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Marxism Feminism Essay Conclusion

Marxist feminism is feminism focused on investigating and explaining the ways in which women are oppressed through systems of capitalism and private property.[1] According to Marxist feminists, women's liberation can only be achieved through a radical restructuring of the current capitalist economy, in which, they contend, much of women's labor is uncompensated.[2]

Theoretical background in Marxism[edit]

Influential work by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848) in The Communist Manifesto[3] and Marx (1859) in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy laid the foundation for some of the early discourse about the relationship between capitalism and oppression. The theory and method of study developed by Marx (1859), termed historical materialism, recognizes the ways in which economic systems structure society as a whole and influence everyday life and experience.[4] Historical materialism places a heavy emphasis on the role of economic and technological factors in determining the base structure of society. The base structure prescribes a range of systems and institutions aimed to advance the interests of those in power, often at the cost of exploiting the working class. Marx (1859) argues that these systems are set by the ruling class in accordance with their need to maintain or increase class conflict in order to remain in power. However, Marx (1859) also acknowledges the potential for organization and collective action by the lower classes with the goal of empowering a new ruling class. As Vladimir Lenin (1917) argues in support of this possibility, the organization of socialist consciousness by a vanguard party is vital to the working class revolutionary process.[5]

In 1884, Engels published The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State[6] According to Engels (1884), the shift from feudalism to private ownership of land has had a huge effect on the status of women. In a private ownership system, individuals who do not own land or other means of production are in a situation that Engels (1884) compares to enslavement - they must work for the owners of the land in order to be able to live within the system of private ownership. Engels (1884) explains that the transition to this type of system resulted in the creation of separate public and private spheres and assigned access to waged labor disproportionately to men.

Engels (1884) argues that a woman's subordination is not a result of her biological disposition but of social relations, and that men's efforts to achieve their demands for control of women's labor and sexual faculties have gradually become institutionalized in the nuclear family. Through a Marxist historical perspective, Engels (1884) analyzes the widespread social phenomena associated with female sexual morality, such as fixation on virginity and sexual purity, incrimination and violent punishment of women who commit adultery, and demands that women be submissive to their husbands. Ultimately, Engels traces these phenomena to the recent development of exclusive control of private property by the patriarchs of the rising slaveowner class in the ancient mode of production, and the attendant desire to ensure that their inheritance is passed only to their own offspring: chastity and fidelity are rewarded, says Engels (1884), because they guarantee exclusive access to the sexual and reproductive faculty of women possessed by men from the property-owning class.

As such, gender oppression is closely related to class oppression and the relationship between men and women in society is similar to the relations between proletariat and bourgeoisie.[2] On this account women's subordination is a function of class oppression, maintained (like racism) because it serves the interests of capital and the ruling class; it divides men against women, privileges working class men relatively within the capitalist system in order to secure their support; and legitimates the capitalist class's refusal to pay for the domestic labor assigned, unpaid, to women.

Productive and reproductive labour[edit]

In the capitalist system, two types of labor exist, a division stressed by Marxist feminists like Margaret Benston and Peggy Morton.[7] The first is productive, in which the labor results in goods or services that have monetary value in the capitalist system and are thus compensated by the producers in the form of a paid wage. The second form of labor is reproductive, which is associated with the private sphere and involves anything that people have to do for themselves that is not for the purposes of receiving a wage (i.e. cleaning, cooking, having children). Both forms of labor are necessary, but people have different access to these forms of labor based on certain aspects of their identity. Women are assigned to the domestic sphere where the labor is reproductive and thus uncompensated and unrecognized in a capitalist system. It is in the best interest of both public and private institutions to exploit the labor of women as an inexpensive method of supporting a work force. For the producers, this means higher profits. For the nuclear family, the power dynamic dictates that domestic work is exclusively to be completed by the woman of the household thus liberating the rest of the members from their own necessary reproductive labor. Marxist feminists argue that the exclusion of women from productive labor leads to male control in both private and public domains.[7][8]

Accomplishments and activism[edit]

