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Is Feminism wasted space in International Relations theory?

(slightly edited)1

© Peter Zohrab 2011

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The question of whether Feminism is wasted space in IR theory implies the need to consider, at the very least, the following related questions:

  1. Does IR theory have a credible self-definition, according to which it is possible to decide what is and what is not a waste of space?

  2. Is Feminism, in itself, an ill-conceived philosophy ?

  3. Does Feminism inappropriately take up space (and time) in IR theory which would be better utilised by other theoretical approaches?


Does IR theory have a credible self-definition?

As I have stated in a previous essay2, IR is a field which is riven with discord. As Burchill (1996} puts it:

Though it is a comparatively new subject in the Western academy, almost every aspect of its nature is contested. What should be studied in the discipline? How should it be studied? Is the discipline politically biased, or conceived in such a way as to limit the possibilities for discussion and analysis? In other words, the discipline of International Relations (IR) is internally divided on the notions of the subject matter to be analysed, the appropriate methodology to be used when studying international politics, and the epistemological structure of the theories.3

Therefore, if Burchill is correct, there is no generally accepted definition of the field of IR, such that there could be a consensus as to whether Feminism or any other theoretical approach is an appropriate framework for IR research.

Nevertheless, it is still open to individuals to argue for their own preferred definition of IR, and to state, on the basis of that definition, that Feminism or any other theoretical approach either is or is not an appropriate framework for IR research. In addition, it is still open to someone to argue that Feminism is such an an ill-conceived philosophy that it constitutes wasted space wherever it is found – irrespective of how well-defined the field is into which it has penetrated.


Is Feminism ill-conceived?

There is a general consensus that polemical writing is out of place in academia4 . However, in George (1994), for example, Chapter 1 is peppered with explicit and implicit polemical put-downs of rival theories. The epithets crudity5 , primitive6 , crude7 , backward8, backwardness9, and cruder10 are applied by George to his disciplinary opponents and their writings, and they are implictly attacked, with similar frequency, when George compliments members of his own school and their writings with flattering epithets.

Moreover, Feminist theory is always explicitly or implicitly polemical, because it always contains an explicit or implicit attack on all men or on certain men. For example, Zalewski and Parpart (1998) has on its cover an offensive photograph of male soldiers dressed in female clothing, which – whatever the rationalisation – is clearly an expression of the psycho-sexually Lesbian man-hatred which characterises much Feminist writing.

Male chivalry allows Feminists to get away with this behaviour, whereas academic writing by Non-feminists runs the risk of being criticised if it is polemical. This is largely a result of the political organisation and bullying tactics of Feminists in academia11 . Until and unless the opponents of Feminism organise in an effective fashion, Feminists will continue to get away with unfair, unprofessional and unscholarly tactics and methods.

When discussing Critical Feminism, Steans (2006) states that:

From this perspective, then, feminist theorizing is not an abtract activity, but infused with a political purpose; to elucidate the role played by ideologies and social structures in constructing, reconstructing and reproducing gender identities and gendered relationships and to suggest ways in which these might be changed in the interests of securing greater gender equality and more autonomy for women12 .

Setting aside the question of whether any, or how many of Feminism's claims are correct, it is clear that Critical Feminism, on the evidence of this passage, attacks men for oppressing women, and sees theorising as a component of a political strategy to achieve political gains for women at men's expense. No Feminist have ever carried out an in-depth study of both men's and women's rights and problems and devised a test whereby anyone could actually know what "gender equality" would mean, so constant Feminist references to "equality" or "equity" are mere hand-waving – and deceptive hand-waving, at that. Similarly, the phrase "autonomy for women" can safely be interpreted as meaning "power for women over men", until and unless such a study is carried out.

In addition, Feminist theory constantly indulges in statements which are the product of either a reckless or a deliberately negative attitude to truth or a degree of stupidity13 that would be almost unimaginable in a Non-feminist academic writer. For example, Steans (2006) opines that:

Feminist theorizing involves constructing 'knowledge' about the world, not in the interests of social and political control, but in the service of an emancipatory politics14.

The above analysis presupposes an analysis of all Feminist theoretical issues into a dichotomy where men oppress women, and such that any change along Feminist lines involves a liberation of women from male oppression and no detrimental effect on men, other than the loss of their power over women.

This is a grossly simplistic and demonstrably false analysis. For example, what Western Feminists call Choice involves the violent death of their male partner's child, without any legal need for the consent of either the child (of course), or of the father. Yet the father becomes responsible for the welfare of the child if the mother decides not to cause the child to undergo that violent death. Feminist have no qualms about painting Feminists as seeking non-violent solutions to conflicts15 , while practising a violent solution to the problem of a conflict of rights between a mother and her partner's unborn child..

The issue in which the Feminist oppression of men is perhaps the most heinous is domestic violence, which (properly speaking) is an obscure academic specialisation, but which Feminists have made into media headlines in a grossly anti-male campaign. Men are oppressed, because a vast body of research demonstrates overwhelmingly that women carry out at least as much domestic violence as women do, but Feminists have engineered a culture which labels men as the chief perpetrators and results in most people who are arrested for domestic violence being men.

Feminist domestic violence theory, translated into police and legal practice, results in a treating of domestic violence incidents as occasions of male abuse of females, irrespective of the objective facts. The objective facts are available, for example, in Professor Martin Fiebert's Annotated Bibliography of Domestic Violence16 .

