The Feminist challenge to central concepts of International Relations

It is universally acknowledged that gender is a social and cultural construct. It is conceived as the social construction of women’s and men’s identities and conducts. In this paper, I will be analyzing two articles that criticize the masculinist and male world of IR and the exclusion of women from foreign policy decision-making processes and the defense military field. The first article, written by Kristen P.Williams and entitled “Feminism in Foreign Policy”, is more general and theoretical. However, the second one, named “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals” by Carol Cohn, is more analytical and focuses specifically on the sexualized abstract language used by defense intellectuals in the nuclear weaponry field.

In the first article, Williams addresses the absence of women and women’s issues from the IR theoretical landscape and foreign policymaking process. She criticizes the neglect of the gender component by mainstream IR theories, namely realism, and liberalism. The author also demonstrates that mainstream IR theories are not gender-neutral but gender-blind. Central concepts in IR were developed in an inherently patriarchal social and political structure.1 Williams points out that conventional IR theories focus on state behavior while completely ignoring individual experiences. Accordingly, they fail to consider gender and women in their analysis.

Alternatively, Williams argues that the feminist theory provides a new perspective to the table by including gender as a key element in the analysis. It suggests viewing IR through gender lenses. Therefore, feminist IR theories argue that a “Reconceptualization” of central terms and issues in mainstream IR like “Power” and “Security” is indispensable. Relatedly, “Security” as the main topic in IR neglects the gender dimension. Feminist IR scholars argue that the state in conventional IR theories is a masculine patriarchal entity.2 According to feminists, “Security” is a national and international issue because women are more exposed to violence domestically and internationally.3


Thus, Williams highlights the interconnection between domestic violence and international violence.4 She emphasizes the connection between women’s security and the state’s security. In other words, feminists state that women are more susceptible to attacks, violence, and rape during times of war. If gender is excluded and marginalized from the beginning of IR discussions, policymakers (namely men) will not take it into consideration, and therefore, foreign policies would be detrimental to women.5

Moreover, Williams provides an overview of the feminist critique of the distinction between “High politics” and “Low politics” put by key players in IR. Women’s issues are often regarded as “low politics” issues which means that they are secondary or irrelevant to the discipline. Conventional IR theories have a state-centric approach, and thus, they totally ignore the role of the individual. It becomes then almost inconceivable to introduce social and gender relations into the analysis. Omitting women’s experiences leads to an insufficient and even naïve political analysis.6 Seeing war, for instance, from a woman’s viewpoint can change the conception of war. Alternatively, together with constructivism, feminism aims to make IR discipline focus more on the individual and people’s experiences. In addition, Williams argues that women remain excluded from “hard politics” decision-making positions. Men are more likely to be appointed in higher status positions, and women continue to be found in lower-status positions which strengthen the gender hierarchy in international relations.7

According to Williams, mainstream IR theories portray women as victims and peacemakers. Thus, feminist IR scholars note that we should dismantle the image of women as peacemakers and pacifists. The discourse that equates women with peace and pacifism has always contributed to disempowering women and excludes them from the realm of “hard politics”.8 Women have long been subjected to sexist stereotypes and a glass ceiling that prevented them from being in leadership positions. Moreover, female leaders must prove their leadership effectiveness by possessing masculine agentic traits which makes them more credible.

Furthermore, Williams points out that several studies demonstrated that women are not pacifists by nature, and people who believe in gender equality (not necessarily women) are more favorable to the use of diplomacy and compromise when it comes to conflict resolution.9 These studies have also shown that countries that have achieved high levels of gender equality have foreign policies that are less violent and belligerent.10

In sum, Williams provides a general overview of the feminist critique of mainstream IR theories. However, she did not suggest any solution to include women in the IR theoretical and practical framework. She also failed to assess and evaluate the contribution of feminism to IR theories. Additionally, Williams and other feminist IR scholars consider women a homogenous group without adopting an intersectional approach and taking into consideration other factors such as class, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. For this reason, it can be argued that the feminist IR theory has failed women in the global South. Moreover, feminist IR theories received a significant amount of criticism after the framing of some conflicts in the name of liberating women and saving them but in the end, it was just a language that was used to hide the real intentions, namely maintaining western hegemony, and guaranteeing western interests in the Middle East. Williams failed to acknowledge the criticism that feminists IR theories received.

