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date: 03 December 2020

Feminism in Foreign Policyfree

  • Kristen P. WilliamsKristen P. WilliamsDepartment of Political Science, Clark University


The traditional/mainstream international relations (IR) study of foreign policy has primarily focused on state behavior in the international system, examining factors such as the influence of decision-makers’ attitudes and beliefs, regime type, domestic political actors, civil society, norms, culture, and so forth on foreign policy. Much of this research has neglected to address women and gender in the context of studying foreign policy actors, decisions, and outcomes. Given that women are increasingly gaining access to the political process in terms of both formal government positions and informal political activism, and recognition by the international community of women’s roles in peace and war, feminist international relations (IR) scholars have challenged the assumptions and research focus of mainstream IR, including the study of foreign policy. Feminist international relations (IR) scholars have shown that countries with greater gender equality have foreign policies that are less belligerent. How do we account for foreign policies that are explicitly focused on women’s empowerment and gender equality? The main questions motivating the research on feminism in foreign policy are as follows. Is there a gender gap between men and women in terms of foreign policy? If so, what explains the gender gap? Research shows that the evidence is mixed—for example, men and women often agree on foreign policy goals and objectives, but sometimes differ on what actions to take to achieve those goals, primarily whether to use force.

In considering where the women are in foreign policy, scholars examine women’s representation and participation in government, as gender equality is related to women’s representation and participation. While an increasing number of women have entered formal politics, whether as heads of state/government, cabinet and ministerial positions, and ambassadorships, for example, women remain underrepresented. The question also arises as to whether and how women’s participation and representation (descriptive and substantive representation) impact foreign policy. Does increased women’s participation and representation lead to a foreign policy focused on “women’s issues” and gender equality? Is a critical mass of women necessary for policies that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment? Finally, what does it mean to have a feminist foreign policy?


The traditional/mainstream international relations (IR) study of foreign policy has primarily focused on state behavior in the international system, examining factors such as the influence of decision-makers’ attitudes and beliefs, regime type, domestic political actors, civil society, norms, culture, and so forth on foreign policy. Much of this research has neglected to address women and gender in the context of studying foreign policy actors, decisions, and outcomes. Given that women increasingly are gaining access to the political process in terms of both formal government positions and informal political activism, and recognition by the international community of women’s roles in peace and war, feminist international relations (IR) scholars have challenged the focus and assumptions of mainstream IR, including the study of foreign policy. Feminist IR scholars have shown that countries with greater gender equality (as measured by “women’s equal political, economic, and social power”) have foreign policies that are less belligerent (Caprioli, 2000, p. 51). In 2014, Sweden became the first country to espouse an explicitly feminist foreign policy, a strategy focused on three “R’s”: “Representation, Rights, and Reallocation.” As noted by Karin Aggestam and Annika Bergman-Rosamond,

Sweden seeks to promote women’s representation and participation in politics in general and peace processes in particular; to advocate women’s rights as human rights, including women’s protection from sexual and gender-based violence; and to work toward a more gender-sensitive and equitable distribution of global income and natural resources. (2016, p. 325)

Sweden’s feminist foreign policy “is embedded in the broader global efforts to promote gender equality in the international arena, which we have seen evolving over the past few decades in the aftermath of the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325” (Aggestam & Bergman-Rosamond, 2016, p. 323). Sweden is not the only country with leaders focused on the foreign policy goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment as evidenced by the policies of Australia and Norway (True, 2017), and the United States (Hudson & Leidl, 2015; Verveer, 2017). In 2015, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was the first leader to appoint a gender-equal cabinet. The foreign aid mandate of Marie-Claude Bibeau, the Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, is focused on educating and empowering women and girls (O’Reilly, 2016; Government of Canada, 2017a). And the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, has been tasked with prioritizing human rights, women’s empowerment, and gender equality as part of her mandate (Government of Canada, 2017b).

For Sweden as well as other states, UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, became the impetus for many states enacting foreign policies that promote feminist goals of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Resolution 1325 came about as a result of the activism of women’s organizations and a series of international conferences on the status of women hosted by the UN in the 1970s and 1980s, and in Beijing in 1995 that called for women’s empowerment and equality. The report issued after the Beijing conference affirmed that “Women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development[,] and peace” and “Women’s rights are human rights” (United Nations, 1996, p. 3). With Resolution 1325, for the first time, the UN Security Council recognized the connection between women, peace, and security, and the need for women’s inclusion in decision-making and policymaking, and women’s increased representation and participation in peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction. Following the passage of 1325, states have since developed national action plans (NAPs) and other national policies to implement 1325. As of mid 2017, 66 states have developed NAPs, with more states indicating they will do so in the future (PeaceWomen, 2017). As yet another indicator of foreign policy supporting feminist goals, foreign aid given by wealthier states specifically targeting gender equality has “quadrupled . . . to $10 billion in the past decade” (O’Reilly, 2016).

Given these examples noted above, how do scholars account for foreign policies that are explicitly focused on women’s empowerment and gender equality? The main questions/problems motivating the research on feminism in foreign policy are as follows. First, is there a gender gap between men and women in terms of foreign policy goals and objectives? Second, where are the women? In considering where the women are in foreign policy, scholars examine women’s representation and participation in government. Third, the question arises as to whether and how women’s participation and representation impact foreign policy. Fourth, does increased women’s participation and representation lead to a foreign policy focused on “women’s issues” and gender equality? Finally, what does it mean to have a feminist foreign policy?

