What We Talked About at ISA: The Climate for Women in International Relations and Politics

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Yesterday, The Guardian reported on the level of sexual harassment in British universities. Based on Freedom of Information requests (and for this and other reasons necessarily a partial insight into the incidence of harassment) the investigation nevertheless notes the combination of allegations from students against staff, and from colleagues against each other (roughly 60% and 40% of the total allegations respectively). Perhaps the most high profile media story on sexual harassment in universities so far, The Guardian piece nevertheless follows from a series of stories and controversies, most notably Sara Ahmed’s documentation of specific cases at Goldsmiths (covered in posts on the initial harassment conference, on the nature of evidence, on discovery and speaking out, and on resignation as a feminist issue).

Many of the same concerns have been raised in International Relations (IR) and politics. Individual stories of harassment have long circulated (and been collected anonymously at sites such as Everyday Power and Privilege in IR). At this year’s International Studies Association conference in Baltimore, ten panels were convened on marginalisation, discrimination and violence in professional contexts. Due to a gap in the programme, I was asked to contribute. I opted to describe – and now report in blog form – an experiment in addressing discrimination and bias against women in academia, and to draw some comparisons with IR and politics.

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Citizens Of Nowhere

In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party conference, Theresa May threw down a gauntlet:

…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

For anyone wondering who or what met the cut, May was helpfully expansive, populating this rather arcane placeholder with the figures of the boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after his staff, the international company that eludes the snares of tax law, the ‘household name’ that refuses cooperation with anti-terrorist authorities, and the director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust. Basically, fat cats with the odd public intellectual thrown in. May contrasted the spectre of the rootless cosmopolitan with the ‘spirit of citizenship’, which, in her view, entailed ‘respect [for] the bonds and obligations that make our society work’,theresa-may ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you’, ‘recognizing the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas.’ And perhaps astonishingly, for a Conservative Prime Minister, May promised to deploy the full wherewithal of the state to revitalize that elusive social contract by protecting workers’ rights and cracking down on tax evasion to build ‘an economy that works for everyone’. Picture the Brexit debate as a 2X2 matrix with ideological positions mapped along an x-axis, and Remain/Leave options mapped along a y-axis to yield four possibilities: Right Leave (Brexit), Left Leave (Lexit), Right Remain (things are great) and Left Remain (things are grim, but the alternative is worse). Having been a quiet Right Remainer in the run-up to the referendum, May has now become the Brexit Prime Minister while posing, in parts of this speech, as a Lexiter (Lexiteer?).

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Queer International Relations: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Cynthia Weber’s new book Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge. We kick off the symposium with an inaugural post from Cynthia, followed by replies over the next few days from Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh and Dianne Otto. We will conclude the symposium with a reply from Cynthia. cw-headshot

Cynthia Weber is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.  She has written extensively on sovereignty, intervention, and US foreign policy, as well as on feminist, gendered and sexualized understandings and organizations of international relations.

UPDATE (22/11/2016): a response from Joan Cocks.

UPDATE (23/11/2016): a response from Antke Engel.

UPDATE (24/11/2016): a response from Cyril Ghosh.

UPDATE (25/11/2016): a response from Dianne Otto.

UPDATE (27/11/2016): a response from Cynthia Weber.


What is ‘homosexuality’? Who is ‘the homosexual’? Queer Studies scholars have long engaged with these questions, as well as with a vast array of additional questions about gender variant, gender non-conforming and gender expanding people. They have done so not to answer these questions but to trace how what Michel Foucault calls the will to knowledge about ‘homosexuality’ and ‘the homosexual’ drives various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, techniques of medicalization, psychologization, and (self)disciplinization, Queer Studies scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ subjectivities are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sexes, genders and sexualities, which they read intersectionally through (amongst other things) race, class and ability. What Queer Studies scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sexualities is a specifically sovereign will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see, for example, Berlant’s work on sovereignty).

