Debating IR

Probing the philosophical underpinnings of the international system and anything else of interest.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

A postmodern approach to feminism

Earlier this semester, a professor in another of my IR classes assigned us a reading on feminism, which was a bit of a shock. What does international relations have to do with the oppression of women? International relations oppresses everyone. In the weeks that have followed, however, I have learned much about the interplay of socially constructed gender roles and their importance to IR. One of the most interesting articles I've read on the subject has been Mertus's chapter in the Sterling-Folker book.

Mertus gives attention to "the roles [women] play as mothers, nurses, victims, saviors, revenge arsonists, and war survivors" rather than limiting the discussion to women's roles (or lack thereof) as policymakers. This aligns with the postmodern feminist approach, which holds that women have played significant roles throughout history but that these roles have been undervalued. This undervaluing of women's roles while respecting the roles historically played by men (soldiers, presidents, politicians) has led to a world of socially constructed norms, in which what is female is considered weak while what is male is considered strong, creating a lens that colors our perceptions. Mertus goes on to discuss how the way we know the world (or, our "lens") limits us.

She discusses the patriarchal tendencies of the state, in the context not only of men being the active participants but also of the predominant worldview being a masculine one, i.e. a worldview that focuses on "the concentration of power in an elite and the legitimization of a monopoly on the use of force to maintain that control" (266). I've heard this in other IR classes, but it still bothers me. Why is a worldview based in an understanding of power hierarchies automatically masculine? This statement was more understandable when the conception of women as gentle and men as warlike was predominant, but nowadays I think it's more commonly realized that these differences are socially constructed, and that depending on their upbringing, a woman can be just as power-focused as a man. This is the reason why the increased inclusion of women in IR positions, as in the case of Rice and Thatcher, has not significantly changed the system. For one of two reasons, women policymakers just aren't that different. That could be because A) gender differences really are irrelevant, or B) only the women who act like men have a shot of getting elected. Christa addressed this pretty well, so I'll just quote her: "Honestly, if Thatcher made the choice to adopt more stereotypical masculine traits because she felt that was more fulfilling to her as a person, then that's great. If she did it because she thought that was the only way she could be a female prime minister of England, then that's wrong."

So what, exactly, constitutes a "masculine" trait and what constitutes a "feminine" trait -- as opposed to what traits just happen to align with different personalities? Personally, I subscribe to the view that it's possible for men and women to have more in common with each other than with members of their own gender, and that it's important to consider why we classify a personality characteristic as inherently associated with one gender. Sure, this made sense back when gender roles were sharply defined (women in the home, men working, etc.), but now that gender roles are more equal, it's time to question whether the ideas of masculinity or femininity have any significance.


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