The article begins with a brief overview of the three traditional, or mainstream, international relations (IR) theories and then the feminist IR critique. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, feminist scholars began to challenge the assumptions and claims of mainstream IR. As a result, this research agenda has broadened and deepened our understanding of international relations, and foreign policy in particular. The next section addresses women, gender, and foreign policy. In particular, the section examines the debates in the literature about the gender gap between men and women in terms of policy preferences, including foreign policy. The section that follows discusses the issue of women’s participation and representation, noting the increase in numbers of women in legislatures and executive level positions, but men still outnumber women in government. The question of whether and how women impact foreign policy is explored, specifically as legislators and executives. In this section, the link to gender equality and foreign policy is presented. Finally, the concluding section addresses possible areas for future research on the emergence of a feminist foreign policy.

IR Theory and Gender Analysis

In order to answer the questions noted above, feminist scholars have utilized a gender analysis to interrogate and challenge the dominant theories in the field of international relations—realism, liberalism, and constructivism (each with their own variants) (Tickner, 1997; Walt, 1998; Snyder, 2009; Peterson & Runyan, 2010). These international relations perspectives are, in essence, about foreign policy (Smith, 1986). In realism, states are the primary actors in international politics. States are rational, unitary, and self-interested actors. Structural realism, in particular, focuses on the anarchic international system (in which there is no political authority above sovereign states) and the distribution, or balance, of power among the major states. These two variables, the anarchic system and the distribution of power, explain much of how states behave in the international system, particularly with regards to war and conflict. States worry about their relative power and will take measures, namely political and military power (alliances, arms build-ups), in order to ensure their security and survival (Waltz, 1979; Walt, 1987; Taliaferro, 2000/2001). A state’s foreign policy, therefore, will reflect concerns about relative power (and shifts in the balance of power) and security (Walt, 2016).

Liberalism also considers the state as the primary unit of analysis, but, unlike realism, recognizes that other actors (including groups, international institutions, international regimes, and norms) matter. And unlike realism, in which conflict is the norm, liberalism argues that cooperation among states is the norm. Through free trade and membership in international institutions, for example, cooperation among states leads to a world in which all states can gain, rather than the zero-sum world of realists in which one state’s gain is another’s loss. Liberalism also stresses the important role that democracy plays in encouraging cooperation, as evidenced by democratic peace theory, which argues that democracies tend not to fight each other. Increasing the number of democracies in the international community would, presumably, lessen war and conflict in the international system, at least among democracies. Consequently, a liberal foreign policy would be focused on promoting trade and democracy, and membership in international institutions as a mechanism for cooperation (Keohane & Martin, 1995; Katzenstein et al., 1998; Doyle, 2005; for debate on the democratic peace, see Russett et al., 1995).

As a challenge to both realism and liberalism, constructivism argues that states have identities and interests, which are socially constructed and, as such, these identities and interests can change. For example, anarchy, one of the main concepts for realism, as Alexander Wendt, notes, “is what states make of it”—anarchy and self-help are social constructions, not givens. Wendt asserts, “individual, domestic, systemic, or transnational” factors can lead to transformation of state identities and interests (Wendt, 1992, p. 424). Constructivists further argue that states “develop their identities and interests internally, and that their assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors determine the effect of the international system” (Spiegel et al., 2015, p. 47). Shared norms, ideas, identities, and interests matter for explaining a state’s foreign policy behavior. For example, if democratic states perceive each other as peaceful, they are more likely to be able to cooperate given their shared identities as democratic states. As David Patrick Houghton notes, “The ‘democratic peace’ is socially constructed” (Houghton, 2007, p. 29).

In essence, when examining security (hard politics) issues, traditional/mainstream IR theory focuses on structure, the domestic politics within states, and the decision-making elites (Tickner, 2001, p. 3). Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, feminist IR scholars began to question the assumptions and claims of IR theories to explain events in the world, asserting that all three IR theories/paradigms, while seemingly gender-neutral, are in fact quite gendered (although constructivism is more compatible to feminism; see Locher & Prugl, 2001). For example, J. Ann Tickner (1992) notes that realist theory is considered objective and having universal validity. However, the assumptions of the theory to explain state behavior are based on characteristics that are defined as masculine and reflect the experiences of particular men (and hence hegemonic masculinity). In a realist world, neither gender nor women are considered or acknowledged (Tickner, 1992).

