Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

Reflections on the Gendering of States, Sovereignty and Security in the Study of International Relations

Jan Jindy Pettman

    1. In this article, I reflect upon struggles to ‘gender’ International Relations (IR), especially in relation to issues of states, sovereignty and security, using my own experiences in and around the discipline over the last forty years. I trace the long apparent absence of gender in IR, and the late coming of feminist scholarship to IR from the early 1990s.[1] I argue that feminist IR was well placed to respond to the crisis in scholarship, and in politics, generated by 9/11 and the ‘war on terror.’ I then identify some of the current challenges facing feminists researching security issues in Australia and ‘our region.’
    2. As an undergraduate at the University of Adelaide in the early 1960s, International Relations drew me in, in part because its core problem appeared to be the problem of war, and war was always a problem for me. IR was founded as a separate discipline in the aftermath of the First World War, charged with analysing the causes of war and conditions for peace, so that such a war would not happen again. This normative strain and the centrality of war as a human and ethical issue was to become a minority issue, however, especially during the Cold War. When I began as a lecturer in IR in the mid-1960s, my favourite and hardest lectures were on war—beginning with the famous Waltz tome, Man, the State and War.[2] In contradistinction to the ‘scientific’ study of war—and ‘objective’ scholarship—dominant in IR, I worried through these lectures alongside my then-identification as a pacifist. War, the ultimate option for states seeking their own security and national interest (as their governments and elites saw them), seemed unjustifiable on moral grounds and dangerous or counter-productive on practical or political ones.
    3. A rather different impulse, for me, and one even less evident in IR then, had to do with cultural difference, and whether and how that mattered in terms of the construction of states, nations and wars. This concern deepened as I lectured on African politics, in the midst of successive waves of decolonisation, in legal terms at least. I grew increasingly puzzled as to why the IR writings I was using either ignored ‘third world’ politics (except as an arena for US or UK or Australian foreign policy) and relegated them to development studies or area studies; or else, on rare occasions of attention, assumed that state building and international relations involving African states should replicate western ways of doing and being, when their cultural bases and political economies were so different. War, violence and peace, and identity, security and morality, seemed to me somehow intrinsically connected, even though IR scholars showed little interest in identity beyond states-and-citizens, or security in other than statist and military terms.
    4. At the same time my proto-feminist self was engaged in various protest movements, including those against the war in Vietnam, and against racism and colonialism. I was struggling to find ways to argue the rights, and obligations, of the scholar-activist, assuming a normative position and asserting the responsibility of all of us to acknowledge our own investments and interests in the work we do. For my part, my personal and political beliefs clearly directed my studies and choice of teaching and research areas. My learning about the history, contexts and politics of my chosen causes complicated my activism and increased my unease in the face of the simple truths of some local campaigning. My contact with international and indigenous activists in particular tested my academic knowledge-making and made me think more about everyday life and struggles, and the difficult business of alliance building.
    5. I began my doctoral research on Zambian foreign policy in 1969, at a time when Zambia was surrounded by white settler states, and was an ambivalent base for southern African liberation movements. My research and especially my fieldwork tested my pacifism—how could I not support liberation struggles in the face of such state violence and repression, when all possibilities for peaceful change were blocked? And yet it seemed then (as it does now) that no use of violence can be innocent; that violence rarely solves political conflicts and usually generates lasting damage, including on those who participate in it; and that deals struck between warring sides leave out most people, including most women and most peace-builders.
    6. I faced other challenges, too, in terms of working the discipline and making it work for me. My IR peers and superiors apparently thought that what I was doing was not IR, as I increasingly talked and wrote about colonisation and decolonisation, about nation and state building, about development (the book version of my thesis was called Zambia—Security and Conflict).[3] I understood that it was also necessary to consider the international, Cold War and political economy dimensions of Zambia’s troubles, but calling this ‘not IR’ infuriated me.
