The masculinity of International Relations in its theory and practice: a feminist analysis

The masculinity of International Relations in its theory and practice: a feminist analysis
Sophia Alethia Pesce Villagómez
B.A. International Relations

About the author: Alethia Pesce is an International Relations graduate and it is given her academic and personal background that she has the goal to occupy a leadership position in a think tank for global studies, particularly in decision-making processes related to the changes in the world economy and the consequences of such evolution. In the future, she plans to make a career in the areas of International Economy and Public Policy. Research papers such as this one are crucial for policy impact now that they unravel the roots and evaluate the consequences of matters like inequality, poverty, and violence, by which especially women are affected. In that sense, the debate that Political Science and its various realms are gendered and/or gender-biased challenges the underlying assumptions that policymakers have in regards to their priorities when making decisions in the affairs of a state, for example, the way that public spaces are planned and the roles that individuals occupy within them.




Generally, gender is ignored in the International Relations mainstream. One of the reasons for it is that, ever since it was created as a discipline, it had its bases on theories proposed by male western political scholars, many of which dismiss -either purposely or by omission- the role of women on the field and the very importance that gender has on the field. In addition, feminists in Political Science, and its branches, have argued that the discipline is masculine naturally, and therefore it is gender-biased when approaching the issues of its concern. In consequence, not only theoretically, but also practically, women have been excluded from the actual international relations among states, now that they are based on men and -certain- masculinities. In that sense, a feminist perspective is useful to approach international politics by providing an extensive analysis on how actors in the field of International Relations fail to recognize the importance of gender. This makes it evident that such realm is not only gendered, but it is masculinist; and bearing that in mind, it becomes unavoidable that such actors reconsider their assumptions.



Ever since International Relations emerged, it had its major growth in the West, when “the extreme devastation caused by the war [World War 1] strengthened the conviction among political leaders that not enough was known about international relations and that universities should promote research and teaching on issues related to international cooperation and war and peace” (Britannica, 2016). It was a time in which political theorists, like Kant and Morgenthau, would picture, before anything else, a political man upon which most academic productions were based on. Many of such theories are still current and are part of the curriculum of students who will eventually become decision-makers in the states’ political affairs. As those western theories are male-constructed, they tend to ignore other genders, or even, the concept of gender itself. In that sense, “Western theories of universal justice, built on a rather abstract concept of rationality, have generally been constructed out of a definition of human nature that excludes or diminishes women. Feminists assert that the universalism they defend is defined by identifying the experience of a special group, (elite men), as paradigmatic of human beings as a whole” (Benhabib in Tickner, 1997; p. 617). Then, the very definition of what it means to be human has rejected women from taking a significant part in world politics, by privileging men since the establishment of the theory’s fundamental concepts.


Origins of the exclusion of women from IR

Furthermore, Tickner has identified that “most Western political theorists were quite explicit in their claims that women either were not capable of, or should not be encouraged in, the attainment of enlightenment, autonomy, and rationality” (Tickner, 1997; p. 617). Then, such exclusions of women from politics are not underlying assumptions by feminists who are thirsty to prove gender-based inequalities, but are explicit statements made by the theoretical funders of International Relations. Hence, it would become naive to argue that classical IR theory is more gender-neutral than masculine -which evidently is not-. In addition, “while IR scholars might argue that [such Western political theorists’] views on women were a time-bound premise which can safely be discarded in today’s more gender-sensitive climate, feminists believe that the Western philosophical tradition is too deeply implicated in masculinist assumptions to serve as a foundation for constructing a gender sensitive IR” (Tickner, 1997; p. 617). Therefore, it is not just a matter of the historical and social context in which they were conceived because they have transcended over time up to the point in which those are the foundational texts of the classical theories which constitute the discipline, and they hardly allow the development of an actual feminist IR.