As feminist IR scholars further proffer, a more complete picture of issues relevant to international relations (such as security, war, peace, political economy, power) can only come about if women and gender are included in the analysis (Enloe, 1990; Tickner, 2001; Ackerly et al., 2006; Peterson & Runyan, 2010; Kaufman & Williams, 2017). In the instances in which topics such as conflict and peace talks are addressed with reference to women, traditional/mainstream IR frames that discussion in gendered terms in which women are victims, peacemakers, and pacifists. The gender order/hierarchy, in which femininity and women are subordinated to masculinity and men, prevails and is encouraged (Tickner, 1997). For example, Francis Fukuyama claims that, given evolutionary biology, women are more peaceful than men, and argues that in the “system of competitive states” in which not all states are peaceful, developed democracies, “[i]n anything but a totally feminized world, feminized policies could be a liability” (Fukuyama, 1998, p. 36). Thus, he concludes that “[m]asculine policies will still be required, though not necessarily masculine leaders” (Fukuyama, 1998, p. 37). In her critique of Fukuyama’s article, Tickner makes clear that IR feminists do not equate women with peace: “Associations of women with peace, idealism, and impracticality have long served to disempower women and keep them in their place, which is out of the ‘real world’ of international politics” (1999, p. 8). Further, in response to Fukuyama’s claim of a feminized future, she asserts: “Preferred futures are not feminized, but ones in which women and men participate in reducing damage and unequal hierarchical social structures, such as gender and race” (emphasis in original; Tickner, 1999, p. 9). Gender hierarchies (as is the case with other social hierarchies) “contribute to conflict, inequality, and oppression” (Tickner, 1999, p. 11). Consequently, it is the relationship of gender order/hierarchy and power that is interrogated in feminist IR understandings of international relations. As Locher and Prugl assert, “power [is] a social construct and gender a code for power” (2001, p. 116). Rather than conceiving of power as material capabilities and quantities or “located in the institutions of the state,” as is the case for mainstream/traditional IR, power as a social construct is reflected in the rules and institutions that privilege certain individuals, groups or states over others, and maintain that privilege and subordination (Locher & Prugl, 2001, pp. 116–117). For example, feminist scholarship notes that the traits that typically define stereotypical masculinity (i.e., aggressive, strong) are privileged, relative to traits defined as stereotypically feminine (i.e., passive, weak), in foreign policies, policies that both legitimize war and militarization (Tickner, 2001, p. 6).

While different feminist approaches to security do exist (Tickner & Sjoberg, 2006), they make, as Eric Blanchard, asserts, “at least four theoretical moves. First, IR feminists question the supposed nonexistence and irrelevance of women in international security politics, engendering or exposing the workings of gender and power in international relations.” Second, feminist security theory interrogates the claim that the state actually ensures women’s “‘protection’ in times of war and peace.” Third, feminist security theory questions the discourses that equate women with peace, men with violence. Finally, feminist security theory has “started to develop a variegated concept of masculinity to help explain security” (2003, p. 1,290). In terms of conceptualizing security, feminist security theory broadens the definition of security beyond a state’s security threatened by militaries (state militaries and non-state armies), with issues now considered “human security” such as environmental issues, economic issues/development, and human rights (Sa’ar et al., 2011; United Nations, 2017). Feminists also note the interconnection between domestic violence (by the state and violence in the home) and international violence, further broadening the definition of security (Tickner, 1992, p. 58).

Taken as a whole, in responding to the omission of gender and women by mainstream IR theories, feminist IR’s research broadens and deepens our understanding of international relations. A gender analysis provides the necessary and “critical tool” to explore and understand gender orders and gender subordination, and power relations, all of which impact foreign policy (McEnaney, 2017).

Women, Gender, and Foreign Policy

The bulk of research on the gender gap as pertains to women’s and men’s “policy preferences and partisanship” examines domestic policy, rather than foreign policy. And much of the research has focused on American survey data, with a few comparative case studies of different countries (Breuning, 2001, p. 37). The political science literature on the connection between women, gender, and foreign policy has examined legislatures, public opinion, peace activists (community, or grassroots, level), and, to a lesser extent, executives. The questions that these various studies ask are whether or not there is a gender gap between men and women in the area of foreign policy (particularly with regards to the use of force), and, if such a gender gap exists, what explains the gap. The results are mixed. Some studies show a gender gap, with women less willing to support the use of force, while others find that there is no gap. In terms of explaining what accounts for the gender gap, the literature focuses on whether women are more peaceful than men. In turn, women are then less likely to support the use of force (Holsti & Rosenau, 1981; Breuning, 2001; Caprioli & Boyer, 2001; Koch & Fulton, 2011).

Are women more pacific than men? Debate in the literature centers around whether women’s biology makes them more peaceful given their reproductive capacity (essentialist argument) or whether women are more peaceful because of socialization processes and experiences (gender stereotypes; Caprioli & Boyer, 2001, pp. 504–505). In terms of women’s biology and their reproductive capacity, the argument is as follows: as more women are included in foreign policymaking, policy outcomes will differ, namely less aggressive foreign policy behavior. With regard to socialization processes and experiences, the social construct of gender leads to stereotypical roles and behavior for men and women. Thus, until gender stereotypes are eliminated, having more women involved in foreign policy decision-making will not lead to changed, or different, foreign policies (Caprioli, 2000, pp. 52–53).

The literature demonstrates that it is the social construction of gender and the concomitant socialization processes that have an impact on the gender gap between men and women, not biological differences between women and men (Brooks & Valentino, 2011, p. 283). In large part, these gender differences reflect the stereotypically gendered expectations of women’s behavior and roles: women are more likely to be focused on foreign policies that address peace and social justice (Breuning, 2001, p. 38). And Regan and Paskeviciute (2003) assert that as more women participate in the political sphere, the more constraints are placed on the leaders in terms of decisions to use military force.

In trying to account for the gender gap on foreign policy issues, scholars have hypothesized and debated about the difference between levels of public support for war and use of force by men and women (Shapiro & Mahajan, 1986). Women and men may have different policy preferences or they may differ on which tools would be best to achieve foreign policy goals (Shapiro & Mahajan, 1986; Fite, Genest, & Wilcox, 1990). As noted previously, most studies of the gender gap and public opinion are based on American survey data. For example, Fite et al. looked at data from four public opinion surveys conducted in the 1970s and 1980s on foreign policy goals (containment, altruism) and tools (economic aid, military aid, troops). Controlling for demographics, ideology, and partisanship, they found that there is indeed a gender gap in public opinion in the United States, yet they also found that “there is generally more consensus than disagreement among American men and women on foreign policy goals and means” (Fite et al., 1990, p. 508). A study conducted by Conover and Sapiro shows that “[d]espite being more worried about war and suspicious of foreign involvements, women are just as willing as men to contemplate the use force when it seems justifiable” (1993, p. 1,091). They argue that the gender differences between men and women “are socially constructed and contextually driven” (Conover & Sapiro, 1993, p. 1,095).

