Feminism in International Relations: Hegemony of the “mainstream” (2 of 2)

In the previous section the discussion has been centered on feminism in contrast to “mainstream” IR perspectives. However, we have yet to answer two crucial questions within the discussion: first, the question on why are the “mainstreams” perspectives are mainstream; second, how they kept the “marginal” theories such as feminism on the margin. The discussion on these points is relevant if we take the starting point that the “mainstream” perspectives built the foundation in which IR is studied. If indeed we point our collective fingers towards Realism as well as its respective incarnations and label them as the mainstream, then the rationale for their prominence within the discipline could be found in the history of the discipline itself. Steve Smith argued that “Realism has dominated the discipline precisely because the discipline itself has mainly been developed in a specific country, with a specific set of foreign policy problems,” (Smith, 1989, p. 14) in which he further specified that IR is a U.S. discipline (Smith, 1989).

Smith’s argument is drawn from the historical period and circumstances in which the discipline came to be. He argued that the discipline has fundamentally been shaped for the means of policy making instead of a general search for knowledge. Within the first phase of the discipline, the paradigm of idealism was gaining prominence. It was focused on preventing something like the First World War to occur ever again and to do so the attention was paid on “reforming the international system in such a way as to ensure that change came about peacefully,” (Smith, 1989, p. 6). Smith argued that it was not a coincidence that attention was paid to that that very thought as there was a consensus about the cause of the war which was best represented within Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Realism came about after the fall of idealism in the post-World War II world. It has a great impact within the discipline as it fundamentally pushed for the creation of theoretical framework that is exclusive to international politics. This impact that realism has on IR can be argued to make sense if one analyze it in the context of U.S. academic community at the time (Hoffmann, 1977; Smith, 1989). Realism then became the framework for U.S. foreign policy in a post-World War II world. In that context, realism has a huge impact as not only that it pushed for a distinction of the field, but also due to its deemed relevance to the state which subject was analyzed the most.

With respect to the arguments presented above, one can say that the discipline of International Relations has indeed been built on a tradition of thinking that allowed for realism to grow and in turn shape the discipline that allowed it to be the most prominent theoretical perspective. And if that was indeed the case, then the marginalization of feminism can be blamed on the insistence of the discipline to remain in one framework and foundation, which feminism will inevitably disrupt (Peterson, 2003). If we analyze this through post-structuralism lenses, then the sustained hegemony of realism and its incarnation allowed for the discourse of international politics to be constructed based on what has been said by realism, which in turn painted a picture that seemingly would not be suitable for feminism. Harraway (1988) argued that knowledge is fundamentally a narrative or an act of faith based on cult membership. In this regard, the marginalization of feminism could then be explained through the lack of adherence by the “masses” within the discipline of IR towards the knowledge constructed by feminism, which again can be traced to the hegemony of the “mainstream.” This could justify Tickner’s conclusion that there exists fundamental power inequality between feminism and the rest of the “mainstream” IR (Tickner, 1997).In this regard, feminism in the discipline of IR lacks the ability to speak in the same “volume” and “impact” as the rest of the “mainstream” IR discipline which ultimately leave them at the edge of the discipline.


“International Relations is a man’s world,” (Tickner, 1988, p. 1).  This statement has been echoed – albeit in different forms and variations – by other scholars and writers but somehow has not been able to do much against the status quo (Zalewski, 2007). It is indeed undeniable that within the past decades, “non-traditional” security issues such as those related to gender has gained more traction, the validity of Feminism within the study of international politics however have continuously been questioned, ultimately causing gender sensitive theoretical perspectives  to stand within the margins of the discipline, and in occasions left out of the engagement altogether (Tickner, 1997; Zalewski, 2007).

The state in which the discipline of IR is in could be used as anexplanation for this very perplexing situation. Within the foundation of IR, a certain kind of rationality as well as mode of knowing has been ingrained due to the way that the discipline grew historically. This allowed for certain theoretical perspective to be seen as more valid in comparison to others in terms of formulating issues and solution within the discipline. The ultimate result of this is the marginalization of feminism –and other marginal theoretical perspectives – as it is deemed as incompatible by the masses. The most worrisome of the situation is the hegemony of the “mainstream” perspective and the seeming incompatibility between IR and feminism. What made IR seemingly inhospitable to feminism is the same thing that continuously sustains the hegemony of the “mainstream.”

The argument presented in this discourse to make sense of the position in which feminism is now in within IR focuses on the inherent power difference between the “mainstream” IR and feminism. A lot of other works have attributed the marginalization of feminism to the inherent masculinity of IR. Although there are a lot of merits in those argument, this discourse suggest that it may be beneficial for observer to pay more attention in how IR is being constructed outside of the gender dimension, which may explain why IR is rather resistant to theoretical perspectives outside of its own tradition.


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Zinedine Muhamad Radifa