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Feminisms Troubling the Boundaries of International Relations

Summary and Keywords

A constant source of concern for feminists working in International Relations (IR) has been the field’s implied or stated boundaries. During the first ten years of its existence (roughly covering the years 1985–1995), the main goal of feminist IR was to challenge a caged-in knowledge realm that excluded more phenomena than it promised to seek. By the early twenty-first century, IR had devolved into a camp structure that was able to accommodate on the inside all manner of theories, people, and places. Yet while feminism contributed to troubled boundaries of IR, it did so against the backdrop of internal boundary dilemmas of inside and outside, good women/bad women, authentic versus dominant voice, gender versus feminism, and so on. Today, feminist IR is somewhat different from its earlier orientations. It now draws heavily on postmodern thinking about margins, multiple truths, subjugated identities and discourses, and power in general, and takes on IR theory and methodology using insights from postmodern thinking and other disciplines such as anthropology and geography. Feminist IR continues to bring new locations of the international and relations to the fore. Two such areas deal with the subject of violent women in international relations and the urgencies of development around the world.

Keywords: feminists, International Relations, feminist International Relations, feminism, violent women, development, boundaries


Feminists working in International Relations (IR) have been troubled for more than 20 years about the field’s implied or stated boundaries. For the first 10 years of the existence of feminist IR (roughly 1985–95), its main goal was to challenge a caged-in knowledge realm that excluded more phenomena than it went out to seek. Unnervingly, IR restricted the scope of the international, the relations of the international, the methodologies one could legitimately bring to bear, and the topics that could pass muster by the field; and IR was almost entirely uninterested in the gendered story lines its boundaries contained and reproduced. Feminism and other Third Debate forces jousted with the field, gradually producing an environment more conducive to creative complexity. By the early twenty-first century, IR had devolved into a camp structure that was able to accommodate on the inside all manner of theories, people, and places (Sylvester 2007); many would find a room of their own, so to speak, at this end of old IR. Yet while feminism contributed to tumbled boundaries of IR, it did so against the backdrop of internal boundary dilemmas of inside and outside, good women/bad women, authentic versus dominant voice, gender versus feminism, and so on. This essay considers several interlocking story lines that have constituted and challenged feminism as it troubles itself and IR. The story starts with feminist boundary setting, moves to IR, and then reaches feminist IR.

Feminists Troubling Feminism

Boundaries are inhibitors that can keep people we often think of as our main referent subjects, women, hidebound, attached to gender stories that deny or restrain multiplicities of body, identity or capabilities on the grounds of nature or tradition. Yet boundaries are also permeable: they can and have been surmounted, transgressed or at least interrogated through small and large acts of political agency and with positive and negative outcomes. Today, a black man can be in the very white White House and, at the same time, a 10 year old can be a soldier at the border of Congo and Rwanda and at the boundary of child and adult. Not surprisingly, feminism shows ambivalence about boundaries, simultaneously tearing down or walking through them and building up new boundaries in cycles of critical analysis. Feminist boundaries have united people called women in identity, bodily aspects and/or politics (Chodorow 1978; Daly 1978; Cook and Kirk 1983; Brock-Utne 1985; Reardon 1985; Pateman 1988), demarcated their separations along race, class, location (everyday and distant), generational, ideological, and cultural lines (Elshtain 1981; Mies 1986; Trinh Minh-ha 1989; Mohanty et al. 1991; Collins 1995; Bhattacharyya 2008), and reached beyond boundaries of unified identity as “women,” to issues of gender(ing) technologies and/or performativities (Riley 1988; Haraway 1989; Butler 1993). Needless to say, at various times, feminist boundaries have also, most famously, separated women from men and turned myriad traditions of gender relations into uncertain, unstable, and undecidable pressure points of investigation, politics, and power.

What should feminist boundary politics be? Terry Eagleton (2003) posits that “to be inside and outside a position at the same time – to occupy a territory while loitering skeptically on the boundary – is often where the most intensely creative ideas stem from.” Yet some feminists advocate psychic and empathetic world-traveling through, around, and across boundaries without imposing one’s Self on those on the other side (Anzaldua 1987; Lugones 1990; Behar 1993; Sylvester 1994). Others are well known for not embracing that approach, insisting instead on the maintenance of feminist-defined boundaries (Daly 1984). There can be such terribleness and bodily danger at some territorial boundaries today that one would not necessarily want to loiter there. That is to say, many live tenuously in spaces between life and bare life, disease and a modicum of health, citizenship and the limbo of asylum or other detention camps, employment and underemployment, rights and judicial invisibility (Agamben 1998; Sylvester 2006; Rajaram and Grundy-Warr 2007); creativity is possible in such places, but it is of a limited, sometimes self-harming, sort (Jabri 2006; Sylvester 2009b).

How feminism treats boundaries can depend on its historical moment, its phase. When contemporary feminist analysis was still new (roughly from the 1960s to 1980s), there seemed to be boundaries against women everywhere – in the common parlance, in school curricula, in sports, in public policy, in the professions, in households, in reproduction, and in institutions like religion and war. Wherever one looked, a gender line was discernible, not in the sand but seemingly in hard concrete. Historical privilege and incumbency called the shots on one side of that line and challengers rallied on the other, usually demanding their own incumbency on the power side of the boundary. “Make us gods, the financiers, the soldiers, the popes, the pilots, the physicists, the presidents.” “No,” said the incumbents. Then, more swiftly than we might recall, they were made to say “maybe” and even “yes” under pressure. Some feminists could get hired in unexpected quarters, gain whatever passed for tenure in their profession, and maybe even get commended by someone – a partner, colleague, supervisor, comrade, celebrity – for their efforts.