In exploring further the gender gap and the use of force/support for war, Deborah Jordan Brooks and Benjamin A. Valentino looked at the “specific context of the war.” They found that U.S. public support for war is dependent on whether the war (intervention) has UN approval. When the UN approves a war, “women are actually more likely to support war” (emphasis added). The “stakes of the war” also impact the gender gap. If the war’s goal “is to promote humanitarian objectives,” women were more likely than men to support it, but were more likely to oppose war if the goal is “to protect economic/strategic objectives” (Brooks & Valentino, 2011, p. 271). They conclude that both the direction and size of the gender gap “is highly context dependent” (Brooks & Valentino, 2011, p. 283; see also Eichenberg, 2003 on U.S. public opinion, the gender gap, and the use of force).

Cross-national research has also explored the gender gap and foreign policy. For example, in an analysis of data from the Middle East, Mark Tessler and Ina Warriner (1997) found that when people’s attitudes favored gender equality, they were more likely to oppose war and increase support for diplomacy. Focused specifically on support for military action in the 1991 Persian Gulf War following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Wilcox et al. used data from surveys conducted in cities in 11 states that indicated that both men and women “generally agreed on the interpretation of the events leading to the Gulf War” and “on their affective responses to the major actors” (Wilcox et al., 1996, p. 78). Men and women also supported the various foreign policy goals of the coalition formed to respond to the Iraqi invasion: Saddam Hussein’s ouster as Iraq’s leader, providing assistance to Kuwait in light of Iraq’s violation of its sovereignty, and protection of the oil supply in the region. Where men and women, in almost all of the developing and developed states in the survey, differed was in terms of the use of military action to achieve those foreign policy goals: “women were significantly less willing to support military action” (Wilcox et al., 1996, p. 78). Togeby (1994) found that high salience of foreign policy issues and high levels of women’s political mobilization account for the presence of gender gaps in foreign policy attitudes in Denmark and has an impact on voting. Bjarnegard and Melander (2017) explored the link between attitudes on gender equality and hostility towards other nationalities, religions, and minority groups. Individual-level survey data in five states in the Pacific (China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States) showed that men and women who support gender equality expressed more tolerance of other nations and minorities. Thus, their findings indicate that, rather than an individual’s biological sex, attitudes about gender equality explain the gender gap given that both men and women who support gender equality were more tolerant of other nationalities and minorities (Bjarnegard & Melander, 2017, p. 23).

Taken as a whole, what these and other studies demonstrate is that men and women may hold different views with regards to the “use of force as a foreign policy instrument.” At the same time, there may not be a gender gap in terms of men’s and women’s attitudes on foreign policy goals (emphasis in original; Regan & Paskeviciute, 2003, p. 291).

Women’s Participation and Representation

Feminist scholars, such as Cynthia Enloe (1990), ask: where are the women? Gender equality is directly related to women’s representation and participation in government positions. While women’s representation has increased over time, including the number of female leaders in countries around the world (such as Chile, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Israel, Liberia, Poland, and Sierra Leone), and there are more women parliamentarians today than 20 years ago, gender equality remains elusive (Bennhold & Gladstone, 2016). As of March 1, 2017, of 193 states, women comprised 23.3% of national parliaments (single or lower house) on average, with interesting regional variations. In descending order: Nordic states (41.7%), Americas (28.2%), Europe-OSCE members including the Nordic states (26.4%), Europe-OSCE members excluding Nordic states (24.9%), Sub-Saharan Africa (23.8%), Asia (19.7%), Arab states (18.9%), and the Pacific (15%; Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2017a). In looking at individual countries, Rwanda leads the world: 61.3% of its legislators are women. Yet there are more than 30 states in which fewer than 10% of legislators are women (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2017b).

With regards to women in executive level positions, the number of male leaders far surpasses that of female leaders. As of January 2017, 17 women are serving as head of state and/or head of government (this is a decline from 2015, when there were 19 women in these positions; Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2017c). It is also important to note that, with few exceptions (such as the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, or Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel), women have not led the most powerful states, as defined by economic and military power (including nuclear weapons capabilities; Jalalzai, 2013, p. 179). With regards to type of executive (president, prime minister), in a large-N study of women leaders in the period 1960–2010, Jalalzai found that most women executives are prime ministers rather than presidents (2013, pp. 178–179). Their paths to leadership also varied, according to Torild Skard, including obtaining power through “family, father[,] or husband”; rising in the political party; or from the outside, such as involvement in an NGO/grassroots organization (Skard, 2015, p. 77, 472). Jalalzai highlights four factors that impact women’s ability to attain executive level leadership positions: cultural, historical, institutional, and structural factors. Cultural factors include gender stereotypes; historical factors refer to the “timing of women’s suffrage, earlier women leaders”; institutional factors include electoral and party systems; and structural factors relate to educational status, professional status, and “percentage of female legislators and cabinet ministers in the political pipeline” (Jalalzai, 2013, p. 178). In terms of ministerial positions, men also still dominate, as they hold 82% of such positions (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2017c).