The militant nature of Marxist feminists and their ability to mobilize to promote social change has enabled them to engage in important activism. Though their controversial advocacy often receives criticism, Marxist feminists challenge capitalism in ways that facilitate new discourse and shed light on the status of women.[8] These women throughout history have used a range of approaches in fighting hegemonic capitalism, which reflect their different views on the optimal method of achieving liberation for women.[2]

Wages for housework[edit]

Focusing on exclusion from productive labor as the most important source of female oppression, some Marxist feminists devoted their activism to fighting for the inclusion of domestic work within the waged capitalist economy. The idea of creating compensated reproductive labor was present in the writings of socialists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1898) who argued that women's oppression stemmed from being forced into the private sphere.[9] Gilman proposed that conditions for women would improve when their work was located, recognized, and valued in the public sphere.[2]

Perhaps the most influential of the efforts to compensate reproductive labor was the International Wages for Housework Campaign, an organization launched in Italy in 1972 by members of the International Feminist Collective. Many of these women, including Selma James,[10] Mariarosa Dalla Costa,[11] Brigitte Galtier, and Silvia Federici[12] published a range of sources to promote their message in academic and public domains. Despite the efforts beginning with a relatively small group of women in Italy, The Wages for Housework Campaign was successful in mobilizing on an international level. A Wages for Housework group was founded in Brooklyn, New York with the help of Federici.[12] As Heidi Hartmann acknowledges (1981), the efforts of these movements, though ultimately unsuccessful, generated important discourse regarding the value of housework and its relation to the economy.[8]

Sharing the responsibility of reproductive labour[edit]

Another solution proposed by Marxist feminists is to liberate women from their forced connection to reproductive labour. In her critique of traditional Marxist feminist movements such as the Wages for Housework Campaign, Heidi Hartmann (1981) argues that these efforts "take as their question the relationship of women to the economic system, rather than that of women to men, apparently assuming the latter will be explained in their discussion of the former."[8] Hartmann (1981) believes that traditional discourse has ignored the importance of women's oppression as women, and instead focused on women's oppression as members of the capitalist system. Similarly, Gayle Rubin, who has written on a range of subjects including sadomasochism, prostitution, pornography, and lesbian literature as well as anthropological studies and histories of sexual subcultures, first rose to prominence through her 1975 essay The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex,[13] in which she coins the phrase "sex/gender system" and criticizes Marxism for what she claims is its incomplete analysis of sexism under capitalism, without dismissing or dismantling Marxist fundamentals in the process.

More recently, many Marxist feminists have shifted their focus to the ways in which women are now potentially in worse conditions after gaining access to productive labour. Nancy Folbre proposes that feminist movements begin to focus on women's subordinate status to men both in the reproductive (private) sphere, as well as in the workplace (public sphere).[14] In an interview in 2013, Silvia Federici urges feminist movements to consider the fact that many women are now forced into productive and reproductive labour, resulting in a "double day".[15] Federici argues that the emancipation of women still cannot occur until they are free from their burdens of unwaged labour, which she proposes will involve institutional changes such as closing the wage gap and implementing child care programs in the workplace.[15] Federici's suggestions are echoed in a similar interview with Selma James (2012) and these issues have been touched on in recent presidential elections.[10]

Intersectionality and Marxist feminism[edit]

With the emergence of Intersectionality as a widely popular theory of current feminism, Marxist feminists are broadening their focus to include persons that would be at an increased risk for exploitation in a capitalist system while also remaining critical of intersectionality theory for relying on bourgeois identity politics.[16] The current organization Radical Women provides a clear example of successful incorporation of the goals of Marxist feminism without overlooking identities that are more susceptible to exploitation. They contend that elimination of the capitalist profit-driven economy will remove the motivation for sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression.[17]

Marxist-feminist critiques of other branches of Feminism[edit]

Clara Zetkin[18][19] and Alexandra Kollontai[20][21] are opposed to forms of feminism that reinforce class status. They do not see a true possibility to unite across economic inequality because they argue that it would be extremely difficult for an upper class woman to truly understand the struggles of the working class.