International Relations (IR) scholars, in contrast, regard sovereignty as among their core concerns. This leads them to pose an alternative set of questions in their research, including: What is ‘sovereignty’?; Who is (the always presumptively male, masculinely-engendered) ‘sovereign man’?; and What arrangements of national and international politics does ‘sovereign man’ authorize? Foucauldian and other social constructivist and poststructuralist IR scholars ask these questions not to answer them but to trace how the will to knowledge about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sovereign man’ drive various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, the social construction of nation-states as sovereign, justifications for intervention in the name of sovereignty, and sovereignly-authorized international economic distributions of wealth, these IR scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ international subjectivities and international orders are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sovereignty. What IR scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sovereignty is a specifically sexualized will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see Peterson’s work).

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When White Men Rule The World

A shorter version of this post appears at the Oxford University Press blog. It was invited – if that’s the right word – some months ago as a tie-in with the new edition of The Globalization of World Politics. Obviously, I was planning on writing about questions of imperial feminism and intersectionality. Things didn’t turn out that way. Apologies for repetition of good sense already promulgated elsewhere, and for the inevitable commentary fatigue.


Donald Trump

If Hillary Rodham Clinton had triumphed in last Tuesday’s presidential election, it would have been a milestone for women’s political representation: a shattering of the hardest glass ceiling, as her supporters liked to say. Clinton’s defeat in the electoral college (but not the popular ballot, where she narrowly triumphed by about 640,000 votes at last count) is also the failure of a certain feminist stratagem: namely, the cultivation of a highly qualified, centrist, establishment (and comparatively hawkish) female candidate, measured in speech and reassuringly moderate in her politics. But the victory of Donald Trump tells us just as much about the global politics of gender, and how it is being remade.

The election itself was predicted to be the most divided by sex in US history. Polls from a few weeks before the election had Clinton’s lead among women at the highest level for a presidential candidate since records began in 1952. A widely shared meme celebrated the trend and declared that “women’s suffrage is saving the world”. Activists from the ‘alt-right’ (a conglomerate of neo-Nazis, xenophobes, men’s rights types, lapsed libertarians and professional agitators) trolled in response that the 19th amendment should be repealed. Time called the election a ‘referendum on gender’; The New Yorker a question of ‘manifest misogyny’.

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In the end, the politics of race mediated the politics of gender: white women were by many leagues more comfortable with Trump’s candidacy than women of colour. As Kimberlé Crenshaw pointed out on Wednesday morning, the claim for a singular female worldview – one that could be mobilised to ordain Clinton ‘Madame President’ – collapses under the pressure of other cross-cutting histories, interests, and ideologies (the idea that women share a common political perspective has of course been under attack within feminist theory for many decades). As has now been much rehearsed, NBC’s exit polls measured a 10% lead for Trump among white women, and an almost 20% lead amongst white women between the ages of 45 and 64. By contrast, CNN data indicated that 94% of black women voted for Clinton. Opinions now vary on how much blame to apportion suburban white women, or what have been called ‘Ivanka voters’, for the result. Somewhat confoundingly, Pew Research finds that the overall gender gap was indeed larger than in the last presidential elections (with women leaning Democrat). In either case the most significant shifts took place within the cohort of white voters (in favour of the Republicans).

And yet the power of race and racism in deciding the election should not be taken to mean that gender is irrelevant after all. As predicted, it was white men who voted for Trump in the greatest numbers. Trump is moreover symbolic of, and personally implicated in, a resurgent strain of misogynistic thinking: regularly dismissive of the intelligence and professionalism of women, speaking about them as sex objects or harridans, and fuelling conspiracy theories and denialism over sexual assault. And although the collapse in the predicted female vote for Clinton is surprising, it is at the same time no novelty to observe that women may also disqualify a politician on the basis of her sex – for example, in setting higher standards for female than male candidates, in believing that only men are aggressive enough for politics, or in judging women more harshly on their appearance and demeanour.  Continue reading

A measured response to criticisms of the LSE’s new appointments

By way of homage to xkcd: This blog contains strong language, which may be unsuitable for children, and evidence-based arguments, which may be unsuitable for Trump supporters.