Unlike Williams’ article’s general and theoretical nature, Cohn’s article is more analytical and specific. Cohn addresses the sexualized specialized language in the field of nuclear weaponry and strategy. She demonstrates the crucial role of language in shaping the nuclear strategy. The author notes that this specialized language is called “technostrategic”. It contains a plethora of metaphors, sexual and religious imageries, and sexy acronyms that distance the users from the disasters of war.11 She emphasizes that the use of technostrategic language enables the defense intellectuals to lessen the pain, terror, and anxiety of war. It allows the speakers to distance themselves from the atrocities caused by nuclear weapons.12 Defence intellectuals’ language does not allow them to take into account the impact of nuclear weapons on human beings. By using this technical terminology such as “clean bombs” to refer to nuclear weapons and “collateral damage” to describe human death and mass murder, defense intellectuals feel disconnected from human reality. Using a sexualized language that completely ignores the human dimension of nuclear technology, strips away emotions and isolates the users from the destruction that occurs, but it does not diminish or attenuate people’s pain and suffering.

Besides, Cohn argues that this technostrategic language was designated from the beginning to discuss weapons, therefore, it does not concern human life. Accordingly, since the human dimension is completely neglected in this specialized language, talking about it makes one’s concerns and remarks illegitimate and irrelevant. If one wants to discuss nuclear strategy, one needs to master the existing sexualized terminology. Otherwise, their points would not be taken into consideration. This puts the person in front of a significant dilemma: using the correct terminology to be heard by the defense intellectuals or speaking according to one’s values and principles. They silence voices from outside by forcing others to use the sexualized concepts when they want to address nuclear weaponry issues,. For instance, as a person who is not part of the defense intellectuals’ committee and does not have a technical background in nuclear weaponry, whenever I think about nuclear technology, I automatically visualize the horrifying devastation caused by these terrifying weapons, injured people, wounded souls, severe pain, and brutal cruel massacres.

Cohn also demonstrates that the technostrategic language is essentially used to address the issue of nuclear weaponry from the user’s viewpoint and not that of the victims. The introduction of the sexual component in the terminology of the abstract language, such as “erector launchers”, “deep penetration”, “big stick” and the extensive use of metaphors dehumanize and minimize the disasters caused by the deadly murderous weapons. At the end of her article, Cohn suggests that feminists need to deconstruct the euphemism and abstractions used in the technostrategic
language and to reconstruct and develop an alternative conception of rationality.13

Cohn has convincingly highlighted the masculinist nature of the nuclear weaponry field. Most of the intellectuals are males and the language is sexist and sexualized. However, she did not elaborate on how feminists should deconstruct and reconstruct the technostrategic language. She also failed to address women’s involvement in nuclear technology and their accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In fine, both authors criticize the IR gendered paternalist discourse and the masculinist world of IR, but they did not suggest any solution to include women more into foreign policy decision-making positions and how to introduce women’s issues in foreign policies. They also failed to assess whether the feminist IR critique is deemed successful in reconstructing the IR discipline. It is true that the main contribution that feminist IR theories made in the field are to think beyond the existing dichotomies of public/private and national/international. They provide a new perspective on crucial issues discussed by IR scholars. Their introduction of gender and women in the analysis, redefinition, and reconceptualization of IR main concepts like “Power” and “Security”, made us rethink and change the way in which we perceive and understand central concepts in the IR discipline. Nevertheless, the question that keeps arising is: is the feminist challenge to conventional IR theories fruitful in reconstructing the IR discipline?


[1] Ruiz, Feminist Theory and International Relations: The Feminist Challenge to Realism and Liberalism, 2.

[2] Aydin, Feminist Challenge to the Mainstream IR, 3.
[3] Williams, “Feminism in Foreign Policy”, 6.
[4] Ibid., 5.
[5] Ibid., 12.
[6} Ruiz, Feminist Theory and International Relations: The Feminist Challenge to Realism and Liberalism, 4.

[7] Williams, “Feminism in Foreign Policy”, 14.
[8] Williams, “Feminism in Foreign Policy”, 7.
[9] Ibid., 7.
[10] Ibid., 1.

[11] Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals”, 4.
[12] Ibid., 25.

[13] Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals”, 33


About the author:

Rim Affathe is a 20 years old master’s student. She was born and raised in Morocco, and she is currently living in Vienna. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and she is currently an International Relations master’s student at Central European University in Vienna. Rim Affathe has a vested interest in gender studies, postcolonial feminism, security studies, and diplomacy. She aspires to be a Moroccan diplomat and a women’s rights advocate. She is also a member of the feminist and youth-led initiative Politics4Her.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s