While women are represented in government, it is also important to note where they are represented within governments. Feminist research has demonstrated quite clearly that even when women enter into formal government positions, men are overrepresented in certain positions. This “overrepresentation of men tends to increase with the power and prestige of positions” (Towns & Niklasson, 2017, p. 522). As noted previously, women are more likely to be prime ministers rather than presidents, with prime ministers having fewer powers relative to presidents (Jalalzai, 2013, p. 179). In addition, the perception of women “as collaborators and deliberators” and their “lower degree of political autonomy” may account for why women have been more successful in attaining leadership positions as prime ministers in higher numbers than as presidents (Jalalzai, 2011, p. 430). Moreover, according to Ann Towns and Birgitta Niklasson, comparative research further shows that in both “cabinets and legislatures, female ministers and legislators often cluster in what are seen as ‘feminine’ or ‘soft’ fields traditionally ‘linked to the private sphere and/or to women as a group.’” Men are found in what are stereotypically considered “‘hard’ fields of military and finance” (2017, p. 526; see also Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2017c). Jalalzai notes that research on the relationship between women, executive positions and gender supports the observation that “gender dynamics of cabinet assignments correlate to prevailing stereotypes. As a result, some cabinet departments are considered ‘masculine’ and others ‘feminine’” (Jalalzai, 2013, p. 27).

One can look at ambassador appointments, not only in terms of numbers of women ambassadors but to which countries they are assigned, as evidence of women’s representation and participation, and foreign policy. In a study of 44 U.S. women ministers and ambassadors appointed in the period 1933–1983, Ann Miller Morin (1994) examined the shared and different characteristics of both political appointees and career diplomats (foreign service officers). In her interviews with 34 women, she found that women were assigned to posts in countries that were considered less important and “far from career-enhancing action” (1994, p. 28). Since Morin’s study, research on ambassador appointments shows that the number of women serving as ambassadors and lower-level diplomats has increased in the last two decades. According to Towns and Niklasson, between 25% and 40% of ambassadors around the world are women. At lower-level diplomat positions, women’s percentage is even higher (Towns & Niklasson, 2017, p. 521). Yet, overall, women remain underrepresented as ambassadors around the world: they represent only 15% of top positions, and thus 85% of ambassadors are men (Towns & Niklasson, 2017, p. 529). As with the case of national parliaments discussed earlier, there is regional variation. Nordic states appoint more female ambassadors and also have more female ambassadors posted to their respective countries relative to other regions of the world. As related to reciprocity (appointing female ambassadors and receiving female ambassadors), Towns and Niklasson, in considering “whether women are more likely to be placed in ambassadorial posts in countries with higher levels of gender equality,” noted that “[o]ur data suggest that yes, this is indeed the case” (2017, pp. 529–530).

Moreover, in remarking on previous work that found that interviews with female ambassadors indicated “that gender makes very little difference in diplomatic practice and the path toward becoming ambassador,” in interviews conducted with female diplomats in Sweden in 2014, interviewees noted that “women face few limits as women in diplomacy” (emphasis in original; Towns & Niklasson, 2017, pp. 521–5222). In addition to qualitative interviews, Towns and Niklasson’s quantitative analysis examined “all ambassador appointments made by the [50] highest ranked countries in terms of GDP in 2014 (the states that appointed most ambassadors)” (2017, p. 522). Their findings confirmed earlier studies regarding to which countries female ambassadors are appointed. Such women tended to be “in charge of several small embassies in low-status countries that are not considered to require full-time representation” (Towns & Niklasson, 2017, p. 528). In assessing the prestige and/or rank of countries, in terms of military and economic power, the more highly ranked or prestigious a state, the less likely a woman will be appointed as an ambassador to that country (Towns & Niklasson, 2017, pp. 534–535). They argue that gender norms and processes within states are reinforced and reflected in ambassador appointments, with women continuing to be appointed to lower ranked/less prestigious states relative to men. They assert that in international relations, the binary of men/high status and women/low status is reproduced and strengthened (Towns & Niklasson, 2017, p. 523). This is also the case in the European Union, where women are underrepresented in the European External Action Service (EEAS), which is tasked with EU foreign policy. While two women have served as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice President of the European Commission, the gender gap at top level decision-making positions remains. The ratio of men to women in the “hard-power postings” of EU ambassadorial posts in the period 2010–2014 was 5:1. Women were also poorly represented in EU Special Representative (EUSR) positions, also considered to be a “hard-power ambassador-like post” (in 2014 no woman served as an EUSR; Novotna, 2015, p. 432).

In sum, while the number of women in legislatures and executive level positions has increased around the world, men still outnumber women. In addition to more men serving in these positions relative to women, it is also evident that men continue to be found in higher status positions, which further reinforces and reproduces the gender hierarchy in international relations. At the same time, women do have an impact on foreign policy. The question is, what kind of impact?

Women’s Impact on Foreign Policy

While women’s representation and participation in government are indicators of gender equality, the question arises as to whether and how having more women in government will impact policy, including foreign policy. The literature on institutions and organizations has examined whether or not a “critical mass” of a given group is necessary to influence policy preferences and outcomes. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter found in her study of women, tokenism, and corporations, “numbers, especially relative numbers, can strongly affect a person’s fate in an organization. This is a system rather than an individual construct—located not in characteristics of the person but in how many people, like that person in significant ways, are also present” (emphasis in original; Kanter, 1977, p. 241). This literature has also been applied to governments, as they too are institutions/organizations. If (more) women are represented and participate in government (as legislators, executives, and bureaucrats), is there a critical mass of women necessary to influence policy decision-making and outcomes, including in the area of foreign policy? Are there differences in the types of policy issues on which male and female government officials are focused? Are women focused on “women’s issues”? Are there differences between men and women on particular foreign policy issues such as the use of force and defense spending? In order to answer these questions, scholars have examined women in legislatures and executive level positions to assess their impact on foreign policy.