"For what reason... should the woman worker seek a union with the bourgeois feminists? Who, in actual fact, would stand to gain in the event of such an alliance? Certainly not the woman worker." - Alexandra Kollontai, 1909[20]

Critics like Kollontai (1909) believed liberal feminism would undermine the efforts of Marxism to improve conditions for the working class. Marxists supported the more radical political program of liberating women through socialist revolution, with a special emphasis on work among women and in materially changing their conditions after the revolution. Additional liberation methods supported by Marxist Feminists include radical demands coined as "Utopian Demands" by Maria Mies.[22] This indication of the scope of revolution required to promote change states that demanding anything less than complete reform will produce inadequate solutions to long-term issues.

Notable Marxist feminists[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Desai, Murli (2014), "Feminism and policy approaches for gender aware development", in Desai, Murli, ed. (2014). The paradigm of international social development: ideologies, development systems and policy approaches. New York: Routledge. p. 119. ISBN 9781135010256. 
    • Poonacha, Veena (1995). Gender within the human rights discourse. RCWS Gender Series. Bombay: Research Centre for Women's Studies. S.N.D.T. Women's University. OCLC 474755917. 
  2. ^ abcdFerguson, Ann; Hennessy, Rosemary (2010), "Feminist perspectives on class and work", in Stanford Uni (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  3. ^Marx, Karl; Engels, Frederick (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House. OCLC 919388374. View online.
  4. ^Marx, Karl (1904) [1859]. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co. OCLC 896669199. View online.
  5. ^Lenin, Vladimir (1917). The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State & The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution. London: George Allen & Unwin. OCLC 926871435. View online.
  6. ^Engels, Frederick (1902) [1884]. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co. OCLC 213734607. View online.
  7. ^ abVogel, Lise (2013), "A decade of debate", in Vogel, Lise (ed.). Marxism and the oppression of women: toward a unitary theory. Leiden, Holland: Brill. p. 17. ISBN 9789004248953. 
  8. ^ abcdHartmann, Heidi (1981), "The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: towards a more progressive union", in Sargent, Lydia, Women and revolution: a discussion of the unhappy marriage of Marxism and Feminism, South End Press Political Controversies Series, Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press, pp. 1–42, ISBN 9780896080621. 
    • Reproduced as: Hartmann, Heidi (2013), "The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: towards a more progressive union", in McCann, Carole; Kim, Seung-kyung, Feminist theory reader: local and global perspectives, New York: Routledge, pp. 187–199, ISBN 9780415521024 
  9. ^Gilman, C. P. (1898). Women and economics: a study of the economic relation between men and women as a factor in social evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard, & Co. OCLC 26987247. 
  10. ^ abGardiner, Becky (8 June 2012). "A life in writing: Selma James". The Guardian. 
  11. ^Dalla Costa, Mariarosa; James, Selma (1972). The power of women and the subversion of the community. Bristol, England: Falling Water Press. OCLC 67881986.

How Significant is the Contribution of Feminism to the Discipline of IR as a Whole?


An evaluation of the contribution of feminist International Relations (IR) theory to the discipline as a whole is fraught with complexities; not only is feminist discourse a multifaceted branch of competing theories employing separate epistemologies, it is also a somewhat marginalised field within the study of IR. In their different ways, feminist theorists aim to expose gender biases embedded in conventional IR theories, such as realism and liberal institutionalism, and to reconstruct gender-neutral outlooks of international politics. Their findings have transformative implications for key concepts in the discipline. However, feminist IR theory remains on the margins of the discipline, with mainstream IR scholars rarely engaging in productive debate about the questions raised by feminist critiques. While conventional positivist theorists are perplexed with the post-positivist feminist agenda and how it relates to their own research programme, feminists themselves fear cooption and are reluctant to allow their theories to be subsumed by other bodies of thought.