    7. My Ph.D. supervisor at the London School of Economics, James Mayall, was almost the only IR scholar I knew publishing on nationalism, which remains a key to my work. Nationalism did not catch much IR attention until the end of the Cold War and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. At this time, work by feminist sociologists, political theorists and historians on gender and nation were building a vital resource for early feminist IR, and taught us the importance of paying close attention to history, context and culture—all including gender politics—in any national or international conflict.[4] Increasingly pressing in my grappling with the problem of war were the related problems of culture and identity, especially the process by which the boundaries are drawn between them and us, boundaries that mark the limits of the moral community and—in some cases and times—allow or demand violence against those others. Increasingly evident was the crucial role of gender in all of this. Initially, I focused on the very different ways women and men experienced war, and citizenship. Increasingly it became clear that gender was constitutive in the construction and reproduction of processes and relations that lay at the core of mainstream IR, too—including the state, and war. The gendered nature of the state resulted in the denigration of the feminine in military matters, the coercion of state obedience, the shaping of men’s civic responsibilities in terms of fighting for ‘women-and-children,’ and in the representation of power relations between states and the privileging of state militaristic options over more peace-able ones.[5]
    8. As if all this were not enough, my left politics delivered a strong dose of materialism, an acute consciousness of the centrality of power, and of the close connections between power and wealth, and between power and identity/difference. The usual separation between IR and International Political Economy (IPE, often run then as separate courses in Political Science departments and with separate lecturers)[6] confounded me; so too did the usual separation between IPE (global, capitalist or ‘alternative paradigms’) and Development Studies (third world, area studies). Perhaps most significantly for my future paths, I was quite dislodged from state-centric notions of identity and security. Supposedly clear boundaries between the inside and the outside of IR, the separation of the ‘international’ and the ‘domestic’ (within the nation-state) and the easy assumptions about a singular or homogenised nation-state fell apart. Uncovered, then, were divisions within and connections across state borders, which growing transnational feminist links and later ‘globalisation’ studies would further develop.[7]
    9. Reflecting on my early years in IR, it is clear that dichotomies, binaries and narrow disciplinary boundaries were major problems for me, and, I thought, for IR. So too was IR’s lack of interest in identity, including gender identity, and our identities as IR knowledge-makers. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the fractured women’s movement and some of its relations, like diverse Women In Development (WID) tendencies and WID’s reincarnation as GAD (Gender and Development), made clear that women were located differently from men in relation to power, wealth, the state, and development. It was likely, then, that they were located differently in relation to international politics too; even more so, given the prerogative state (charged with the authorised monopoly of the use of force, within and outside the state), and the hyper-masculinity of war.
    10. My frustrations with the disciplinary confines, and disciplining, of IR led me to teach and research in Development Studies, Aboriginal Studies, Multicultural Studies, and in the mid-to-late 1980s, at the Peace Research Centre at ANU. This work heightened my awareness of the international in Australian national identity and gender politics, especially in regard to indigenous issues and multi-culturalism, and forced me to reflect on my position as a ‘white’ feminist working on and in anti-racist and feminist politics.[8] It was not accidental that my affiliations outside IR were designated ‘studies,’ that they were explicitly interdisciplinary, and often problem- or action-focused. They were mostly ignored and occasionally disparaged by mainstream IR as soft, small, messy (suitable therefore for women’s employment?), and ‘political’ (emotional, unreasonable, partial, unscientific). Feminism accentuated these associations, especially as IR appeared almost a ‘gender-free zone’ until the early 1990s—though of course IR is one of the most gendered, most masculinist, of disciplines, and practices—and gender was and is constitutive of identities and power relations and international processes too.