The question of whether having (more) women in formal government positions will lead to more consideration of women and “women’s issues” has been addressed in a number of studies that have examined national and state legislatures. According to Wittmer & Bouche, the literature finds that female legislators are more likely to give priority to “women’s issues” relative to male legislators. “Women’s issues” have been defined as those related to gender equality, children/families, education, health, and welfare (Wittmer & Bouche, 2013, p. 248). They argue that the framing of issues matters: when an issue is framed as a women’s issue but is a “human” issue, “women lead the charge” but may not garner the support of male legislators (2013, p. 248, 270). Relatedly, the relationship between women’s substantive representation (legislation on women’s issues) and descriptive representation (women legislators are not monolithic) has also been examined to account for legislation focused on women’s issues (Childs & Krook, 2008).

In addition, research shows that in terms of problem-solving approaches, women tend “to use a collective or consensual approach” (Caprioli & Boyer, 2001, p. 504). Female legislators tend to “act differently than their male counterparts” (Fridkin & Kenney, 2014, p. 1,029). As noted by Brittany Bronson, “Increased gender representation [in legislatures] directly translates into better consideration of women in the drafting of law and policy” and notes that studies demonstrate “that although female politicians have a wide range of positions, they often are more compassionate, better at working across the aisle and more willing to compromise, qualities intricately bound in successful policymaking” (Bronson, 2017). She also asserts that studies have shown that the appeal and electability of female legislative candidates may be limited if there’s “too much focus on gender.” At the same time, findings indicate that obtaining gender equity only happens when women call for it (Bronson, 2017).

As Fridkin and Kenney demonstrate, whether in terms of policy agendas, votes on roll-call votes, ideological orientations, or behavior on committees, differences between male and female legislators exist (Fridkin & Kenney, 2014, pp. 1,029–1,030). In a study of bills introduced by men and women in the U.S. House of Representatives (1973–2008), Craig Volden, Alan E. Wiseman, and Dana E. Wittmer (2013) set out to determine whether male or female legislators were more effective lawmakers (effectiveness defined across five stages: introduction of the bill, committee action, action beyond committee, House passage, and bill becomes a law). The authors noted that “minority party women become more and more effective throughout the law-making process, culminating in 33% more laws produced than minority party men” (Volden et al., 2013, p. 336). Their findings also show that “majority party women are significantly less likely than their male counterparts to get their sponsored bills signed into law” (emphasis in original). Interestingly, it is women in the minority party who have been successful “at stages that depend on consensus building” (Volden et al., 2013, p. 336). Committee leadership and seniority impacted the effectiveness of lawmakers, and these are structural barriers for women given that few women hold committee leadership positions and have seniority relative to men (women are “structurally disadvantaged”; Volden et al., 2013, p. 337).

Other scholars have looked at types of legislative systems to account for differences in policy influence for female and male legislators. In a cross-national study, Koch and Fulton compared party- and candidate-centered legislative systems. They found that legislators in candidate-centered systems did not face constraints compared to legislators in party-centered systems, as these legislators were not as “beholden to their party for office” and had “alternative means of securing their legislative seats.” Thus, legislators in candidate-centered systems had more freedom “to substantively represent women.” At the same time, Koch and Fulton observed that as more women were elected to the legislature, the differences between the two systems (candidate- and party-centered) in terms of women’s ability to influence policy declined. These results show that the specific “critical mass” number necessary for women to influence policy may vary depending on the type of legislative system (Koch & Fulton, 2011, p. 13).

Additional research on the gender gap in the legislature has found that female sex stereotypes benefit women at lower levels of government (state-level office) but not so much at the higher levels as a result of the need for women to be seen as credible in their leadership position at the national level. As Koch and Fulton note, “the magnitude of the credibility challenge for women varies as the leadership position becomes more masculine” (Koch & Fulton, 2011, p. 5). The credibility challenge for women is particularly pronounced in the area of foreign policy and national security. Female legislators face the challenge of overcoming gender “stereotypes about women’s ability to provide leadership on defense issues” (Swers, 2007, p. 563). A study by Michele Swers of bill sponsorship focused on defense issues in the U.S. Senate (107th and 108th Congresses, 2001–2002 and 2003–2004, respectively) showed “gender-based differences in the overall amount and policy focus” (2007, p. 559). Defense-related bills were broken down into “soft defense” (i.e., expanded benefits for military personnel and veterans), homeland security (such as airline and port security, funding for bioterrorism research), and “hard-security issues” (i.e., military base realignment, missile defense, nuclear proliferation; Swers, 2007, pp. 569–570). Democratic women were most active in terms of sponsorship of defense bills, primarily those that addressed homeland security. Interviews with staff revealed that Democratic women faced a “double burden”: women must counter gender stereotypes that compared to men, they are weak on defense, and that they are members of the political party viewed as weak, relative to the Republican party, on national security and defense. Sponsoring defense bills enables Democratic women to do two things. Sponsorship enables Democratic women to adopt a position that will resonate with voters and to impact “the policy agenda” (Swers, 2007, p. 570). Relatedly, for female legislators, membership on defense-related committees is important and necessary in order to overcome gender stereotypes that women are considered weak. Swers quotes a staffer:

Women want to get on defense and foreign policy committees to establish their credibility on the issue. Voters don’t question a man’s ability on defense issues. Senior male senators with no defense experience—no one will say they are not tough. Women need these committees to show they are tough and fit to lead in that area because the women are not likely to have served in the military. (2007, p. 581)

While membership on such committees matters, so too does the leadership on those committees, as it is the chairs of those committees who are considered credible, with a reputation for expertise in national security affairs. Few women have been chairs of such committees and subcommittees, and even when they have been, they have not garnered the same level of media attention as men (Swers, 2007, pp. 584–587).