This essay will begin by briefly outlining feminist approaches to IR and how gender relates to the study of international politics. It will then consider how feminist approaches seek to reconstruct IR theory in a more gender-neutral way, examining how the feminist theorist’s ‘gender lens’ can be useful for re-examining fundamental concepts in IR such as the state, power and security. Finally, this essay will examine how mainstream IR theorists have engaged with feminists and how feminists have responded.

This essay will conclude by arguing that feminist IR theory has made a number of different contributions: firstly, liberal feminists have made a significant contribution in practical terms, placing gender firmly on the policy agenda; secondly, post-positivist feminist IR theorists have made an important theoretical contribution to the discipline as a whole, but their success in reconstructing the more conventional theories in IR has been limited by epistemological differences. Despite this obstacle, the feminist approach overall represents a rich analytical tool, improving our knowledge and understanding of the realities of international politics in the post-Cold War environment.

Feminist Theory and International Relations

Feminist thought was applied to IR relatively late in comparison to other streams of the social sciences. Theorists began to examine how gender affected international relations theory and practice in the late 1980s, during the ‘third debate’ between positivists and post-positivists. Like post-positivist critiques of conventional approaches to IR, feminist theorist contend that paradigms like realism, neo-realism and liberal institutionalism, present a partial view rooted in unacknowledged political assumptions that do not tell the whole story of international politics. Conventional theories were censured for failing to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union, the sudden and peaceful end to the Cold War, and the diffuse security threats of the 1990s.

The feminist approach to IR is not a single unitary theory, but a distinct discourse made up of many competing theories. For example, liberal feminists focus on securing equal rights and access to education and the economy for women, while Marxist feminists seek to transform the oppressive socioeconomic structures of capitalist society (Steans, 1998, 16-19). Alternatively, standpoint feminists argue that women’s knowledge comes from a marginalised perspective that has the potential to provide fuller insights into world politics than those from the core (Brown, 1994, 231). Finally, post-modern feminists reject claims that a theory can tell “one true story” about the human experience (Steans, 1998, 25-26). Post-modern feminists argue that there is no authentic women’s experience or standpoint that can be used as a template for understanding the world, and chide liberal feminists for their adherence to the Enlightenment project, their Western middle class bias, and their essentialist views of women (Steans, 1998, 23-27).

Despite the fissiparous nature of feminism in the discipline, all feminist IR scholars are united by a concern with gender: an ideological and socially constructed difference between men and women, as opposed to the biological differences between the sexes (Tickner, 1997; Steans, 1998; Pettman, 2002; Sylvester 2002). Gender both constitutes and is constituted by inequalities in power relations and social structures, and has significant implications for the respective experiences of men and women (Steans, 1998, 10; Tickner, 2008, 265). In their different ways, feminists aim to explain the role of gender in the theory and practice of international relations by locating women in international politics, investigating how they are affected by structures and behaviour in the international system, and exploring ways of reconstructing IR theory in a gender neutral way (Tickner, 2008; Steans 1998; Sylvester, 2002).

Since mainstream IR theorists were not traditionally concerned with gender, the work of early IR feminists sought to unveil the crucial yet unaccounted role of women in conventional spaces of international politics, like the global economy, high politics and war. In her seminal work, Cynthia Enloe (1989) focused on the everyday experiences of women as individuals, demonstrating their importance to the continued running of the state system as plantation workers, consumers, wives of diplomats and of soldiers, and prostitutes surrounding military bases. She asserted that omitting women in theories left IR “with a political analysis that is incomplete, even naive” (Enloe, 1989, 2).

This is best seen via the example of women’s experiences of war: in general, war intensifies economic inequalities between men and women and often forces women into unpaid work, such as caring for the injured or sick when hospitals are over-crowded or destroyed (Chew, 2008, 76-77). Women are forced into the sex-trade for subsistence, sometimes being contracted informally by military leaders around bases in order to sustain the morale of soldiers (Enloe, 1989, 81-92; Chew, 2008, 76-77).  Non-combatants, meaning women and children, make up 90% of deaths in contemporary wars, and systematic rape has been used as a weapon during wartime, as during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or currently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Chew, 2008, 75). Seeing war through the eyes of a woman can change the very nature of what constitutes the boundaries of IR, shifting the focus from the causes and costs of inter-state war to the drastic consequences individuals suffer due to militarisation and oppression (Tickner, 1997, 625; Steans, 1998, 102).