But it is interesting to recollect the way the boundaries were framed then. The task seemed to be to get over a line rather than linger in any boundary condition. Boundaries were to be transgressed in order to escape constraining households and bad marriages; out of religion and its male gods and into the realms of (male) science and rationality or (female) mysticism and sexuality – or, out of the pew and into the pulpit; out of the veil of tears over men lost to war and into combat or powerful peace roles; out of the private politics of closed doors and into public view; out of pornography and into circles making and managing art; out of capitalism and into socialism, out of pregnancy and into choice, out of heteronormativity and into whatever identities and body relationships one wanted. At least that was the agenda in the West. The achievements of the Western women’s movement in boundary hopping were astonishing compared to the fate of certain other progressive contemporary causes. One need only remember that the United Nations General Assembly had declared a decade for women by the 1970s, within five years or so of the Western women’s movement starting up. Meanwhile, radical states of the world were issuing demands at the UN for a new international economy order and getting rebuked by major states. Indeed, by 1980, those radicals were feted with structural adjustment policies from UN affiliate organizations instead.

Whether the women’s movement had greater initial success because the powers that be underestimated the consequences of women’s demands – precisely because women rather than states were the ones making those demands – or because the feminist arguments were strong, to the point, guilt-inducing, and full of hilarious send-ups of masculine vanity, we cannot truly know. But far from being marginal, the Western women’s movement was one of the centerpieces of domestic Western change, and change in corners of international relations during a time generally marked by social ferment.

When feminist analysis went into the 1980s, its own boundary rules rebounded on it, though, which is to say that boundaries created through successful politicking on behalf of women came to haunt it. On the road to knocking down the walls for all, a dominant feminist standpoint praxis and analysis had succumbed to limited gaze and voice, forgetting that the liberated face beaming back was not every woman but mostly a Western, white, middle-class woman. Forgotten as well was the fact that others did not necessarily want to be situated where the liberated ladies were gazing. “I am a feminist, but…” wrote Ien Ang in 1995: but…in effect, she did not want to be incorporated into the feminist nation she saw as the Western women’s movement overconfidently declaring for women everywhere. Feminism, she said, has tried to map out “a ‘natural’ political destination for all women” (1995:57) by reading and stating identity off one factor: reproductive biology. It then tackled the liberation of women via a limited number of ideologies – liberal, radical, and Marxist: all except radical feminism derived from inherited ideas of political philosophy and its main thinkers, who were mostly not-women. Early feminists faced down social boundaries between women and men but tended to ignore historical boundaries between women of one race or class and women of another, women of one generation and women of another, women of one culture and women of another. Much had been achieved in feminist wars against – name your enemy – discrimination, oppression, patriarchy, bias, gender exclusion, capitalist exploitation, and marginality. But it was clear that the identity “women” would not trump all the many other identities that people called women might also have.

Ang’s reproach makes it clear that those other, sometimes feminist-challenging identifications were vitally important, and no amount of “open and honest communication [could necessarily] ‘overcome’ or ‘settle’ differences” (1995:59). She was not alone in her critique (e.g., Huggins 1993; Hammonds 1994). Many Western feminists retreated or went quiet as concepts like ethnocentricity, race, imperialism, and middle-class dominance swirled about. A few direct participants in the discussions found middle ground, like the influential American writer bell hooks, who had relatively few difficulties identifying herself strongly as African American and a feminist critiquing patriarchy in the black community and elsewhere (e.g., hooks 1990). There could be little doubt, though, that an increasingly rights oriented, globalized, and postcolonial era of international relations demanded of feminism new ways of thinking.

In many parts of the world, developments in feminism went in one or more of three general directions. One was toward sustained socialist critique of capitalism entwined with patriarchy as partners in women’s oppression (Eisenstein 1979; Lerner 1986; Stichter and Parpart 1988; Walby 1990; Wong 1991; Moghadam 1996). Patriarchy, understood as formal and informal rule by men, declined as a leading concept in the late 1990s under the influence of postmodern trends in social theory. Concepts like patriarchy (and even capitalism as understood by Marxists) were cast then as metanarratives that left little outside their boundaries. Today, patriarchy is rebounding as a feminist analytic concept around topics as diverse as the backslide from Western feminist achievements of the 1970s, the rise of fundamentalisms, and gender politics in particular developing countries today (Moallem 2005; Bennett 2007; Gangoli 2008; Gilligan and Richards 2009).