    11. The late coming of feminism to IR, compared with most other disciplines (but not International Law), has been extensively reviewed.[9] In terms of this special issue and the workshop which generated it, founding moments for feminist IR included the late 1980s US-based ‘Man, the State and War’ conference which drew together feminist practitioners in IR and more established feminist political theorists,[10] as well as the London School of Economics/Millennium sponsored Women and International Relations conference.[11] These early initiatives demonstrated the importance to feminist IR of developments within feminist scholarship, the growth of feminism in the universities, and of the wider women’s movement. Feminists working in IR also took advantage of the unsettling of IR territory and authority through the so-called ‘third debate,’ which mounted critical and post-positivist challenges to IR, though much of critical IR remained (and still remains) relatively uninterested in gender.[12] They also drew on the beginnings of a transnational women’s movement, especially from the 1985 Nairobi women’s conference, through to Beijing, honing feminist language, analyses, campaigns and networks in relation to reproductive rights, empowerment, women’s rights as human rights, and against violence against women.[13]
    12. The feminist credited with ‘launching’ feminist IR, Cynthia Enloe, was not ‘in’ IR, and this is quite significant. She was a comparative politics scholar who had done extensive work in ‘third world’ sites, and on militaries. Her Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics asked the highly productive question: ‘where are the women in international politics?’[14] She found them in many unexpected places and relations, or absent on account of being women. Furthermore, she traced the powerful role of gender and the construction of particular masculinities and femininities on which international politics depends. She traced connections between women’s everyday experiences and powerful international relations of wealth and domination. She demonstrated that it was possible to study international politics in ways which did not require the removal of most people, and almost all women, from the picture; and that women’s own experiences and feminists theorising and organising not only threw additional light on the subject, but provided more inclusive and therefore more useful and ‘realistic’ accounts of those politics. By so doing, she convinced me that I could return to IR as a feminist, which I did in 1991. In exchange for teaching the huge IR first year and the Australian Foreign Policy and International Relations courses for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), I designed and taught Gender in International Relations, the course that ‘test drove’ my book Worlding Women: A Feminist International Politics (like Cynthia, I was wary of too close an association with ‘IR’).[15]
    13. By the early 1990s, the gradual accumulation of feminists working in IR, feminist IR monographs and collections, and feminist-focused meetings and networks justified the loose designation ‘feminist IR.’[16] These developments supported and drew from the formation of the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies (FTGS) section within the huge International Studies Association—a North American-dominated association, but one attracting IR scholars from all over the world. Through the 1990s, feminist IR focused on critiquing the discipline, revealing gendered and other dimensions of difference, documenting women’s experiences in international politics and economy, and bringing relevant feminist work from other disciplines into IR. But it was still (like IR) predominantly Anglo-American in background and/or location, even as the growing significance of graduate feminist contributions widened the field. IR feminists were working mostly within the social sciences though they included colleagues in development and area studies. The dominant tendency was, and is, post-positivist. Feminist IR generated many close-grained and grounded empirical accounts of the international in diverse sites.[17] In the later 1990s, feminist IR also included more explicit focus on men as men, and masculinities in IR, though the latter, in terms of the earlier feminist political theory, was a well-established concern.[18]
    14. The strongest work by 2001 was either in gender, peace and war and identity politics, or in gender and/in globalisation.[19] In the former, the ‘new wars’ where territory, technology and identity were compacted so viciously, were fed by vast transnational arms and ‘security’ industries. While these wars were mostly outside of the west (with difficult and at times downright racist arguments about where Europe/the west began or ended), western states were, of course, powerfully implicated. Globalisation studies tended to focus on economic globalisation, or on new communications technology and cultural dimensions. Feminist IR responded to these concerns, documenting the gendered impacts of both war/conflict and global restructuring, and the routine and systematic deployment of gender to constitute and legitimise international relations of domination and exploitation. A rather different but theoretically and politically crucial strand introduced post-colonial feminisms and further internationalised the account.[20]
    15. Feminist IR was, and is, largely collaborative and often published in edited collections. Feminist networks, workshops and conferences, including FTGS, play a key role in developing these projects and publications. Most are multi-disciplinary and more than Anglo-American. Contributors are often also activists and/or practitioners, engaged in the United Nations (UN) system, NGOs and/or transnational campaigns.[21] Many of their contributions pursued the issues and puzzles through particular locations and sets of relations, again increasingly international in scope. We could talk of a feminist IR community (though it is not without its tensions and differences, like any community). We could also construct any number of courses on aspects of international politics or globalisation with a substantial, rich and diverse material base from within the discipline, as well as outside it.
