How convincing is the feminist critique of realism?

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The feminist critique of realism is highly valid and essential for the creation of a fair International Relations order. However, it can also be argued that whilst the feminist critique focuses heavily on the negative and biased aspects of realism, it fails to provide solutions to correct the current inadequacies. By examining the theory of realism under three core categories; power, rationality and security, it can be proven that the feminist critique, solely through suggestion, does offer an implicit resolution to the gender bias of realism’s key concerns. Despite this, the feminist critique is not easily aligned with the realist theory due to the basis upon which the respective knowledge is built.

Realism asserts the claim that it provides a clear account of world politics as it is. In opposition to this, the feminist critique dismisses the reality of this theory as it has been created and upheld by men therefore is gender-biased and derived from male androcentric accounts. The intense development of realist thought following the Second World War was partly due to the need to explain the events of the recent past in a more systemic manner with a strong state-focus. Tannen claims that women appear more at ease with an ‘ethnographic style of individually oriented story-telling typical of anthropology’ (Tickner 1997:616)) hence this basis cannot be transported to an international plateau which is absent of society.

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Feminists believe that world politics possesses ‘multiple realities’ (True 2001:254) and by associating morality with the cynicism of realism, the ‘divisions between the individual, state and international system’ will be rendered less striking. Not only does realism wrongly describe the way in which world politics is conducted, but it is also guilty of the ‘reproduction of global hierarchies of gender and other social identities’ (True 2001:233). Therefore the crtitcism of realism not only corrects the gender imbalance but also attempts to ‘shape our behaviours which concrete consequences for the real world of actors and events’ (True 2001:247). In this sense, the critique is enlightening and more than convincing for an impartial observer. What use is a theory that is based upon unrealistic foundations and, despite it’s assertions of historical neutrality, does not tolerate the feminine standpoint?

If it is accepted that, for realists, power is derived solely in terms of relativity, the amount of power one state possesses over another, then the feminist critique of this aspect is completely legitimate. Tickner dismisses the realist understanding of the concept of power as being androcentric and based on the historical traditions of patriarchy whilst Sylvester furthers this thought and suggests that power relations are not based on self-help only. The realist claim that men and states are ‘mutually-exclusive’ (True 2001:254) beings is reliant on gendered accounts of the world and is fundamentally dependent on the ‘exclusive agency of rational man’. Feminists argue that there is a general misunderstanding of what constitutes gender;

‘a set of variable but socially and culturally constructed characteristics, such as power, autonomy, rationality and public, that are stereotypically associated with masculinity. Their opposites, weakness, dependence, emotion and private, are associated with femininity.’ (Tickner 1997:614)

and that these characteristics are not restricted to either the male or female domain. Enloe upholds that power cannot be defined in simple terms of relativity or power-over but should be regarded as a ‘complex phenomena of social forces’ (True 2001:255) and in order to understand power at an International Relations level, the domestic interactions should also be recognised. Here, a simple solution is offered to combat the key belief that the autonomy of the state is of ultimate importance.

The notion of rationality, which underpins the realist theory, is challenged as feminists expose ‘the dominant male gender of policymakers and the gendered assumptions that these policymakers are strategically rational actors who make life and death decisions in the name of an abstract conception of the national interest. The reason for this blinkered view is connected heavily to the division of labour; women are responsible for the formation and development of relationships within society whilst men do not have these societal responsibilities, which explain the focus on basic and non-complex relationships. Pateman, as summarised in Tickner, tracks the separation of the workplace from the household back to the 17th Century and holds the ‘consolidation of the patriarchal structure of capitalism’ (Tickner 1997:622) responsible for woman’s loss of socio-economic independence and identity.

The socialisation process, according to Sylvester, is also a major contributor to the perception as males as rational beings; ‘a girl thereby develops a sense of empathetic connection to the world’ (Tickner 1997:623) which prevents her from adopting the male perception of realism in merely abstract terms. However, it is ineffective if a purely feminine model of opposites is created. Tickner stresses the requirement of ‘richer, alternative models’ (True 2001:250) that allow for the heterogeneous nature of society. In this area, the feminist critique dates the formation of a male dominated perception of rationality back to the forming of society itself and accepts the difficult task ahead of incorporating feminine perspectives.

