The Feminist International Relations Approach to Questions of Power

Question: How does feminist IR approach questions of power? Outline one issue in IR using a feminist approach.

After the Cold War, the emergence of globalization contributed to increased interdependence between countries.Consequently, international relations (IR) started facing significant challenges in its theoretical structure and application. Today, international relation is no longer about realist issues of security and war only. Rather, IR takes a broader approach than the traditional liberal perspective by including issues in socioeconomic development, international political economy, non-state actors, civil society, and human rights (Acharya & Buzan, 2019).

Besides the two main theories of liberalism and realism, the feminist theory attempts to explain issues in international relations, including sources and application of power. Feminist theories provide new insights to explain the role of individuals and the behavior of states in relation to the international system. The feminist perspective is established upon women’s experiences, as well as the need for women to contribute to international relations. A key issue worthy of exploring is the role of individuals including women in international relations. The standpoint theory, one of the major feminist IR frameworks, argues that international relations appear to be a male phenomenon, which necessitates a review of gender in the processes involved. Based on feminist international relations, the role of individuals should be accentuated as this ultimately guides how nations relate with each other.

In feminist international relations, two terms, gender, and patriarchy are critical. Gender denotes the intricate social construction of women’s and men’s behaviors and identities. Gender defines how men act or behave in relation to each other. In feminist IR, gender factors determine relations of power involving women and men, the distribution or application of the power, as well as how the power has been allocated in historical, social, and habitual terms. Feminists define international relations as a system wherein men dominate women in terms of status and power. In this context, many players in international relations believe that it is appropriate for men to control women, who should obey (Tickner & Sjoberg, 2013).

Generally, the feminist theory argues that the majority of key players in global politics including policymakers, diplomats, academic scholars, and government heads have historically been, and still are, men. These players are mostly from patriarchal political and social backgrounds. For this reason, most of these people have largely dismissed the role and contribution of women’s roles in world politics. The explanation for this is that male players have not been trained to include and value the viewpoint of women. In this sense, masculinity is oftentimes linked to power, rationality, the public sphere, and independence. Conversely, femininity is oftentimes linked to the need for protection, irrationality, the private sphere, and domesticity (Sjoberg, 2009). These politically and socially created gender identities determine how nations interact, as well as IR theory and practice. These aspects have also produced such gendered identities that assume who should have which role and why. In this framework, gender identities determine who has power, which is mostly men. The implication of this is that gender identity, which is socially constructed, determines how power is distributed and the role of women in global politics.

A key argument of feminist IR proponents is that when women are sidelined with their additional viewpoints and potential contributions, international relations will just be a representation of patriarchy in both theory and practice. Moreover, feminists use the terms ‘gender’ and ‘patriarchy’ to explain situations in which women have been dismissed in the international political sphere. For instance, candidates looking for political office often rely on past military service, which places them in a better position of winning (Baylis, Smith & Owens, 2014). This puts women at a disadvantage because most of them do not have much military experience. The implication of this is that women will be limited in their chances of getting a national government position, which might help them play a role in international issues regarding security and defense.

Feminism consists of a number of frameworks that attempt to explain the sidelining of women from international relations. The standpoint theory considers how IR knowledge is constructed in a gendered way. The first argument in this theory is that even the definition of IR is male-centered because it is not analytic or conjectural but normative. In simpler terms, international relations do not seem to question what has been put forward as standard or normal.

For the feminist IR proponents, traditional international relations theory lacks objectivity because it is only concerned about the protection of the state from other states (McGlinchey, Walters & Scheinpflug, 2017). Feminist IR argues that international relations should address inherent issues including violence and rape from within and outside the country. In addition, feminists argue that traditionally, IR has not addressed problems that result from the war such as rape and suffering of women and children. Thus, IR cannot be considered in terms of the mere relation between nations as there are other dynamics involved. In barring women and their issues from attention, traditional IR fails to address the most critical issues. In the context of the standpoint theory, feminists advocate for the contribution of women in international processes that affect their countries.

One of the traditional IR frameworks is realism, which argues that countries seek power and strive to protect their national interests against other countries in the world. This theory posits that in a situation where no authority is above the state, countries will endeavor to secure themselves, which necessitates a balance of power on a global scale. Enhancing security requires countries to invest in the military and get into war if necessary. Realism considers the state to be the most critical player in international relations. Feminists are opposed to this viewpoint, which dismisses the role of the individual. They argue against the fact that realists do not consider the internal structure of countries in terms, which includes political and social aspects (Acharya & Buzan, 2019).

According to the feminists, international relations should take into account the role of each state’s individual citizens in national politics, which then translates into foreign policies. Otherwise stated, feminist IR would require the countries defending their national interests to consider the role of the people involved in the process. Including women in such discussions would alter the national interest, which means international relations would be different. Feminists also criticize realism because of how it views the concept of power. Feminists are interested in the people who define, own, and use power. Defining, using, and owning power in terms of economic and military strength implies that men are the most important players in international relations. Including the viewpoint of women, in this case, would result in shifts in how power is considered in international relations. Similarly, feminists argue for a different manner of measuring power apart from military and economic strength.  For instance, women leadership would be required in peace agreements, as well as in cooperation between states.

The liberalist theory, just as the feminist theory, accentuates the role of the individual rather than the state. Liberalists argue that international relations are more effective when the world struggles for consensus. In this sense, countries do not have a significant role in global cooperation. Rather, the liberalist IR tools include education, international institutions, and free trade. International institutions support and safeguard the civic and economic interests of individuals. Feminists are opposed to liberalism because their tools for enhancing international cooperation have historically contributed to economic inequalities.

For instance, free trade disproportionately affects women. In most cases, women are disadvantaged since they own only a small proportion of global resources and property and are engaged in more labor across the globe. Similarly, women constitute the majority of poor persons, illiterate, and refugees (UN Women, 2019). Furthermore, feminists criticize the view by liberalists that global institutions make it possible for women to be empowered and acknowledged and socially and politically. This is because the procedures and leaders in the global organizations reflect a patriarchal system, which significantly puts women at a disadvantage. For instance, international conferences like the Beijing Declaration did not address real issues proposed by feminists. According to the feminists, real gender equality has not been achieved under the liberalist framework.

Feminist IR appears to support the liberal ideals because of considering the role of the individual in national and global politics. Nevertheless, feminists criticize how liberalists base their arguments on a patriarchal system. Nevertheless, feminists support the role of international organizations that help in the protection of civil liberties. Such organizations help women play a role in international politics. Feminism can be seen as a framework that criticizes realism and strengthens the liberalist theory. Feminists criticize the manner in which women have continued to suffer in the context of realism and liberalism. Women are often marginalized in domestic and international policies, which tend to favor men and put them in a position of control. For this reason, the feminist IR theory distinguishes itself from the liberalist theory. Feminists propose putting more women as key players in international politics including those involved in policy making, diplomats, academic scholars, and government heads. The contribution of individuals including women in international relations can help in the realization of better cooperation between countries. Ultimately, addressing the issue of the lack of consideration of individuals can improve the international relations theory.


Acharya, A., & Buzan, B. (2019). The making of global international relations. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Baylis, J., Smith, S., & Owens, P. (2014). The globalization of world politics. Oxford, United Kingdom: OUP Oxford.

McGlinchey, S., Walters, R., & Scheinpflug, C. (2017). International relations theory. London: E-International Relations.

Sjoberg, L. (Ed.). (2009). Gender and international security: feminist perspectives. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Tickner, J., & Sjoberg, L. (2013). Feminism and International Relations. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

UN Women. (2019). Facts & Figures. Retrieved 13 October 2019,

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