The second direction was toward psychoanalytic and postmodern continental philosophies (Kristeva 1984; Moi 1985; Irigaray 1985; Weeden 1987; Hirschmann, 1989; Flax 1990; Braidotti 1991; Cixous 1992). Questions about the stability and decidability of bodies and identities, about voices and knowledges that could be subjugated or silenced by dominant narratives, about the power of pre-conscious processes and desires as well as rationality, about how language itself reflects and structures our thinking about the world became the métier. Inherited knowledge was said to have boundary-setting power that needed to be recognized and critiqued. Power was not simply the possession of certain classes or forces; it was also evidence of resistance to those forces, and could lodge in subjugated knowledges and unexpected places – the capillaries – in societies. The postmodern identity challenge in particular was to reside at the hyphen, occupy and explore the slash, pay attention to words within words and story lines hidden in or excised from dominant texts. Power resided in those places.

Importantly as a third factor, the postcolonial and multicultural hallmarks of European, Canadian, and antipodean public policy increasingly affected feminist thinking. An unprecedented wave of immigration, much of it under worker programs set up by the European Union, from the poorer, often more religiously oriented, and sometimes more gender divided South to North shook up identity complacencies. Whereas previous generations would have insisted on assimilationist policies for immigrants, now a combination of colonial guilt, postmodern thinking, and the human rights emphasis of the time led progressive thinkers in a different direction – away from assimilationism to philosophies of protecting cultural difference from engulfment by Western (and feminist) “nations.” Identity boundaries were now good things to maintain if doing so could safeguard differences in cultural traditions rather than sacrificing them to local identities. That was the basis of multicultural thinking and policy: immigrant groups have traditions that the West must respect and protect from cultural incursion (Banerji 2000; Gunew 2003; Warren 2006; in rebuttal, Okin 1999).

In the United States, the narrative of individual rights remained dominant over group-based claims to rights, as feminists realized when their efforts in the 1980s to enact an Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution failed. But American feminism did receive a comparable multicultural education from American minority groups and from feminists who theorized the US–Mexican border, Native American and American nations, and illegal alien/citizen identities as sources of feminist inspiration. The nugget of wisdom taken up was that many people regularly traverse or work the boundaries of their comfort zones in national identity, language, and culture each time they cross from Mexico or Indian reservations or immigrant enclaves into mainstream America. For some, the crossings are very physical: residents of Ciudad Juarez cross the Rio Grande to attend university in El Paso, to shop, or to hold down jobs. San Diegans head into Mexico to see a doctor, buy medicines, or just fill their cars with cheaper fuel. People for whom state boundaries and borders are the norm develop multiple registers of existence (Alarcon 1990:366). That is, they have to have, cannot opt out of having, many locations, voices, and cultural manners that share functional space in a repertory of selves. Those repertories could be made up of fragments of woman, mother, activist, Mexican, American, Native American, migrant, writer, daughter, lesbian, or student, migrant worker, girlfriend in a mixed culture relationship, artist and so on.

The important point in that line of thinking is not the particular ensemble of identities one has but the living in and through them as a response to circumstances that construct world-traveling selves (Anzaldua 1987). The point for feminists was to learn to live at and with identity boundaries, whether we happened to confront the same challenges of physical border-dwellers or not (Haraway 1989; Mohanty et al. 1991; Ferguson 1993; Sylvester 1994; Stone-Mediatore 2009). By doing so, we would not only get on in a complex world, but find resonant registers of existence to cultivate across lines of difference. Thus would feminists be adjusting our performances of ourselves – of our sex, gender, work, race, class and so on – to the circumstances at hand, shifting back and forth from one to another skill area or voice within a usefully crowded identity field.

One might say that this third strand of feminist thinking had an explosive effect in the field, in the sense that a celebration of cultural difference took over in much feminist thinking from the women’s/feminist standpoint moment of the women’s movement and earlier feminist theory (Hartsock 1998). It was clear that there was no singular woman or imprimatured standpoint or theory that could summarize all, and so it was imperative to think about ways into the multiple, traveling, mixed-up and distinctive experiences of one’s own lives, and lives that had been earlier subsumed in the word “women” or buried within leading Western psychoanalytic or philosophical theories. The leading feminist challenge heading into the twenty-first century was to engage many standpoints previously marginalized within that erstwhile feminist nation that Ang had identified. Standpoints in the plural had to be heard, recorded, and understood on their own terms, which would not necessarily be terms familiar to all: barriers could not be put up to difference. At the same time, if identity politics were to survive despite crossings, some barriers would have to remain to ensure that marginalized others could be themselves in whatever worlds they found themselves (Saldivar-Hull 2000). In other words, certain boundaries were just and legitimate: “they” had to be protected from “us” and “our” border crossings.

This set of simultaneities was difficult to work through at the level of practice. UN conferences on women held during the 1990s and later became boxing rings where differing values and agendas contended for voice, authenticity, justice, or simply for space in a globalizing feminist movement. Rather than dwelling in multiple registers, many feminists held firm views of correct behavior or politics, a tendency that installed boundaries and new registers of mutual resentment. Every cultural feminism had a camp, a voice, a perspective that had to be heard and taken into consideration, which was all to the good except that feminist negotiation skills lagged behind feminist determination to celebrate difference. Self-declared similarities of identity or situation were clearly naive or imperialist, but how to manage the pulling and hauling required to issue common goals at the end of the conference, to say nothing of coming up with one global feminist manifesto that had political teeth? Truth was local, contextual, and particularistic, and it came with inflexibilities, barricades, and rules of authorization that often stymied joint action, despite a feminist concern to cross or even dismantle borders (Mohanty 2003).