What is more, it is necessary to recognize that “Women and gender are both important, for separate but related reasons. Where women have been largely absent from mainstream International Relations, it has been essential to develop increasing bodies of theoretical and substantive research related to them” (Youngs, 2004: 77). Thereupon, the importance of encompassing said topics is reaffirmed now that, even if there has not been a gender-sensitive International Relations discipline, legitimate alternative academic productions that do take women into consideration have been developed alongside but separately. Likewise, Narain outstands that regardless of the recent intervention of Feminism in the theory and practice of IR, “it challenges the foundations of IR, one of the last bastions of men and masculinity, in terms of ontology (the philosophical study of the nature of being or reality) and epistemology (the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge)” (Narain, 2014; p. 182). Thus, besides the fact that IR is a male realm, it is not opposed to gender neither hermetic to feminism.


Basic misunderstandings

There are differences between conventional IR approaches and the feminist responses to them, which have originated the idea that IR and feminism are incompatible. Tickner considers that there are three types of misunderstandings in that regard:

First, misunderstandings about the meaning of gender as manifested in the more personal reactions; second, the different realities or ontologies that feminists and nonfeminists see when they write about international politics, evident in comments that feminist scholars are not engaging the subject matter of IR; third, the epistemological divides that underlie questions as to whether feminists are doing theory at all (Tickner, 1997; p. 613).

As a deduction, the author implies that there is a belief that gender is rather a personal issue and not one that belongs to the public sphere and/or that is not related to states. Also, there is a broad variety of approaches that both feminists and nonfeminists have, which is reflected in the idea that feminist scholars are enrolling in topics that are not embodied in IR. Finally, it is also questioned if feminists are really theorizing.

Nevertheless, both angles must pinpoint that “Gender is not just about women; it is also about men and masculinity, [this] needs to be emphasized if scholars of international relations are to better understand why feminists claim that it is relevant to their discipline and why they believe that a gendered analysis of its basic assumptions and concepts can yield fruitful results” (Scott in Tickner, 1997; p. 615). And so, as feminists have understood IR’s endeavor, it is now the duty of IR scholars to understand the importance of a gender-based comprehension in their own domain. On those grounds, Feminist International Relations has quietly emerged to provide those necessary acknowledgements. So on, it has identified “malestream International Relations theory as one of the discourses that help perpetuate a distorted and partial world view that reflects the disproportionate power of control and influence that men hold, rather than the full social reality of the lives of women, children and men” (Youngs, 2004: 76). Thereon, feminists have provided an unconventional questioning to IR, which make scholars notice the need to avoid settling for the rooted assumptions of their theories and practices.


Prioritization of masculine-related affairs

Undoubtedly, IR is a male realm, not only in its constitution but the way it approaches issues of its concern. Feminist scholars like Tickner recognize “the masculinity of strategic discourse, which relates to the hegemonic masculinity of states. The security of the state is perceived as a core value by citizens. National security and the maintenance of its interests continue to be an almost exclusively male domain” (Narain, 2014; p. 188). Thus, the male construction of IR is evident too in the discourse used to justify the need to set state security as a priority in its relations with other states. Not to mention that, as Youngs indicates, “it is to some extent not surprising that feminist International Relations stands largely outside mainstream International Relations, because the concerns of the former, gender and women, continue to appear to be subsidiary to high politics and diplomacy” (Youngs, 2004: 79). In this way, actors of IR prioritize affairs related to masculinity before gender or femininity, either as an approach or in practice. On the other hand, feminists make different questions than traditional IR theorists now that they “construct their knowledge about international relations not so much from the perspectives of ‘insiders’ but from voices of the disempowered and marginalized not previously heard. The sounds of these unfamiliar voices and the issues they raise sometimes cause conventional scholars to question whether feminists even belong within the same discipline” (Tickner, 1997; p. 623). So on, such arguments are used to dismiss gendered analysis and evidence the reluctance of leaders in IR to adopt it.