In addition to single case studies, research has also examined cross-national cases of the impact of women’s representation in national legislatures on their state’s foreign policy. For example, in a cross-country comparison of 17 donor states’ level of development assistance, Marijke Breuning looked at several variables, including the percentage of women legislators (whether women comprised 30% or more of the legislature—a critical mass) as well as the type of political parties (percent of left parties: socialist, social democratic, or labor parties; Breuning 2001, p. 43). She found that when the percentage of women’s seats in parliament was 30%, the government “provides more funds for development cooperation” (Breuning, 2001, p. 47). Thus, having more women in parliament/legislature did have an impact on foreign policy.


Does the gender gap exist in the case of foreign policy elites in executive level positions? Do female leaders promote foreign policies on women’s empowerment and gender equality? There have been some studies on women in executive leadership positions (presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers/secretaries, defense ministers/secretaries, and ambassadors), but as very few women have occupied these positions, there is a challenge in doing comparative case studies to assess women’s impact on foreign policy (Breuning, 2001). Most studies have focused on individual states and individual women leaders. For example, scholars have examined German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rise to power (she became Chancellor in 2005), her leadership style, and policy preferences and outcomes, and have concluded that several factors matter. An easterner (raised in communist East Germany), Protestant, Christian Democrat party member, and physicist, “she has played down her gender” (Davidson-Schmich, 2011, p. 334). According to Jennifer A. Yoder, Merkel’s leadership style, one that is “pragmatic and conciliatory,” reflects her life experiences and background, as well as domestic coalition politics and Germany’s membership in multilateral institutions such as the EU and NATO. Her foreign policy has been one focused on human rights and improving U.S.-German relations, for example, and less so about women’s rights and gender equality specifically. Overall, Merkel’s foreign policy has been one of continuity, rather than change (Yoder, 2011, p. 363, 366, 372; on Merkel’s economic and foreign policy, see also Jalalzai, 2011).

In the case of the European Union, two women have been appointed to serve as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (Catherine Ashton, 2009–2014; Federica Mogherini, 2014–present), pursuing and implementing the EU’s foreign policy through the European External Action Service and EU delegations (Nunlist, 2015; Dijkstra & Vanhoonacker, 2017). Both Ashton and Mogherini have explicitly linked EU foreign policy to gender equality and women’s participation, particularly in the context of UNSCR 1325 (Ashton, 2010; European Union, 2017).

In a study of women and men in the senior levels of the U.S. State Department and Defense Department in the 1980s, Nancy E. McGlen and Meredith Reid Sarkees did not find strong evidence of a gender gap. In looking at the differences between career and political appointees, they found that with regards to career women and men at the State Department, women tended “to adopt a more moderate stance on world issues.” In so doing, these women did not support “the hard-line policy views and the use of force or subterfuge.” Rather, they supported “more global concerns and international cooperation.” Interestingly, the female political appointees at both the State and Defense Departments, as well as career women at the Defense Department, tended “to be more hard line and conservative” compared to “their male counterparts” (McGlen & Sarkees, 1993, p. 211). McGlen and Sarkees conclude that “political ideology and occupation appear to be more important than gender in determining foreign policy beliefs” (1993, p. 215).

In the case of the use of force as a tool of foreign policy, women political leaders around the world are not less willing to use force. For example, in an analysis of four female political leaders (the president, prime minister, or someone who makes the decision on whether to use force) and their behavior in 10 international crises in which military/security issues were at stake, Mary Caprioli and Mark C. Boyer found that the crises remained violent and the use of violence escalated (but none of the crises were started by the female leaders; Caprioli & Boyer, 2001, pp. 505–507). In seeking to understand why these leaders responded the way they did, the question arises as to whether women in leadership positions must imitate male gender stereotyped leadership styles in order not to be viewed as weak. Female leadership styles may be perceived as weak, particularly in dealing with “realpolitik issues of security, defense, and economics” (Caprioli & Boyer, 2001, p. 508). The need to establish and maintain credibility as a leader, according to Koch and Fulton, “may lead women to present themselves as more masculine, in an attempt to combat the stereotype” regarding expectations of women as peaceful/weak (Koch & Fulton, 2011, p. 4). In addition to projecting male gender stereotypes as a way “to overcome stereotypes about female leadership weaknesses,” female leaders must also deal with their male leaders/opponents’ perceptions (Caprioli & Boyer, 2001, p. 508). Male opponents would, in turn, not want to be perceived as having suffered a defeat by a woman. These two factors (female leaders’ need “to prove themselves”; male leaders not wanting to be defeated by a female leader) may account for the increased “severity of violence in a crisis” when there is a female leader (Caprioli & Boyer, 2001, pp. 514–515).