The imminent threat of attack upon a state is counterbalanced, in the realist sense, by the security provided by the highest level of military capability and skill. Security, in the realist sense, can be defined as the ‘protection of the boundaries and integrity of the state’ (Tickner 1997: 627). Strongly linked to the concept of power-over, Peterson claims that the existence of the ‘sovereignty contract’ between autonomous states leads to the ultimate sacrifice of citizens playing gender-specific roles. Sylvester develops this notion and suggests that women are deemed mere commodities in the international forum;

‘…women are non-recognised resources for realist states, occupying positions ranking with oil, geography, industrial capability, and military preparedness as contributions to power.’ (1992:169)

The criticism apparent at this juncture is not explicitly blaming the leading realist theorists for their construction of a gendered model, but instead examines the basis for this bias. To resolve and realign the perspective is more problematic than simply adding a feminine viewpoint.

The goal of the feminists is to create a theory that is balanced and indiscriminate. It is unreasonable to suggest that a clearly prejudiced and partially constructed paradigm, albeit one that rests upon its historical context, should be regarded without criticism. However, the task in hand is not without obstacle. Tickner articulates the complexity of;

‘…building knowledge that does not start from the position of the detached universal subject involves being sensitive to difference whilst striving to be as objective as possible.’ (1997:629)

It is not merely a case of appending an after-thought onto the existing theory. In fact, if the feminist perspective was incorporated, Emily Rosenberg maintains that this could only ‘lead to a theoretical cul-de-sac which further reinforces gender hierarchies'(Tickner 1997:620). Feminists do not strive to simply ensure conscious female representation but to change the way in which the world, or society, operates.

An impossible mission, surely, with the innate problems involved. One of the main obstacles within IR theory, according to Peterson and Runyan, is the need to describe events and actions in dichotomous terms. This ‘eternal representation of dualisms’ (True 2001:257) places the feminists in a hopeless situation. Trapped by the definitions controlling International Relations theory; ‘inside-outside, domestic-international, sovereignty-anarchy’ (True 2001:257), the feminist can only re-represent the same dichotomies – they find themselves guilty of the crimes they previously accused.

The feminist critique cannot be aligned with the realist theory – their incompatibility rests on their ultimate purpose. Whilst realism provides the politics scholar with a rational explanation of events and describes the world as it exists now, the critique seeks to fundamentally alter the mindset of the IR community. However, Sylvester states that ‘we need not shatter the realist window in the course of this exercise, because it does offer us a partial view’ (1992:172). Echoed by Tickner, it is the ‘narrow and exclusionary’ (True 2001:257) nature of realist thought that causes the bias. ‘Realism exaggerates certain features of the human condition and downgrades or ignores other’ (Elshtain 1991:457), these features are categorised into gender-specific compartments, forcing the feminists to censure this approach. Feminists are;

‘…arguing for moving beyond knowledge frameworks that construct international theory without attention to gender and for searching deeper to find ways in which gender hierarchies seek to reinforce socially constructed institutions and practices that perpetuate different and unequal role expectations that have contributed to fundamental inequalities between women and men in the world of international politics.’ (Tickner 1997:621)


Baylis, J. & Smith, S. (2001) The Globalisation of World Politics, New York: Oxford University Press.

Elshtain, J. B. (1991) ‘Reflections on war and political discourse: realism, just war, and feminism in a nuclear age’ in Perspectives on World Politics, R. Little & M. Smith (eds), USA: Routledge, pp 457-468

Robertson, D. (1993) Dictionary of Politics, UK: Penguin

Sylvester, C. (1992) ‘Feminists and Realists View Autonomy and Obligation in International Relations’ in Gendered States: Feminist (Re)visions of International Relations Theory, V. S. Peterson (ed), USA: Lynne Rienner, pp155-173.

Sylvester, C. (1994) Feminist Theory and International Relations in a Post-Modern Era, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sylvester, C. (1998) ‘Homeless in International Relations? “Women’s” Place in Canonical Texts and Feminist Reimaginings’ in Feminism and Politics, A.Phillips (ed), USA: Oxford University Press, pp 44-63.

Tickner, J. A. (1991) ‘Hans Morgenthau’s principles of political realism: a feminist reformulation’ in Gender and International Relations, R. Grant & K. Newland (eds), UK: Open University Press, pp 36-37

Tickner, J. A. (1997) ‘You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements between Feminists’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 41, No 4 pp 611-632

True, J. (2001) ‘Feminism’ in Theories of International Relations, S. Burchill (ed), Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp 231-266


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