A Case of Feminist Boundary Dilemmas

Consider religion as a boundary of cultural difference. In the early days of the Western women’s movement, feminists like Mary Daly (1984) and Gerda Lerner (1986) disallowed or warned women about organized religions (mainly, but not exclusively, Judeo-Christian religions), on the grounds that these were originary sites of male privilege and women’s oppression. Being feminist and being skeptical of religion went together in the days when patriarchy was seen as the enemy (Cooey et al. 1991; Gross 1992; Cantor 1999). Some feminists remained in various religions, seeking reform from the inside, so that women could be ordained to positions of leadership or emancipated from body-bound religious strictures. In the globalized era of difference now, however, disrespect for culture is the enemy, which means that religion can be a sacrosanct culture-linked location of identity. In some cases, religions, particularly those that are demonized in the West, cannot be satirized, critiqued, or condemned, even by feminists located inside the religions in question. Critiquing religions of difference can be seen as the mark of racialized and orientalizing thinking. The idea is that feminists should listen and learn how to help women believers realize their identities and gain agency through those. One may denounce one’s own Judeo-Christianities, but it has been incumbent in recent years to maintain a chastened respect for beliefs held by people whose marginality has historically (or today) been greater, perhaps, than one’s own, or possibly made worse through arrogant feminist practices or certainties.

That spirit of cultural specificity now takes the place of Western feminist inclusiveness based on gender identity. The difference emphasis has prompted some feminists to become more comfortable than they once might have been with keeping contradictions open and unresolved (Ferguson 1993). However, it has also tended to police feminist voices in ways that can make for new boundary-raising politics. We can see those boundaries in cases where feminists from marginalized or “difference” religious cultures world-travel to Western identities that they prefer to identities associated with their originary communities. What happens when feminists disagree with or feel oppressed by communities of belief they were raised with and seek to cross cultural boundaries? Is it safe to traverse such boundaries and work the contradictions, or can these boundary places discourage movement? It is evident in some cases that such apostates can be impaled on the sharp tips of fences erected to protect cultural difference at the expense of cultural crossovers. If communities on the newly adopted side heed multiculturalist norms that locate the originary group as a unit to be respected, they might not welcome identity change or the type of hyphenation that relinquishes aspects of honored difference. Feminists might insist that “we” cannot be “you” and intimate that you are failing to valorize the right identity in your repertory in trying to shed your community of belief instead of defending it against a hostile white world. Your originary community can condemn you for heresy.

There is a fair amount of boundary leaping in the post–Berlin Wall era, but for the one who has taken the risk and crossed cultural barriers, bodyguards might be needed to survive. I am thinking of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian feminist who defied her Muslim father’s intent for her to enter an arranged marriage in Canada, left the transiting plane in Germany, got herself to the Netherlands, and flourished in the ways once associated with Western feminist success – she learned Dutch, studied at the best Dutch university, became part of the country’s political scene and was a Dutch MP in her thirties (Ali 2007). But Ali had something else that set her apart: she criticized the Muslim faith for its positions on women and for its refusal to embrace rationality over tradition. This did not go down well in a country with large Muslim populations identifying strongly with their home countries of Turkey and Morocco. To these, Ali was a blaspheming, arrogant dissident from uma who endeavored to bring dishonor to Muslims in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Ali persisted. She spoke out openly, frequently, and at times shockingly about Muslim oppression of women. She wrote a screenplay that the classically outspoken Dutch filmmaker director Theo van Gogh produced. Called Submission I, it features phrases from the Koran written across the naked bodies of women, thereby treating the Koran irreverently and showing the human female figure in a way that is not permissible in that community.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, a feminist criticizing organized religion on the grounds of its subjugation of women would be something of a feminist heroine; but feminist and global times have changed. Because many Muslims were outraged by Ali, many Western feminists respected the difference expressed by that community and also stepped away from her. Living in the Netherlands at that time, one heard Dutch feminists talk about Ali as manipulated by the racist right or as a bitter woman who condemned all of Islam in a reductionist and essentialist replaying of her own personal circumstances. The consensus seemed to be that she was too outspoken for her own good and was causing unrest among Muslims in the Netherlands (see discussion in Buruma 2006; Eyerman 2008). It was intriguing to observe feminists erecting a boundary politics for Ali based on how the largely nonfeminist community she had left felt about her views concerning their religion and women’s rights. In yielding to that majority position, a departure from earlier, less difference-oriented feminist tendencies, religious culture became a boundary yet again, but in a new way. Ali’s difference with/in Islam was cast out as beyond acceptable difference.

For stirring the pot too much, the conservative government in the Netherlands also decided to investigate Ali’s immigration status closely for a way to disenfranchise her. It found something that Ali herself had told them and the public many times: she had used her grandfather’s name as her own on her immigration application to avoid any possibility that her father would be contacted (although he did come to the Netherlands later). To Ali, the telling of that tale was part of the story of what it can be like to be on the run from men and religion across national boundaries. But in the context of her film and the anger it unleashed – the director was assassinated in Amsterdam and a knife plunged into his chest warning Ali of the same fate – the government pulled the multiculturalism card and chose to protect the group she was attacking from her, instead of protecting her individual right to speak, or both rights simultaneously. Ostensibly, for putting the wrong name on her application (which is not actually illegal in the Netherlands if it can be shown to be a family name), she was momentarily stripped of her citizenship and had to step down as MP and leave the country (she was later reinstated as a Dutch citizen). Her next sin was to move to a place held in contempt by European feminists in the Bush years: the US. Worse, she took a position as a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, DC.

