The Politics of “Fitting” Feminist Theory in IR

by Laura Sjoberg

Feminist theorists have long made and substantiated the argument that gender “matters” in International Relations (IR) theory and practice, and that it matters in complicated and hybrid ways. Gender analysis has been used (in my view effectively) across a wide spectrum of theoretical approaches, issue areas, and contemporary political events.  I thought about this as I was reading news stories and opinion pieces expressing disappointment that Malala Yousafzai did not win the Nobel Peace Prize. There are so many gendered dimensions to her story: her activism and agency; the gendered reaction by the Pakistani Taliban; the gendered reaction to that repression around the world; the gendered narratives surrounding her candidacy for the Nobel Peach Prize; and then the gendered reactions to the Nobel committee’s choice not to select her. All of these gendered framings, reactions, and receptions went on in the context of a gendered conflict between gendered states in what I would argue is a gendered international system. Reading those stories was, to me, another example of how gender “matters” in global politics -an example which could richly inform IR theory.

But what part of IR theory? Where does feminism fit? Is it another “ism” to go along with realisms, liberalisms, and the like? Does it cut across the “isms”? Where does it fit politically? Epistemologically? Methodologically? This question has been tackled again and again by feminist IR theorists like Ann Tickner, Marianne Marchand, Cynthia Weber, Marysia Zalewski, Jill Steans, as well as by some theorists in mainstream IR interested in the question of feminisms’ fit. In the rest of this short post, I suggest that perhaps fit and positionality are the wrong language to talk about the relationship between feminist work on global politics and the field of IR in which it is (at least partly) situated.

Its not that I object to the many classification schema that have emerged and encompass feminist IR. While I think that the paradigmatic approach (there is realism, liberalism, constructivism, critical theory/poststructuralism, post colonialism, and feminism, etc.), is the least descriptive, I am happy that feminism has started to be regularly included in descriptions of IR paradigms. I think there is a little more purchase in the schema that suggests (e.g., my writing with Ann Tickner) that there is a place for feminist theorizing in each paradigmatic approach (e.g., realist feminism, liberal feminism, constructivist feminism, critical feminism, poststructuralist feminism, postcolonial feminism; or feminist realism, feminist liberalism, feminist constructivism, feminist critical theory, feminist poststructuralism, and feminist postcolonialism). I have tried to describe feminist theorizing not as a fit, but as a relationship, considering the strategies that feminist theorizing uses to relate to/with the ‘mainstream’ of IR – thinking about critique as compared to mainstreaming, inside/outside dynamics, and the like. I think there’s usefulness in that, though there’s an “agent/structure” problem with trying to think about who is relating and how. I have also thought about it as something that can be described as an argument-where the substance is in the disagreement rather than in how it can be resolved, substantively or positionally.

I think all of these are useful descriptors situationally. Lately, though, I’ve wondered if there is significant value in coming to talk about scholarship as politics when thinking about how to map the field. Feminist theorizing has been a key intellectual contributor to the understanding that knowledge in IR is political – so it seems fitting to translate that work to talking about the position of feminist theorizing in the field. Feminists have made the argument that all theoretical approaches have politics about IR, and about global politics. Feminist theory have politics about IR, and about global politics. In other words, they are fundamentally political theories of global politics. I think it would look interesting to tell a story about the political relationships between theories (and even theorists) as a way to then tell stories about how they become paradigmatically, epistemologically, and methodologically opposed. While a blog post is way too short to explore this fully, I do think that it might provide an interesting perspective.

A shallow and well-rehearsed example might provide some preliminary insight. The politics of realists initially identifying themselves as realists as compared to the “idealism” of the liberals that they opposed has been discussed at length in various histories of the field. The politics of identifying as “feminist” has been well-rehearsed among feminist scholars of IR, if not by people outside of feminist IR. But these politics have not usually been discussed together – the politics of labelling feminism as outside the “real,” for example, is critical, and potentially violent, but has to my knowledge never been explicitly discussed. The question has not only political but methodological and epistemological implications – how is gender identified? How is it understood? Where does it fall in the power relations of naming? All of these questions have also been taken very seriously in a number of capacities. But the terminology of the relationship among (and histories of) IR theories, and feminist IR’s place in it, discussed in terms of politics, may add another dimension to the discussion.


Laura Sjoberg is associate professor at the University of Florida. Her research focuses on feminist approaches to international relations and especially to international security, gender and just war theory, women’s violence in global politics, and feminist interpretations of the theory and practice of security policy. Among many other books, she is the author (with Caron Gentry) of Mothers, monsters, whores: women’s violence in global politics (Zed Books, 2007) and Gender, justice, and the wars in iraq: a feminist reformulation of just war theory (Lexington Books, 2006).

Dr.  Sjoberg will be speaking at King’s College London RCIR about her latest book Gendering Global Conflict: Toward a Feminist Theory of War (Columbia University Press, 2013) on 2nd December, 5-7pm, Pyramid Room, King’s Building, Strand. More details about this event here.