Gendered States: What We *Really* Talk About When We Talk About the State

The first of three critical commentaries on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (the full series, including an introduction and posts from chapter authors Christine Agius, David Duriesmith and Katherine Brown, is here). This intervention comes from Megan MacKenzie, who is Professor of Gender and War at the University of Sydney. Megan’s research spans feminist theory, international security and transitional justice, and her latest publications explore (myths about) women in combat roles and masculinity nostalgia.

We talk about the state a lot within the field of International Relations. In fact, as a student of international relations I was taught that the state was the most important actor; everything below the state level was to be studied in other disciplines like sociology, anthropology, or development studies. But what are we really talking about when we talk about the state? It’s probably useful to state upfront- in a sort of full-feminist-disclosure-style- that I’m an unusual person to review a book focused on the state. I’ve always been suspicious and apprehensive about studying the state. I can trace the root of this apprehension back to my PhD training. I can still vividly remember taking an International Political Economy course from the formidable and amazing Professor Suzanne Soederberg. At some point during the first week I made an intervention into the class discussion, and used the word ‘state.’ Professor Soederberg stopped me and said, ‘what do you mean by the state?’ I was flummoxed. ‘Well, the state…you know…um, the institution…’ I’m sure I trailed off in embarrassment. Professor Soederberg then asked the rest of the class for a definition and got equally vague, yet more confident responses that included terms like ‘sovereignty,’ ‘borders,’ and ‘power.’ I can still remember her total exasperation as she drew a black box on the white board and explained that the state is not some singular “thing” that we can just lazily refer to and hope no one asks us what we mean. We were all busted.

Actually, most of IR as a discipline is busted when it comes to lazily using the term ‘state.’ From that moment on, there have been dozens of times I wished I had Professor Soederberg’s words recorded so I could play them at conferences, in other classes, and when reading articles. The state is consistently referred to as a given, or defined with such minimal attention or effort that it offers not much more than my answer back in my International Political Economy unit: ‘well, the state…you know.’ Years later, I still don’t know how most people are using the term ‘the state’ and often I don’t think they do either.

Rather than wade through the many, many definitions of the state, it is more useful to ask, ‘what do we talk about when we talk about the state?’

For decades within IR, the state was almost literally referred to as a black box. Instead of black boxes, IR had had billiard balls bouncing around in anarchy and with nothing of interest inside. 

As Spike Peterson outlines in the forward to Gendered States, feminist scholars have consistently not only pushed the boundaries of IR, but encouraged IR scholars to come clean about what they are really talking about when they talk about the state. Some of the earliest feminist interventions- including from Spike Peterson- highlighted the gendered genealogy and limitations of key concepts and points of analysis within IR, such as ‘the state’ and ‘power.’

So why revisit a book on Gendered States if the concept is so vague, loose, and gendered? The answer is that this book, like the first version, helps us to understand the answer to the question: what do we talk about when we talk about the state? Both books avoid assumptions and unhelpful billiard-ball-level analysis. Moreover, these volumes use relevant cases, examples, and issues to develop intellectually rich and complex contributions that take the state as a starting point, rather than a given. In fact, in many ways, I finished this book even more convinced that there is no such ‘thing’ as a state and that, when we talk about the state we are usually talking about something else. Specifically, we often use ‘the state,’ when we are really talking about nationalism, sovereignty, borders, geography, narratives, power, colonial institutions, patriarchy, international institutions, the military. My theory is that when we talk about any of these things, we often don’t need to talk about the state at all, but we almost always feel the need to.

The chapters in this volume, thankfully, anchor the contributions to the idea of the state before moving into more interesting territory. For example, Jacquie True’s timely chapter on backlash in the fact of gender advancements is a chapter primarily about patriarchal blowback and resilience. Cai Wilkinson’s fascinating chapter on Mother Russia makes a compelling contribution about the power of national narratives and the work to perform and construct the idea of the state.  David Duriesmith’s thoughtful chapter on manly liberal states uses the HeForShe campaign to explore the gendered performances of national actors and the limitations of state institutions in furthering feminist agendas. Katherine Lee Koo’s contribution takes us into the realm of post-conflict reconstruction, and the various challenges and opportunities this period presents.

While it is impossible to engage with each of the chapters in this short review, I wanted to draw out what I saw as the most significant contributions of the book. First, the book offers radically different ways of thinking about the state as an actor, and as a ‘thing.’ Gunawardana offers the most rigorous and rich definition to the state, which is the ultimate counter to the state-as-billiard ball mode. Gunawardana uses “assemblage thinking” to theorise the state as three interconnected, yet separate regimes. Using labor migration and migrant workers as a case (which is itself a rich contribution), Gunawardana boldly contends: “treating the state as a historically constituted assemblage means analysing it as the arrangement of various economic, social, and political processes, institutions, authorities, power relations, people, networks, concepts, norms, organizations, and discourses.”(87-88) Gunawardana encourages readers to embrace this radical approach to studying and conceptualising the state, reminding readers: “Assemblage thinking takes on many styles, but at heart is an ontological stance as well as a repository of methods.” (87) This approach captures the complexity of ‘the state’ as a thing, but also offers a theoretical foundation and concrete methods for studying the state. This chapter was absolutely the highlight of the book for me and, from this moment on, this is my go-to definition of the state.