    16. The launch of the International Feminist journal of Politics (IFjP) in 1999 marked a coming of age of feminist IR. It was conceived within FTGS, but quickly grew beyond that base. Again, the choice of ‘international feminist politics’ in its title resisted IR’s tendency to closure and exclusions. It also recognised IR feminists’ close relations with other feminists outside the discipline. IFjP is multidisciplinary, located at the intersections of international relations, political theory and women’s studies. Some effort has gone into building an editorial board and brief that reflect multiple and transnational commitments. It is a useful showcase for feminist international politics—including feminist IR—today.[22]
    17. I have argued elsewhere that feminist IR was strongly positioned to respond to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 (9/11), the ‘war on terror’ and the violent return of the prerogative state and the war option to the centre of western IR.[23] Now in IR, as in national politics, we are facing various forms of reaction, and the loss of hard-won gains, on the ground and in the realms of authorised knowledge-making. ‘Security’ and ‘terrorism’ trump all that careful unravelling of simplistic, naturalised understandings and the tracing of the complexities, contradictions, shifting alliances and multiple identities, contesting and reconfiguring power relations. A revamped, though not always coherent, market security state commands close feminist attention. United States of America’s President George W. Bush’s ‘you are either with us or with the terrorists’ and coercive patriotism limit what can be asked, or said, and make us politically suspect—even before we get to explicitly engage in gender talk.
    18. The events of 9/11 and the consequent war on terror ‘disappeared’ women as actors and feminists as authorities in international politics. Women were forcibly returned to their traditional place in the old war story, as victims, markers of national boundaries, and those for whom men and states must fight.[24] Even the increasing numbers of women (noticed) in state militaries usually operated to confirm stereotypical gender roles or underline anxieties at their apparent bending.[25] However, rapidly circulating feminist responses, utilising global circuits and especially the internet and email network lists, demonstrated the applicability and purchase of transnational feminist critiques.[26] Post-colonial materialist analyses, which do not lose sight of power differences among women and among feminists too, make for more inclusive and enabling readings of the current situation. Such analyses consider the ongoing and devastating effects of neo-liberalism and ‘the market’; the rise of cultural/religious reassertions and exclusivist political identities that capture women for their own political purposes (and appeal to some women); and the return of war and hypermasculinist politics to Anglo-American states. Such writers are interested in the implication of states, including Australia, in military interventions and ‘homeland protection’ that further militarise migration and citizenship policies.[27]
    19. Feminists have made an impact on IR, and IR knows that we are there. But we have not really affected the mainstream, or the centres of disciplinary power, where it counts. We are in hard times, that call all the more urgently for the deconstruction and revisioning of the big processes and forces of international politics and economy, and the close connections between supposedly disparate dimensions of power; but much is lost if we focus only on the macro level. We need to further consolidate the already-strong critical feminist work documenting the impact on and resistance to these forces at the local and everyday level, too. How do these processes and forces play out in the lives, bodies and relations of ‘ordinary’ people (asking always which people?) in terms of gender relations, along with other international power relations? How best can we use these more nuanced, situated accounts to further reflect on the ‘big picture’ and the ways we understand it? Can we give accounts that might be recognisable to those whose lives and contexts we struggle to write?
    20. This special issue provides fascinating examples of what happens when we go looking for women in various borderlands and national and international sites. They reveal that gender is good to think with, demonstrating gendered impacts and responses, but also the ways in which gender constitutes, and authorises, international relations in its disciplinary and ‘on the ground’ manifestations. They contribute to building the field I have identified here as feminist IR, as an academic and political project. They also prompt the hardest question—how can we be heard, and read, as feminists in the great debates—in politics, policy and the media—these days?