Caprioli and Boyer note that their sample size is small—only four female leaders (Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher) and only 10 international crisis situations (military/security issues) when there was a female leader in power (2001, p. 505). Given the small sample size, they analyzed the “level of gender equality” in a given country (as measured by the percentage of women in the legislature) and international crisis behavior in the period 1945–1994 (Caprioli & Boyer, 2001, p. 509, 511). Their quantitative analysis shows that “as the percentage of women in the legislature increases, the violence is less severe”—in other words, increasing domestic gender equality lessens the severity of international crisis behavior (Caprioli & Boyer, 2001, p. 514). In a different quantitative study Caprioli (2000, p. 56) tested the gender gap by examining the use of military action (level of militarism) in the period 1960–1992, in which 159 states were engaged in a militarized international dispute. In looking at social equality (measured in terms of fertility rates), political equality (percent of women in the legislature; length of suffrage), and economic equality (percent of women in the labor force), she found that “higher levels of gender equality correlate with lower levels of military action to settle international disputes” (Caprioli, 2000, p. 63). After controlling for alliances, democracy, geographic contiguity, and wealth, “states with higher levels of gender equality were less likely to rely on military force to settle international disputes.” Thus, a state’s foreign policy is impacted by women’s equality within the country (Caprioli, 2000, p. 63).

These findings are supported by that of more recent research, which finds that the higher the level of gender equality in a country, the less violent/belligerent a country’s foreign policy (see Hudson et al., 2012; Hudson & Leidl, 2015). According to Valerie Hudson and her co-authors, there is a strong relationship between women’s security and a state’s security: when women are not secure in their states, neither are their states secure. States with high levels of violence against women are neither secure nor stable, and this holds for both democracies and non-democracies. As the gender gap in the treatment of men relative to the treatment of women in a state increases, so too does the likelihood that such states will experience intra- or inter-state violence and conflict (Hudson et al., 2012, p. 205; see also Hudson, 2012).

Thus, in considering gender equality in both the executive level and legislatures, are there differences between constraints and expectations for women and men in these positions? In a cross-national study of 22 established democracies in the period 1970–2000, Koch and Fulton found that “female executives occupy more masculinized leadership positions” than is the case for women legislators. Given these more masculinized leadership positions, women may be more inclined “to be overly hawkish in their foreign policy behavior” as a way to overcome traditional gender stereotypes in which women are considered passive, vulnerable, and weak. At the same time, the results of their quantitative study show “that as women gain greater representation in the legislature, gender differences between male and female executives declines” (Koch & Fulton, 2011, p. 11). Controlling for variables such as government partisanship and women’s rights, they found that as “the proportion of women in the legislature” increases, “defense spending and conflict behavior” decreases. Yet, when it comes to women executives (chief executive, ministers), relative to men in those positions, there is more defense spending as well as greater conflict behavior by women. Koch and Fulton argue that this kind of behavior can be interpreted as women executives recognizing that they need to take actions that will enable them to “overcome stereotypes of being ‘weak’ in foreign policy.” Interestingly, increases in women’s representation in the legislature had a moderating effect on female executives: the female executives became less hawkish (2011, p. 13).

Future Research: A Feminist Foreign Policy?

One of the limitations of the existing research on women, gender, and foreign policy is measuring whether the increase in women’s presence in government influences foreign policy preferences and outcomes, and, if so, in what ways? How can the shift in foreign policy decision-making and outcomes be measured? Are there short-term and long-term impacts? Future research could consider more precisely whether and how such an impact has occurred. In other words, research could explore going beyond counting the number of women present (representation and participation) to explore a foreign policy that reflects women’s level of influence in policymaking and thus how to measure such influence. Research on peace negotiations and the implementation of such agreements provides a template for research on women, feminism, and foreign policy as such research shows that women’s participation mattered. Importantly, the level of women’s influence in all stages of the peace negotiations, including the pre-negotiation phase and as part of all-women delegates, made a difference in effective implementation of peace agreements (Paffenholz et al., 2016, p. 55).

Future research should also study further which women (and men) matter in foreign policy. In other words, much of the current research on executives treats female (and male) leaders as the same. An intersectional approach, in which “gender intersects with race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, or other categories,” enables scholars to assess how any given female (or male) leader impacts foreign policy (Davidson-Schmich, 2011, p. 331).

Relatedly, as countries such as Sweden pursue an explicitly feminist foreign policy, another possible area of future research could examine the factors necessary for effective implementation of a feminist foreign policy. A feminist foreign policy has two central policy goals, according to Jolynn Shoemaker and Sahana Dharmapuri: gender parity (increased opportunities for women in leadership positions) and gender sensitivity (examining the impact of foreign policies in terms of perpetuating or alleviating gender inequality). A feminist foreign policy is one that “prioritizes the full implementation of international and national commitments to advance human rights—that includes gender equality” (Shoemaker & Dharmapuri, 2016). Such a foreign policy engages with civil society, namely women activists, as well as a policy that offers opportunities in leadership positions for men who endorse and promote gender equality (Shoemaker & Dharmapuri, 2016). A feminist foreign policy goes beyond gender mainstreaming: “it contains a normative reorientation of foreign policy that is guided by an ethically informed framework based on broad cosmopolitan norms of global justice and peace” (emphasis added; Aggestam & Bergman-Rosamond, 2016, p. 323). But a tension arises, as Jacqui True observes, between a feminist foreign policy focused on peace and justice, and a foreign policy that may include the use of military force. She notes that this leads to “a fundamental contradiction from a feminist perspective. How is it possible to sell arms (when, regardless of whom you first sell them to, they often end up perpetrating crimes) and at the same time promote a humanitarian, human rights approach to foreign policy?” (True, 2015). Consequently, another avenue of research could focus on how to resolve this tension and achieve a feminist foreign policy.


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