Reconstructing IR – The State, Power and Security

Liberal feminists like Enloe are content to point out women’s roles and work towards their inclusion in public life. However, post-positivist and standpoint feminists go further, asking how gender biases and distortions have come to be accepted and unnoticed in the discipline, challenging IR scholars to question the normative foundations of their theories (Tickner, 1997, 619; Sylvester, 1999, 267). In order to deconstruct these partialities, they examine the socially constructed language employed in mainstream theories, particularly realism, highlighting conventionally used dichotomies like objectivity/subjectivity, culture/nature, public/private, and national/international (Steans, 1998, 57; Tickner, 1988, 431). In these groupings, the former represents the masculine value, which we subconsciously judge to be of higher worth than the latter, feminine term (Tickner, 1988, 432). Employing this analysis to scrutinise key IR texts provides remarkable insights into the gendered nature of language and knowledge employed by traditional IR theory, allowing new definitions of well-thumbed concepts like the state, power and security.

The arbitrary distinction between public and private life in Western political thought is decried by feminists as the main culprit for the exclusion of women in international politics. In the minds of influential philosophers like Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke, the term “citizen” referred to a man working in the public realm who defends the state in times of war as a soldier (Pettman, 2002, 7). The distinction acts to conceal the services of women as wives and mothers, work that is crucial to the continued survival of the state, while simultaneously militarising citizenship, constructing women as helpless and in need of the protection of male citizens (Pettman, 2002, 11; Tickner, 2008, 268). Similarly, the state itself possesses a blatantly masculine and patriarchal identity: Machiavelli’s Prince and Hobbes’ Leviathan advance a paternal image of the state as a strong and autonomous entity that serves to protect the people from the chaos and danger of the state of nature (Steans, 1998, 47). Through this gender lens, the theme of control comes to the fore in realist thought, as the “masculine” state comes into being so as to subjugate “feminine” nature and hold power over anarchy (Tickner, 1988, 432).

Such insights into the gendered nature of the state have crucial implications for the way mainstream IR understands concepts like power and security. Realism’s preoccupation with control means that prescribes a type of power that facilitates domination: power is A’s ability to get B to do what he would not otherwise do (Keohane, 1989, 246; Tickner 1988, 431). In general terms, this causes states to seek security through military might, using military power to deter or coerce other states. However, feminists argue that this is a partial analysis informed solely by a masculine perspective. Hannah Arendt, although not a professed feminist scholar herself but much drawn on by feminists in IR theory, contends that power is the ability to act in concert with others (Tickner, 1988, 434).  This kind of thinking shows a distinction between “power over” and “power with”, crafting a whole new perspective on power as a collaborative effort rather than an ability to dominate (Steans, 1998, 171; Keohane, 1989, 246). This view of power is particularly pertinent for addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century when economic interdependence is crucial to stability, and security threats like ecological degradation, international crime, and terrorist networks require more than military power to be properly addressed.

Furthermore, feminist critiques of conventional conceptions of power and the identity of the state lead to a re-evaluation of the meaning of security. Realists are occupied by the state security in the international realm, subsequently overlooking security within state boundaries. Feminists disagree with this arbitrary division of national/international, and focus instead on the individual (Sylvester, 1999, 267-268). Women’s experiences undermine the argument that the state is the best mechanism for ensuring the safety of the individual and suggest that the state, as currently conceived, and the militarism it often inspires are actually reasons for some forms of insecurity (Tickner, 1997, 625; Enloe, 2002). Unequal gender relations leave women in a vulnerable and exploited position, dependent on men and the state for protection and welfare (Tickner, 1997, 627). Arguments highlighting the negative impact of war on women, or the particular economic hardships women experience, debunk the myth that the state provides adequate security for civilians (Tickner, 2008, 268; Tickner, 2009, 192; Chew, 2008, 76). Feminist discourse thus challenges mainstream understandings of security and opens up a multifaceted definition of security that includes the diminution of all forms of physical, structural and ecological violence (Tickner 1997, 624).