Oh, and also, for those who care about these things: I am most definitely posting this in an independent capacity. My views reflect the views of neither of the institutions with which I am affiliated, nor do those institutions swear as much as I do. Probably. Or at least they only do it in private.

Two things happened in my little corner of the interwebs this week. First, a dear friend discovered the (fabulously sweary and very NSFW) website Get In the Sea, and tagged me in a Facebook post to tell me so. For those who are not familiar, it is a site that posts images of, or links to, things, people or events that its creator(s) finds objectionable with a caption exhorting them to ‘get in the fucking sea’ (it’s funnier than it sounds). Naturally, I was delighted by this development; I have long been a follower of the site – there are days on which only its unique blend of righteous indignation and creative profanity seem able to raise a smile for me – but it pleased me greatly to know that for this, among many other things, my friend and I have shared enthusiasm. It is always nice to be reminded of why your friends are your friends: because of the random synchronicity of humour, life experience, outlook, whatever. Apparently we both enjoy succinct critiques of consumer culture and injustice with a side of foul language. This makes me smile.

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The sea, to get in (photo by author)

And, second, my social media feeds were jammed with the news of Angelina Jolie’s appointment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. My construction of that sentence is entirely deliberate: mass news media coverage of the appointment of four new ‘Professors in Practice’ at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security focused almost exclusively on the credentials of Angelina Jolie Pitt (while mostly dropping the Pitt because who cares about calling her by her actual name when we’re busily engaged in tearing her down) to occupy this position, mentioning in passing if at all the other three new appointments (Jane Connors, Director of International Advocacy at Amnesty International Geneva, William Hague, former UK Foreign Secretary, and Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, for those of you who managed – understandably – to miss their names). Continue reading

The Futures Past of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

"What are you doing for Peace?" Launch Event

UN Secretariat staff mark the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. 17 September 2015. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

This essay is a much abridged and lightly edited version of an article of the same name by Paul Kirby and Laura J. Shepherd published on 8 March 2016 in International Affairs.

UNSCR 1325, the foundational resolution of the eight that form the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) policy architecture, has strikingly few critics – or, at least, few who would openly dispute its headline ambition: to achieve global gender equality. It seems particularly appropriate to celebrate the WPS agenda on International Women’s Day, adopted by the United Nations in recognition of the ongoing global struggle for women’s rights. Our modest contribution to IWD celebrations this year is the launch of a special issue of International Affairs, which documents the advances and limits of the WPS agenda. These are traced in the various articles across multiple registers, from the implementation of WPS principles and provisions by regional organizations to the heteronormative dynamics of participation, prevention and protection. And yet, as the contributors show, the much-noted gap between WPS ambitions and current realities is not merely a report on imperfect implementation: rather, it takes us to the heart of what the WPS agenda is, and what it might become.

In our article, we discuss various elements, or ‘pillars’ of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, to evaluate where gains have been made under the auspices of this architecture. The ‘pillars’ are generally identified as ‘protection’, ‘participation’, ‘prevention’ and ‘relief and recovery’, with a fifth – the normative dimension – sometimes included. WPS principles govern activity in each of these domains. Women’s participation in peace agreements, for example, is somewhat more consistent than it was before the WPS agenda was inaugurated, and yet remains disappointing given initial ambitions. From 2005 onwards, there has been a notable increase in the number of peace agreements dealing with multiple aspects of gender security and participation.  The 2015 global study on the implementation of Resolution 1325 found that the proportion of peace agreements since 2000 making reference to women was 27 per cent, more than double the level over the period 1990–2000.  Given the emphasis in the WPS agenda on women as both makers and beneficiaries of peace, this trend towards inclusion is clearly welcome. Yet, as Radhika Coomaraswamy and her colleagues observed: ‘The present programmes put forward by the international community tend to be extremely narrow: just to bring a female body to the table’. Continue reading

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.

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