Can Ali be a feminist or even a woman who feminists can support if she makes such choices? A number of feminist writers argue against Ali’s views, representations of Muslim life, and actions (De Leeuw and van Wichelen 2005; Fekete 2006; Jusova 2008; Bosch 2008; Braidotti in LaFountain 2008; see overview of debates in Ghorashi 2003). A greater number of feminists, however, go silent about this and other cases of difficult or unpopular soi-disant feminists, like Azar Nafisi, the Iranian author of Reading Lolita in Tehran (2004). Yet it should be noted that Ali is highly regarded by a range of other groups that laud her as an influential public figure, a champion of freedom, and an advocate for women and human rights. She has received awards from Danish and Swedish political parties, the Moral Courage Award of the American Jewish Committee, and mention in Time Magazine in 2005 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Hirsi Ali’s contradictions and dilemmas of international identity, culture, and recognition are a sign of the difficult choices and politics that postcolonial immigrant women face today. Ang pointed out the problems of early feminist efforts to spread one umbrella over all women by respectfully inserting difference into an established prior tradition. Today, the idea is to pull down the feminist umbrella and stand a helpful and supportive distance from identified difference until “it” sorts out its feminism. If difference packages itself differently than expected, holds an unpopular line and politics, and yet calls itself feminist, barriers can go up to “it,” even if the “difficult feminist” has a tale worth lauding in some respects, and which would have been praised at an earlier point in feminist history.

Of course, time marches on and fields must change and adapt to the world as it is. Admirably, it is more common for feminists today to heed the registers that empower people to be in different worlds and themselves in them (Alarcon 1990:366), listening and not dominating, world-traveling instead of piloting all planes. But how can we be ourselves in worlds of difference and assist others to be themselves in our worlds of difference? That is a key boundary tension troubling feminism theory and praxis at the moment. Putting some people beyond respectful difference, outside the good club, cordoned off from feminist legitimacy as an example of what not to do, be, and say can be boundary reinforcing and mean. bell hooks was startled in 1990 “by the dichotomy between the rhetoric of sisterhood and the vicious way nice, nice, politically correct girls can deal with one another, do one another in, in ways far more brutal than I ever witnessed in shoot and cut black communities” (1990:90) in the USA. Nineteen years later, that troubling trend can exist in new forms.

Feminists Troubling IR Boundaries

What happens when today’s troubled and troubling feminisms encounter IR? At first glance, it appears that the dynamics I have just described do not apply at that particular boundary. The conventional knowledge that majoritarian IR has historically named, studied, and wanted to own is not acceptable to feminists in the field. Considerably more feminist consensus exists about the unacceptability of pre-camp IR boundaries, and the importance of revealing and defeating them through careful scholarship, than exists within larger feminism. But there are ambivalences and contradictions at that set of boundaries, too.

One issue that has shaped feminist IR is feminist visibility in the field. Historically, we have seen ourselves as marginalized by IR. Yet aspects of feminist IR history show that this has not always been the case. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many prominent IR scholars seemed willing to take feminist incursions seriously. There were pace-setting conferences at the London School of Economics in 1988, the University of Southern California (USC) in 1989, and Wellesley College in 1990. In addition, a grand birthday party for Aberystwyth’s department of IR held in 1994 reviewed all leading IR scholarships, including feminism and postmodernism. In these and in other venues, the then small circle of feminists writing from within IR, such as Ann Tickner, Jean Elshtain, Cynthia Enloe, Spike Peterson, and myself, were joined by a mind-boggling array of heretofore nonfeminist scholars from across the field: among them, Hayward Alker, Rick Ashley, Ken Booth, Barry Buzan, Fred Halliday, Bob Keohane, Steve Krasner, Andrew Linklater, Richard Little, Michael Mann, Craig Murphy, James Rosenau, John Ruggie, Theda Skocpol, Steve Smith, Rob Walker, Ole Waever, and Immanuel Wallerstein. We talked together about new contributions to IR, and in the case of conferences put on by Millennium, USC, and Wellesley, the express purpose of the gathering was to consider papers on gender and international relations. Everyone invited and present had written on some facet of that topic, and everyone gave a paper to the assembled, not just the feminists. Many of those papers reached a larger audience through various early publications (Millennium 1988; Peterson 1992; Smith et al. 1996).

