Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 17 Notes: Gender in Global Politics

  • What are the main schools of feminist theory, and over what do they disagree?
  • What is gender, and how does it affect political understanding?
  • How have feminists understood security, war and armed conflict?
  • Are states and nationalism constructed on the basis of masculinist norms?
  • How does an awareness of gender relations alter our understanding of issues such as globalization and development?

The study of international politics has traditionally been 'gender-blind'. In a discipline that focused primarily on states and inter-state relations, sexual politics and gender relations appeared to be of little or no relevance. Since the 1980s, however, feminist perspectives on world affairs have gained growing prominence. To a large degree, this reflected a growing acceptance that people's understanding of the world is shaped by the social and historical context in which they live and work. This implied, amongst other things, that global politics could be understood through a 'gender lens'. But what does it mean to put a 'gender lens' on global politics? How has feminism changed our understanding of international and global processes? One implication of adopting a gender perspective on such matters has been to make women visible, in the sense of compensating for a 'mobilization of bias' within a largely male-dominated discipline that had previously been concerned only with male-dominated institutions and processes. Women, in other words, have always been part of world politics; it is just that their role and contribution had been ignored. At a deeper, and analytically more significant, level, putting a 'gender lens' on global politics means recognizing the extent to which the concepts, theories and assumptions through which the world has conventionally been understood are gendered. Gender analysis is thus the analysis of masculine and feminine identities, symbols and structures and how they shape global politics. Not only does this involve exposing what are seen as 'masculinist' biases that run through the conceptual framework of mainstream theory, but this conceptual framework has also, in some ways, been recast to take account of feminist perceptions. Do women and men understand and act on the world in different ways, and what is the significance of this for the theory and practice of global politics?

  • Feminism can broadly be defined as a movement for the social advancement of women. However, it has taken a wide range of forms, with distinctions particularly being made between feminist traditions orientated around the goal of gender equality and those that place a greater emphasis on women being 'woman-identified'.
  • The 'gender lens' of empirical feminism is primarily concerned to 'add women' to existing analytical frameworks, especially in the attempt to tackle gender gaps between women and men. Making feminist sense of international politics therefore means recognizing the previously invisible contributions that women make to shaping world affairs.
  • The 'gender lens' of analytical feminism is concerned, by contrast, to highlight the gender biases that pervade the theoretical framework and key concepts of mainstream international theory, and particularly realism. These are deconstructed to reveal masculinist biases that, in turn, help to legitimize gendered hierarchies and perpetuate the marginalization of women.
  • Feminists have drawn attention to the gendered character of states and nations. Patriarchal biases within the state dictate that states will be competitive and at least potentially aggressive, while nations and nationalism are commonly entangled with gendered images that may place a special emphasis on female 'purity'.
  • Feminists have been critical of the conventional notion of national security, seeing the broader idea of human security as a better means of highlighting women's concerns. War is often also viewed as a gendered phenomenon, reflecting tendencies such as the prevalence of men in senior positions in political and military life, and the impact of myths about masculinity and militarism and about the need for male 'warriors' to protect women and children.
  • Feminist theorizing on economic issues has tended to stress the ways in which the sexual division of labour serves the economic interests of capitalism as well as the extent to which the conceptual framework of conventional political economy has been constructed on a masculinist basis. Such ideas have influenced feminist thinking about both globalization and development.