Indeed, the masculinity of IR is noticeable in the mere way it defines femininity, masculinity and the issues associated to them. Meanwhile, “feminists define gender, in the symbolic sense, as a set of variable but socially and culturally constructed characteristics -such as power, autonomy, rationality, and public- that are stereotypically associated with masculinity. Their opposites -weakness, dependence, emotion, and private-are associated with femininity” (Harding in Tickner, 1997; p. 614). It is in that sense, that men and women are related to different roles within IR: security is to men as domesticity is to women. Accordingly, in the IR realm, “whereas men are associated with defending the state, construed as the highest form of patriotism, women are excluded from this, engaged instead in the domestic realm in ‘ordering’ and comforting roles as mothers or basic needs providers and in caring professions such as teachers and nurses” (Narain, 2014; p. 189). This pictures broadly what it means to be a man or a woman in international politics and what it expected from a person according to their gender. It is then that “Women and their association with the private realm of domesticity, morality, subjectivity and passion stand for everything that the IR field is not, especially in terms of its disciplinary boundaries” (Sylvester in Narain, 2014; p. 182). Such constrictions mold the assumption that women belong to a private realm and have no place in IR because it is speculated that they are inherently contrary to the nature of the domain. Nevertheless, it must be noted that this is the only way in which gender is considered within IR: as a coercive tool.


Gender-biased state behavior in IR

Another way to point out that IR is gender-biased in practice is that, as Youngs (2014) affirms, mainstream International Relations has leaned towards treating the state as a coherent (male-controlled) unit, while the feminist perspective of IR has evaluated the gendered realities which are “expressed through the ‘public over private’ hierarchy (sexual contract) that has traditionally framed politics (and economics) as predominantly public spheres of male influence and identification, and the home, family and social reproduction as predominantly private spheres of female influence and identification” (Youngs, 2004: 81). In that sense, traditionally political affairs are exclusively for men; so on, women are, someway not allowed to leave their private spaces: the state and its actions with others are related to masculinity and constructed on male features and their opposites, to women.

What is more, the International relations among states are gendered, and are mainly constructed on the afore-mentioned masculinity features. As IR is based upon that, in the way it focuses on (male-associated) notions, it fails to “take detailed account of gender, [and] offer a partial account of power that remains largely on the surface of an assumed, rather than fully interrogated, predominantly male-constructed reality” (Youngs, 2004: 87). Another troublesome term is what it means to be a citizen, which has also been a problem to women, since women “were not included in the original social contract by most contract theorists in the Western tradition; rather, they were generally subsumed under male heads of households with no legal rights of their own” (Pateman in Tickner, 1997; p. 627). Likewise, some other gender-neutral alleged terms like head of household, and breadwinner are, in reality, associated with men. However, “while these issues may appear irrelevant to the conduct of international politics, feminists claim that these gender-differentiated roles actually support and legitimate the international security-seeking behavior of the state” (Tickner, 1997; p. 627). Consequently, state behavior is gendered in practice too, considering that the questions asked in IR (and the way they are answered) establish the focuses and conducts of the actors in the international area.



As it has been stated before, International relations is not only a gendered realm, but it is a male one. This can be concluded by adopting a feminist analysis of the discipline’s theoretical bases in a male-constructed political academia that overlooks women and gender by omitting them or failing to recognize their importance in IR. Also, Political Science and its branches are male-reserved because of the assumptions made regarding the roles that women and men must have in different spheres and their duties around the state. Additionally, in the practice, IR responds to the way it was created by prioritizing masculine-associated expressions and issues, as well as excluding women and gender in its considerations for its behavior in international terms. Hence, it is -almost- unquestionable that International Relations is male theoretically and practically along with the way it defines masculinity and femininity. Nevertheless, “Thinking about international politics is most meaningful when it derives from contact with diverse values, anxieties and memories of people in those societies. Yet such access is itself gendered” (Enloe, 2000: 5). However, IR may be male but that does not mean it is adversary to feminism.



Enloe, C. H. (2000). Bananas, beaches and bases: Making feminist sense of international politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

International relations. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

Narain, S. (2014). Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives of J. Ann Tickner. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 21(2), 179-197. doi:10.1177/0971521514525085

Tickner, J. A. (1997). You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements Between Feminists and IR Theorists. Int Studies Q International Studies Quarterly, 41(4), 611-632. doi:10.1111/1468-2478.00060

Youngs, G. (2004). Feminist International Relations: A contradiction in terms? Or: Why women and gender are essential to understanding the world ‘we’ live in. International Affairs Int Affairs, 80(1), 75-87. doi:10.1111/j..2004.00367.x


The masculinity of International Relations in its theory and practice: a feminist analysis

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