      [1] Most work on gender in IR is feminist; however there are occasional interventions and debates that are not feminist. See, for example, Jill Steans, Gender and International Relations, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.

      [2] Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.

      [3] Jan Pettman, Zambia – Security and Conflict, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1974.

      [4] For example: Chandra Mohanty, ‘Under western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourses,’ in Feminist Review 30 (1988):61–88; Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias, eds, Woman-Nation-State, London, Macmillan, 1989; Lata Mani, ‘Multiple mediations: feminist scholarship in the age of multinational reception,’ Feminist Review 35 (1990):24–41; Wendy Brown ‘Finding the man in the state,' in Feminist Studies 18(1)(1992):7–34.

      [5] Carol Cohn, ‘Sex and death in the rational world of defence intellectuals,’ in Signs 12(4) (1987):687–718; Cynthia Enloe, Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.

      [6] The IR lecturers were mostly ‘realists’ and the IPE ones were mostly ‘markets’ men but sometimes Marxists.

      [7] Jan Jindy Pettman, ‘Global politics and transnational feminisms,’ in Feminist Politics, Activism and Vision: Local and Global Challenges, ed. L Ricciutelli, A. Miles and M. McFadden, London and New York: Zed Books, 2005, pp. 49–63.

      [8] Jan Jindy Pettman, Living in the Margins: Racism, Sexism and Feminism in Australia, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1992; Jan Jindy Pettman, ‘Gendered Knowledges: Aboriginal women and the politics of feminism,’ in Journal of Australian Studies 35 (1993):120–31.

      [9] J. Ann Tickner, Gendering World Politics, New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

      [10] V. Spike Peterson (ed.), Gendered States: Feminist (Re)Visions of International Relations, Boulder, Co: Lynne Reinner, 1992.

      [11] ‘Women and international relations,’ Special Issue of Millennium 17(3) (1988). Note that the book emerging from the special issue was renamed from ‘women’ to ’gender’: Rebecca Grant and Kathleen Newland (eds), Gender and International Relations, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1991. Australia lacked the critical mass for such a move, though Ann Tickner credits my 1993 ‘Gendering international relations’ (Australian Journal of International Affairs 47(1) (1993):47–62) as the first feminist IR article published in a mainstream IR journal.

      [12] Steans, Gender and International Relations.

      [13] Pettman, ‘Global politics and transnational feminisms,’ pp. 49–63.

      [14] Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, London: Pandora, 1990.

      [15] Jan Jindy Pettman, Worlding Women: A Feminist International Politics, North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, and London & New York: Routledge, 1996.

      [16] Relevant works include: Peterson, Gendered States; J Ann Tickner, Gender in International Relations, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992; V. Spike Peterson & Ann Sisson Runyan, Global Gender Issues, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993; Sandra Whitworth, Feminism and International Relations, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1994.

      [17] Many of these appear in or are cited or reviewed in successive issues of the International Feminist Journal of Politics. The online edition of IFjP is found at

      [18] Terrell Carver, ‘Gendering international relations,’ Millennium 27(2) (1998):343–45; Marysia Zalweski and Jane Parpart (eds), The ‘Man’ Question in International Relations, Boulder, Co: Lynne Reinner, 1998.

      [19] See, for example: Enloe, Maneuvers; Mary Meyer & Elisabeth Prugl (eds), Gender Politics and Global Governance, New York: Rowan & Littlefield, 1999; M. Marchand & A. Sisson Runyan (eds), Gender and Global Restructuring, London: Routledge, 2000. I say 2001 within the security context of this paper. In 2002 there was the publication of a number of crucial texts in global political economy including V. Spike Peterson, A Critical Rewriting of Global Political Economy, New York, Routledge, 2003; and S. Rai, Gender and the Political Economy of Development, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002.

      [20] This strand also comes through in significant publications in 2002. See, for example: L.H.M. Ling, Postcolonial International Relations, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002; Geeta Chowdhry & Sheila Nair (eds), Power, Postcolonialism and International Relations, London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

      [21] Pettman, ‘Global politics and transnational feminisms,’ pp. 49–63.

      [22] For example, International Feminist journal of Politics 8(1) (2006) is a special issue on ‘Feminist international relations in the age of the war on terror.’ See also the forum on ‘Feminist theories in IR’ in Brown Journal of World Affairs 10(2) (2004):35–115.

      [23] Jindy Pettman, ‘Feminist international relations after 9/11,’ in Brown Journal of World Affairs 10(2) (2004):85–96.

      [24] Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War, New York, Basic Books, 1987; Yuval-Davis & Anthias, Woman-Nation-State.

      [25] Such anxieties about gender roles contributed to the shock at a woman’s role as torturer at Abu Ghraib. See Cynthia Enloe, ‘Wielding masculinity inside Abu Ghraib: making feminist sense of an American military scandal,’ in Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 10(3) (2004):89–102.

      [26] Pettman, ‘Feminist IR after 9/11’; ‘Forum: events of 11 September 2001 and beyond’ in International Feminist journal of Politics 4(1) (2002):95–115; ‘Roundtable: gender and September 11,’ in Signs 28(1) (2002):431–80; A. Joseph & K. Sharma (eds), Terror, Counter Terror Women Speak Out, London: Zed Books, 2003.

      [27] Pettman, ‘Feminist IR after 9/11,’ pp. 95–115.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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