In addition to “assemblage thinking,” a stand-out contribution in the book was Parashar’s chapter on emotionality and the state. Building on existing work on emotions and international relations, Parashar compels readers to think of the state as performing emotions: “States perform emotions and ascribe emotions to the bodies of their citizens…”(158) Parashar convincingly develops the following case: “States are grappling with competing nationalisms, political ideologies, wars and peacebuilding, truth and reconciliation, as well as developmental challenges, most of which are rooted in identity politics and, as I argue, driven by emotions.” Duriesmith and Wilkinson’s chapters compliment each other in casting the state as a gendered social construction. According to Duriesmith, liberal states are expected to perform masculinity as part of the protectionist logic, making their capacity to be champions of feminist agendas questionable. Wilkinson maps out the “remasculinization” of Mother Russia and the “need to ensure the continued performance- and hence existence- of the hypermasculine state.” (120)

In addition to moving us beyond black-box-billiard ball thinking about the state, one of the most refreshing aspects of the book was that was not US-centric. Much of the IR work on states tends to focus on ‘superpowers’ and debate the rise and fall of Western states, with persistent attention to the US. These chapters thankfully shifted the perspective to other parts of the world- largely the Asia Pacific. Students will especially benefit from visiting familiar themes, such as sovereignty, power, nationalism, and migration, through cases that may be less examined. For example, Christine Agius’ chapter on sovereignty and the politics of protection uses Sweden and Australia as insightful and appropriate cases.

This volume clearly follows through on the promise of the editor’s to ““examin[e] the various ways in which gender affects the construction and interplay of states in contemporary global politics.” (2) I would highly recommend this book, particularly for use as a teaching resource. In addition to my warm praise, I must point out a limitation that perplexed me slightly. In Ann Tickner’s chapter, near the beginning of the book, she reflects on her dissertation work to draw out a broader argument about the need to engage with Indigenous perspectives and scholarship. Tickner notes that Indigenous communities have different relationships to, and within, states and proposes that Indigenous approaches can offer possibilities for “less statist and less hierarchically gendered futures.” (9) I was hoping this proposition might set the agenda for rich engagement with Indigenous feminist scholarship; however, while Tickner cites some Indigenous scholars in her work, there is not much else in this book that furthers the call to include and acknowledge Indigenous work. This is significant, given Indigenous feminists’ plea for non-Indigenous feminists to take stock of their position vis a vis the state. My own history of reluctance and ignorance around the state comes as the result of white privilege. Australian Indigenous feminist Aileen Moreton-Robinson explains how feminist scholarship- particularly feminist standpoint theory- has often ignored and erased the significance of sovereignty to knowledge production and legitimacy. It is worth quoting her at length: “while feminist standpoint theorists acknowledge that all knowledge is socially situated, and therefore partial, they do not address their privileged relationship to the nation’s sovereignty that underpins their situatedness and ontology, which enables knowing and the capacity to ‘contract’. Canada and the USA colonised Aboriginal and Native American lands and they continue to do so.  Feminist standpoint theorists’ social location, subjugated knowledges, strong objectivity and the socially situatedness of their knowledge are produced within post-colonising national contexts…. There is an inextricable link between a nation state’s sovereignty and what counts as knowledge, where and when it is produced and by whom.”  (2014: 335-336)

Moreton-Robinson’s work reminds us to acknowledge that states are not only gendered, but also the product of imperialism. The colonial roots of states cannot be disentangled from the gendered history and elements. Moreover, the knowledge produced within states- including feminist contributions- often extends from a taken-for-granted foundation of sovereignty and statehood, which is the product of colonisation. Needless to say, it would have been a welcome inclusion if there were more chapter that took Tickner’s initial proposition to engage with Indigenous scholarship further.

Finally, I would have liked to see the editors of this book provide a more nuanced sense of their conception of the state, or a more explicit argument about gendered states that each chapter could respond to. In their introduction, the editors note that the book will “consider how the concept of the “gendered state” Can usefully advance our theoretical and empirical understanding and analysis of contemporary political, economic, and social dynamics within and across societies.”(5) However, it was left somewhat ambiguous as to how the editors defined ‘gendered states,’ or what specific advancements or interventions this volume makes in comparison to the first edition. The reader is also left unsure of whether Gendered States seeks to offer a radical rethinking of the state and, in turn, a continued radical rethinking of International Relations (Gunawardana’s chapter seems to make this case) or, whether the volume seeks to engage with mainstream IR and remind the discipline of the continued relevance of gendered perspectives in mainstream debates. In the end, readers will likely appreciate that they are offered multiple perspectives rather than a unified agenda.


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