Engaging with Feminist IR Theory

By focussing on the gender bias embedded in the way IR theorists consider concepts like the state, power and security, feminist thought has the potential to transform the theory and practice of international relations. In practical terms, liberal feminists have been particularly successful in disseminating their arguments in favour of including women in politics, using popular advocacy to get gender on the agenda (Steans, 1998, 162). ‘Gender mainstreaming’ has become a well-known concept within the United Nations, with some of the most symbolic advances in women’s rights emanating from the Security Council in Resolution 1325 (2000) on Gender, Peace and Security, and Resolution 1820 (2008) on the recognition of rape as a weapon of war. Liberal feminist figureheads, like US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, have been instrumental in situating women in policy in the US, and the UK government has identified the prevention of sexual violence in conflict as a main foreign policy objective (McCrummen, 2012; FCO, 2012).

Despite their practical success, liberal feminists have been accused of having a simplistic attitude to women’s empowerment, labelled as an “add women and stir” approach (Steans, 1998, 161). They have also been accused of imperialism, particularly in the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where some post-positivist feminists contended that while these wars were couched in the language of women’s rights and liberation, in reality this language was used to mask more conventional ends of maintaining military power and guaranteeing Western economic interests in the Middle East (Chew, 2008, 80-81; Ruby, 2002, 149; Craft, 2002, 152).

However, in the realm of theory, conventional scholars in the discipline have been somewhat reluctant to engage with feminist arguments (Sylvester 2002, 12; Steans, 2003b). Firstly, there are scholars who dismiss feminist theory, questioning whether feminists are even ‘doing’ international relations (Tickner, 1997, 615). Traditional IR has developed around a self-contained, rationalist, research agenda, situating questions about states and the state system as the central focus (Steans, 2003b, 431). Conversely, feminists employ an ethnographic approach that underlines the importance of individual experiences and social relations rather than state behaviour and abstraction, thus concentrating on people, places, authorities and activities that are outwith the scope of traditional IR (Sylvester, 1999, 10-12). These epistemological differences mean that mainstream theories are concerned with completely separate questions to feminist theorists, making it seem as though feminist analysis is ill-fitted for the study of IR in the conventional sense (Tickner, 1997, 617-620).

Secondly, and building upon the implications of these epistemological differences, there are scholars who try to discipline feminists into contributing “properly” to what they see as an already given research agenda (Sylvester, 1999, 255). In 1989, Robert Keohane responded very positively to the critiques of feminist standpoint theorists on power and interdependence, inviting an alliance between neoliberal institutionalism and feminist standpoint, while rejecting what he saw were less useful forms of feminist theory, like feminist post-modernists.

Weber (1994) responded by disparaging his engagement, arguing that he was attempting to re-impose boundaries on feminist thought by re-presenting feminist standpoint outwith the overall context of feminist literature. She contended that feminist scholars visualise the whole of feminist literature simultaneously, looking through gender lenses to view international relations from several perspectives at once (Weber, 1994, 339). As such, feminists have a tendency to query the idea of “theory” itself because it creates arbitrary boundaries that force the discipline to ignore issues that are not included in the snapshot of the world that is presented by that theory (Sylvester, 1999, 271). From this angle, Keohane is hijacking feminist ideas by removing parts of the literature he dislikes and moulding those he agrees with to his own theories, thereby bringing feminists into line with conventional IR theories (Weber, 1994, 347). Keohane’s encounter with feminists underscores their manifest fear of being co-opted, fundamentally resisting integration into larger bodies of thought within the IR discipline (Tickner, 1997, 620).

