in the chapter seem like a much more appealing alternative to the one we increasingly face today.

At the same time, I remain convinced of how important it is to hold masculine actors to account for the ways that they try to use the language of gender equality to secure their legitimacy as reformed former patriarchs. Remaining conscious of the dangers of idealising the liberal state as an agent of feminist change also helps us to avoid looking through rose-tinted glasses at pro-feminist modes of action in the past. It also enables us to construct a more ethical and effective agenda looking forward, regarding how we want to change ‘the state’ and the multiple arrangements of gender which constitute it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s