By the later 1990s boundaries were emerging again. This time the lines were multiple as new intellectual groupings or sections proliferated and gradually turned into distinct camps – 30 at the last counting within the British International Studies Association (BISA) alone, representing interests ranging from feminism to international law to global development to peace studies. IR today exists as knowledge fragments that take shape as a camp whenever a group of like-minded scholars takes exception to the already existing array of IR knowledges. The overall result is a minoritarian IR, especially outside the US, in which the feminist camp is no more marginalized than other camps, recognizing that some camps do garner more members than others and therefore are more influential in the field. But that is not the only way of apprehending the problematic of marginality. People called women can suffer a form of homelessness in international relations (Sylvester 1993) that derives from not receiving full credit or analytic attention for the work they do. They are the ones that governments, factories, diplomats, and soldiers rely on to help them look good for the cameras, seem hospitable at state dinners, and appear organized at summit meetings. As the handmaids of international relations (Sylvester 1998), women’s daily labor can be relegated to spaces under staircases or off the spreadsheets. Of course, some women are more marginalized than others. It is one thing to be President Barack Obama’s executive secretary and quite another to be a woman working in a Bangladeshi garment factory or on a Dole pineapple plantation in the Caribbean. Relegated marginality is a boundary that feminists in IR recognize in its many permutations and seek to dismantle (Enloe 1996; Tickner 1997; 2001; Steans 2003).

Some facets of marginality, however, have been valorized in feminist thinking and in feminist IR. The shop floor worker has a better vantage point than the supervisor for watching privilege unfold. The unemployed person of any class has insight into the workings of capitalism that she might not have had reason to notice before (Hartsock 1998). The woman raped in war knows war in important ways that differ from knowledge bases in IR (D’Acosta 2006; Stern 2006). Being a woman in a field that has historically factored women and gender power relations out of all pictures gives the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies camp of the International Studies Association some ethical and moral standing: it can choose how much marginality it wants to maintain vis-à-vis the larger fragmented field, how many panels to host at the annual convention, and which journals to sponsor. Being in a minoritarian field means that many are finding margins to claim, shape, and perform in particularistic ways. Thus, from whence does a good boundary-troubling mindset emerge today? From claiming marginality or by claiming nonmarginality?

One is reminded of a perennial debate about where women’s issues should be located in the academy. Should feminist IR attempt to leap boundaries by bringing feminist questions to IR as a separate field, or should it bring IR questions to feminism? Or are those the wrong boundary questions (Sylvester 2002)? If feminist questions for IR are emphasized, the academy expects you to soften or downplay feminist identity and do research on recognizable IR problematics that fit ongoing and well-established research agendas (Keohane 1998; Weber 1999). If the IR questions in feminism are emphasized, IR could relegate you to Women’s Studies and therefore out of sight. Which is better?

We can ask these questions in more postmodern terms: how to negotiate or world-travel the discursive boundaries around notions of feminism and IR? Here, instead of implicitly thinking of embodied women as the feminist reference point, and asking where the women are and are not in international relations (Enloe 1989) and in IR, the emphasis is more on how we came to think of women and of feminism and of IR in certain ways, and how objects so named perform or defy their assigned positions. To make that shift from the concrete sexed woman to other possibilities of speaking of her requires talking about language, power, and referent objects instead of embodied women, and performances of gender alongside or even rather than experiences of it. The individual woman or the collective called women would not then be the exclusive point for feminist IR. “She” is always a product and performance of powerful narratives about sex and gender set in particular contexts. She is the stories told about her or not told about her in tandem with intersecting stories told about other reference points of identity or identification. In other words, the boundaries are not around bodies per se but around the talk about bodies and the consequences of that talk – and the consequences of the many areas of silence that still need to be probed.

As Lene Hansen puts this, “the performative gendered referent object does not have clear boundaries to other large-scale referent objects, but neither are those other – often more conventional – referent objects non-gendered” (2008:11). What this means, to give an example, is that feminists could find more space to see Hirsi Ali as not “just” an individual some feminists dismiss as a Muslim malcontent. She would be a referent object in discourses that seek to justify oppressive acts aimed at those who fit the prevailing discursive framing of women in certain sacred texts. If feminists were to make that shift in thinking, it would be possible to valorize Ali’s acts of religious opposition as feminist without first testing her to see whether she is acceptable qua embodied person or not. It would not be necessary to seek some concrete majoritarian position against which to measure the veracity of her arguments, because “majority” would be a fable that both silences some hyphenated identities or voices of dissent and secures certain positions at the expense of other positions. In this approach, it does not matter whether Ali is an embodied male or female. What matters are assessments of discursive positions and politics. In many ways, that is a far more liberating position for feminists to take, because it knocks down the idea of real gender boundaries and opens up other questions about the discursive practices that feminists also engage in when they iterate a notion of feminist IR in the margins or on the otherized side of IR’s boundaries; or when they sometimes yield the ground of discursive power to IR because they believe they are outside its boundaries.

So Where Has Feminist IR Been So Far?

Feminist IR today does lean heavily on postmodern thinking about margins, multiple truths, subjugated identities and discourses, and power in general (Sylvester 1994; Hansen 2001; Jabri 2004; Masters 2009). It often brings that emphasis to empirical studies of embodied women variously located in the world (Enloe 1989; Moon 1997; Chin 1998; Stern 2005; Jacoby 2006; Sjoberg and Gentry 2007; Penttinen 2007). And it takes on IR theory and methodology using insights from postmodern thinking and other disciplines like anthropology and geography. As in the larger feminist project, today’s feminist IR is something of a departure from its earlier endeavors.