Sylvester (1999) identifies two further types of engagement with feminist IR theory. A third group of theorists tip their hat to feminist theories in politically correct footnotes rather than incorporating them into the main text (Sylvester, 1999, 255). Finally, the fourth group of scholars actively engage and incorporate feminist ideas into their writing, such as Brown (1994). Arguably, there exists a fifth group of scholars, who accept gender as a constitutive of identity and an important variant of analysis, and embed gender consciousness into their work without mentioning feminism in particular (see for example, Smith 2004). Sylvester (2002, 11) suggests that feminist literature on gender could have helped develop constructivist thought on identity, but it is not mentioned in key constructivist texts like Wendt’s (1999) Social Theory of International Politics.


In sum, the contribution of feminist IR theory to the discipline as a whole is difficult to assess. It is clear that liberal feminists continue to make a substantial contribution the practice of international politics, affecting change in national and international policies. Similarly, it is evident that feminist analysis can transform the way in which IR scholars understand central concepts like the state, power and security, bringing theory closer to reality by refocusing our interest in soft power, interdependence, individual human rights and women’s rights.

However, debates between liberal feminists, standpoint feminists and post-positivist feminists suggest that there is an inherent tension between their desire to situate women’s voices on the international scene and their goal of deconstructing gender altogether (Sylvester, 1999, 268). Consequently, the feminist approach is somewhat diffuse and difficult to pin down as it is not clear whether they want to completely reconstruct the core of IR or reject the mainstream literature of the discipline and continue to critique from the margins. Overall, however, this division works to keep feminist theory from parodying mainstream literature, with post-modern feminists checking and balancing the tendency in particular of standpoint feminists to claim to speak for all oppressed peoples.

In addition, the epistemological differences between post-positivist feminists and mainstream positivist theorists mean that theoretical discussions between the two are fraught with complications. Each is troubled by the other’s attempt to broaden or narrow the boundaries of the discipline. Arguably, both discourses suffer from the same hubris: both are intent on gate-keeping for their own respective literature in their own particular ways. Feminists’ discomfort with cooption and the need for their theories to be employed in full is equalled by mainstream IR theorists’ controlling approach to the feminist research agenda. The result is a shaky relationship in which neither fully understands the other, and neither wants to get very much closer.

Nonetheless, feminist literature makes a very substantial contribution to IR as a whole. Feminist theory as a whole demonstrates the underlying normative biases embedded in the very foundations of conventional IR theory. They also make evident the ways in which mainstream theories are lacking: to be unable to account for half the population of the world is an almost unbelievable oversight. These deep-seated partialities are, once known, difficult to brush aside. In this sense, feminist theory provides a rich analytical tool that will continue to make insightful and transformative contributions to the IR discipline.


Brown, Chris, (1994), “Turtles all the way down: Anti-foundationalism, Critical Theory and International Relations”, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 23:2, pp213-236.

Chew, Hubin Amelia, (2008), “What’s left? After ‘imperial feminist’ hijackings”, in Riley, Robin L, Mohanty, Chandra Talpade and Pratt, Minnie Bruce (eds), Feminism and War: Confronting US Imperialism, Zeb Books: London, New York, pp75-91.

Craft, Niki (2002), “A Call on Feminists to Protest Against the War in Afghanistan”, in Hawthorne, Susan and Winter, Bronwyn (eds), September 2001: Feminist Perspectives, Spirifex: Melbourne, pp151-155.

Enloe, Cynthia, (1989), Bananas, Beaches and Bases, Pandora: London.

Enloe, Cynthia, (2002), “Masculinity as a foreign policy issue”, in Hawthorne, Susan and Winter, Bronwyn (eds), September 2001: Feminist Perspectives, Spirifex: Melbourne, pp254-259.

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United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSC), (2000), S/Res/1325, available at http://www.un.org/events/res_1325e.pdf, accessed 28 November 2012.

United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSC), (2008), S/Res/ 1820, available at http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N08/391/44/PDF/N0839144.pdf?OpenElement, accessed 28 November 2012.

Written by: Alexandra Buskie
Written at: King’s College London
Written for: Dr Ruth Deyermond

Date written: December 2012

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