In the 1980s and 1990s, feminists coming to IR focused their attention on the main theories in the field. They wrote about IR’s gender bias, spatial delimitations, and small range of theorized relations. They queried the emphasis on the narrow international pictured in extant IR theory, which included only places existing beyond territorial rule of law and but controlled in key ways by the actions of Great Powers. The chief relations of IR consisted of war, prestige seeking, trade, and diplomacy conducted by statesmen, soldiers, tyrants, and terrorists – and the ubiquitous disembodied decision maker. There were no ordinary people or everydayness in this international relations, no households, refugees, or workers of any gender. Certainly it was not a feminine sphere, however one might want to think of the feminine – discursively or embodied. It was masculinity reified: tough, ungoverned, bristling and full of self-help and agreements that were always voluntary at the end of the day, whether those agreements concerned trade, alliances, or international law. There were spaces for cooperation and reciprocity, as the perseverance of the UN still demonstrates and the European Union shows on the ground. However, territorial states were the assumed masters of the small IR universe and their politics could be moody, egoistic, contradictory, and deceptive.

Feminist IR’s first wave attacked impoverished IR imagination. It exposed the state as gendered in numerous ways (Peterson 1992). It stabbed sacred cows like the UN and the International Labour Organization (Whitworth 1994), questioned honored concepts like state autonomy (Sylvester 1992), and analyzed state-based security and preoccupations with war (Enloe 1989; Tickner 1992). Contributors to feminist IR also insisted on the importance of feminist development or globalization thought and practice and not just modernization or dependency theories about the state and economy (Marchand and Parpart 1995; Pettman 1996). They engaged critically with rationality assumptions (Tickner 1988) and with positivist methodologies premised on a separation of the researcher from the topics and subjects of his or her investigation (Peterson 1992; Zalewski 1996); feminists preferred to situate themselves and their principles in the research rather than remove themselves from it.

Feminists were still lobbing in the rockets when IR was proven wrong about the staying power of states and about war as a method of international system change. States struggle for power and survival, said Morgenthau (1965) and Waltz (1979) authoritatively. But it was people, ordinary everyday people, who breached one of the biggest boundaries of the twentieth century: the Berlin Wall. No one in IR could imagine that women pushing baby carriages, and families behind the wheel of tinny Trabant cars, would one day head west and get away with it. But that is what happened. Thereafter, it would be difficult for the field to get rid of the many people of international relations and get back to state-centrism. People came into view from all places within and in-between and around states – whether by migrating massively from South to North in a reversal of colonial directionality, or by insisting that the UN take women seriously in its programming. They came in the form of dissident and subjugated knowledges, as gendered individuals and groups, as postcolonial voices, and so on. Each instance of prior exclusion was suddenly admitted to IR and each found a camp in a field that ultimately troubled its own boundaries by blundering badly in the realm of basic theory.

By the middle of the 1990s, feminist IR had therefore moved on from the initial emphasis on challenging IR theory to researching women variously located in an expanded international with its plethora of relations. Relying often on ethnographic methodologies, this second wave of feminist IR produced work on women in the sex industry around Korean military installations (Moon 1997), women sex trafficked from Eastern Europe to Finland (Penttinen 2007), women domestic workers in Malaysia (Chin 1998), post 9/11 discourses on women and men (Shepherd 2006), women workers and narratives of progress in Zimbabwe (Sylvester 2000), feminist security studies (Hansen 2000; Sjoberg and Gentry 2007), feminist globalization and political economy studies (Marchand and Runyan 2000; Peterson 2003), and studies of UN resolutions and actions on behalf of women (Shepherd 2008), to name just a few areas of research. It also broadened the arenas in which women and gender relations or performativities could be spotted in places like art museums (Sylvester 2007; 2009a), in travel writing (Lisle 2006; Hansen 2006), in humanitarian law (Orford 2003), and trauma responses to terrorist acts (Edkins 2008). Importantly, it took up more concentrated interest in postcolonial analysis and critiques of imperialism (e.g., Spivak 1998; Han and Ling 1998; Ling 2007).

Masculinity has also become a prominent area of research in feminist IR as a supplement to feminist thinking (Zalewski and Parpart 1998; Hooper 2001; Whitworth 2004), a facet of men’s or gender studies (Higate 2007; Carver and Chambers 2007) and/or a way of redressing what some see as continued feminist marginality in IR (Squires and Weldes 2007). Although work on masculinities is common in North America and Europe, one published work argues that its emphasis on gender rather than feminism is a distinctly British trend in the field (Squires and Weldes 2007), a claim that can set up sectarian boundaries (Sylvester in Zalewski et al. 2008). A related view is that IR scholars can and should study gender and women in international relations without using distinctly feminist frameworks or feminist-identified methodologies (Carpenter 2002; Caprioli 2004). Advocating that feminism be subsumed into the core study of gender per se carries the boundary risk of reducing normative attention to the ways women influence international relations and are influenced by it. Or, “women” can appear as variables sans discussion of how certain outcomes for women can have different consequences than the same outcomes do for men (Sjoberg 2006). For many feminists, the centrality of feminist-inspired research is nonnegotiable, which suggests the importance of continued efforts to link masculinity and gender approaches to feminist theories, with credible efforts underway to do so (Parpart and Zalewski 2008).

A Final Couple of Dilemmas

Feminist IR keeps bringing new locations of the international and relations to the fore. Let me just signal two such areas in these closing comments. One is, for lack of a better term – and a better term is needed – the subject of violent women in international relations. At issue are embodied women who shoot, kill, and abuse or encourage others to do so as part of conflicts that cross state borders or brutalize local populations. What to think of such women – we who are feminists and we who do IR? This is not a comfort zone for either field on its own or in an amalgamation. We can talk about women soldiers (Enloe 1983; Pin-Fat and Stern 2005; Masters 2009), women in historical wars and IR war theory (Elshtain 1987), and women participating in liberation struggles in decolonizing places (Tetreault 1994). We can, as feminists, consider the ethics of war and just war theorizing (Hutchings 2007; Elshtain 2008) and telescope the pain and the atrocities that women and children experience as victims of war. There are lessons for feminist politics coming out of contemporary wars and hideous techniques of torture (Butler 2004). What poses more difficulty is considering war as an arena of agency for many women who choose, rightly or wrongly, to engage it, to participate in it, to…possibly enjoy it. That is a troubling boundary space (Elshtain 1987; Sylvester 2005).

Feminism has in the past positioned itself outside war looking in at an evil institution women did not create and feminists have little responsibility for enabling. For a considerable time, Western feminism in particular located peace as the prime feminist issue (Ruddick 1983; Reardon 1985; Brock-Utne 1985; Cockburn 2007), implicitly viewing violent women in war zones as what Sjoberg and Gentry (2007) call the mothers, monsters, or whores of war. To linger longer at a boundary separating good women for peace from bad women who war forces a confrontation with the unpleasant fact that feminists – who are for women and equality, are intrigued by the many identities that can hyphenate comfortably with “women,” the many ways that sex and gender are performed, and the host of stories old and new that feature people called women charging multifarious barriers – can refuse the lived experiences, the choices, the politics, and the discourses that thrust referent objects that concern us most into violence in international relations. Women suicide terrorists can become the grieving lost ones swept up in religious or nationalist emotions or mental health problems (Sylvester and Parashar 2009). What if some among them send their own heads in the air, and grievously wound all around them, for reasons of politics and agency? What if women, however defined, may not be as pro-peace as we think, or consider themselves pro-peace and violent simultaneously? What happens when violent women declare that they are feminists? Would that not be a difference to respect? Many of these questions are raised in very recent feminist war/security studies (MacKenzie 2009; Parashar 2009; Titunik 2009; Wilcox 2009).

Feminist IR often faces a similar boundary dilemma when it comes to confronting the urgencies of development around the world. If those interested in such issues approach problems of poverty by emphasizing embodied women’s needs, there must be responsible ways to ascertain what those needs are (Marchand and Parpart 1995; Cornwall et al. 2006; Murdoch 2008). For a number of years in the 1990s, it was considered irresponsible for feminist development scholars, particularly those located in Australia, to research African or Asian women’s lives unless they were themselves African or Asian or part of an African or Asian diaspora. Otherwise, one would be routinely accused of speaking for the other, and probably not speaking very accurately or helpfully at all (see discussion in D’Acosta 2006; Ralston and Keeble 2009). That feminist rule often reflected particular colonial histories; in the Australian case, one thinks of the legacy of genocidal actions in Tasmania and general policy contempt for Aboriginal peoples in the postcolonial era. It also reflected critiques of development theories that emphasized macroeconomic growth over the well-being of people, and international development agencies that had the habit of sending teams of Western analysts to Third World settings to assess the social landscape, returning with answers to questions they themselves thought were important, not with the questions that local people raised. It reflected the funding and operation of development projects that made sense for one region or population of a country but not for all the other regions where they were installed.

Gayatri Spivak’s (1988) very reasonable and challenging question concerning the subaltern’s capacity to speak became an insistence that only members of the group studied, no matter how tenuous their present connections, could hear and present the views of women in that group. That perspective encouraged more women of color or residents from former colonies to enter the academy and IR, but it also meant that their research interests and agendas were implicitly established for them by boundary expectations around voice: they were to study people from of their own national origin, race, or ethnic identity. For 10 years I taught development feminism in Australia and the Netherlands to MA students who were overwhelmingly from developing countries. Invariably, those students elected to write their required theses on problems in their home countries, even when distance from data sources there could only compromise the results. Class after class of talented women turned bashful about researching the white other and Western development policies they were not bashful about critiquing in class. In a near perfect symmetry of feminist expectation placed on white scholars, they played out the rule that one could only represent or speak for one’s group. Well-intentioned feminist boundary concerns meant that certain groups were not studied at all if some among them failed to put forth researchers. It also meant that the West, and development thinking in particular, was deprived of sorely needed South to North critiques and interventions.

There are many more boundary dilemmas I could mention, for the end is the beginning. But it can be said in general terms that feminism reinstantiates boundaries even when claiming to be against all boundaries, especially those that keep people called women from reaching fullness. We all do it. We pull down the pictures of the field’s esteemed men and their theories and then find ourselves in a quandary about how to handle the hot and dirty politics that comprise complex realities of women and men and discourses of international relations. So up go new boundaries of theory, topology, and praxis. There is, perhaps, no absolute escape from this. Like other fields of progressive thought, feminism struggles to meld voice with reticence, judgment with tolerance, politics with patience, help with hindrance, inside with outside, and theory with activism. The whole boundary issue in feminism is troubling; but it is trouble worth airing more within and across the many feminisms of our time as they face a world of complex identities and politics.


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