Feminist domestic violence theory is expressed in such phenomena as the anti-male Duluth ("Power and Control") model of domestic violence 17, the anti-male White Ribbon Campaign18 , and the fact that the USA has a Violence Against Women Act19 , but no Violence Against Men Act. Hillary Clinton is the United States Secretary of State, and travels the world advocating women's rights20 , while all the time she stands accused of having battered her husband21 , when he was President of the USA. The Feminist media (as far as I am aware) censor this fact, because domestic violence is only considered a serious matter is it is perpetrated on a woman. No man could possibly commit domestic violence against a woman in the USA and hold high public office.

The New Zealand Police support White Ribbon Day22 , which sends a strong message that they consider domestic violence to be mainly a male crime, which makes it even less likely that male victims will report female domestic violence to the Police, which – in turn – will make the Police even more certain that it is mainly a male crime. On White Ribbon Day 2010, I saw the New Zealand Prime Minister, the Minister of Police and the Minister for the Environment wearing white ribbons (on television). Although the Police do not collect statistics specifically on domestic violence arrests, it is clear that most people arrested for domestic violence are men, which, in view of Professor Fiebert's bibliography, must be due to systemic bias against men.

In his review of one of the earliest Feminist works on domestic violence, for example, Robert Sheaffer23 states, inter alia:

The Battered Woman is unsatisfactory as a serious work, and completely unacceptable as a foundation for family law. First, it is profoundly unscholarly. Without objective verification of the incidents herein described, they are nothing more than hearsay. Second, the book does not even pretend to be objective: the woman's side, and only the woman's side, is presented, when it is undeniable that in a large percentage of cases, the woman initiates violence against the man. Third, Prof. Walker's expanded definition of "battering" that includes verbal abuse does not even address the issue of female verbal abuse of men. Fourth, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Prof. Walker's sample of "battered women" is in any way a representative sample, and even if it were, she presents no statistics to support her conclusions. In fact, most of her conclusions are utterly unsupported by any kind of data, and are simply pronounced ex cathedra.

Here Sheaffer mentions two characteristics of Feminist "scholarship" generally: the woman's side, and only the woman's side, is presented, and most of ... conclusions are utterly unsupported by any kind of data, and are simply pronounced ex cathedra.

One could choose almost any Feminist work at random to support the above generalisations, but one particularly egregious example is Pettman (1997), which constitutes extreme psychological abuse of any male forced to read it. It is a grievous insult to men that such an intellectually low-level attack on men is taken seriously in what pretends to be an "academic" environment.

It consists of a series of sweeping generalisations, backed up by almost no evidence whatsoever. Apart from one small box24 , there is only one column25 containing instances of statistical evidence, and -- even there -- no source is cited. There is one bar graph and there is one statistical table, but they are not integrated into the reasoning (such as it is). Every to-to-four pages there is a summary of so-called "Key Points", as if the article was targetted at secondary school students or other sub-tertiary groups. It seems to be more of a political manifesto, aimed at rallying the faithful to support a political struggle than an academic exposition.

The content is wholly tendentious and, at times, blatantly false. It is beyond the scope of this essay to carry out a thorough critique of Pettman's article, but I will single out one passage for comment:

International Relations has long been taught and theorized as if women were invisible: as if either there were no women in world politics, which was only men's business26 ; or as if women and men were active in and affected by world politics in the same ways, in which case there would be no need to 'gender' the analysis27 .

The first part of this passage exemplifies a key stupidity28 which is endemic to Feminist writing: no evidence is adduced that men are visible, as such, in international relations. Of course, the individuals who are mentioned (where individuals are mentioned at all) are usually men, but this is purely because most leaders have tended to be men. There is absolutely no mention of men as a group of people whose interests and conditions are studied in IR, as far as I am aware – indeed, in scholarship generally, it is women whom Feminism has brought to the forefront, while men, as a group, are as invisible as they have always been. This level of Feminist stupidity should be reason enough to exclude Feminists generally from the academy.

On the other hand, the second part of the passage does raise the issue of the need to inquire if women and men were active in and affected by world politics in the same ways. There is no reason to exclude such an inquiry from IR, but any such study would have to include the study of men as a group, rather than concentrating on women and excluding the study of men, as Feminists almost invariably do.

Not all Feminist writing in IR is as defective as Pettman (1997). Peterson (2003), in his chapter on The reproductive economy, is a step up from that low level of scholarship, but only one small step up. Peterson starts off by defining his (her?) mission:

What I explore and attempt to establish in this chapter is how the reproductive economy is integral to economic analysis in general, and increasingly so in the context of globalization. Structural changes in the global economy are transforming the relationships and deepening the structural linkages among formal production, informal production and capital accumulation29.

He defines reproductive economy, as follows:

As a starting point, the reproductive economy is the economy of families and the private sphere – where human life is generated, daily life maintained, and socialization reproduced. Reproduction includes both the symbolic/material processes required to reproduce human beings over time – daily and inter-generationally – and the social relations of power within which these processes are embedded30 .

Insofar as his argument has to do with redefining Economics so that it includes the activities which interest him, it is not really a Feminist argument. There is no doubt that the activities he mentions deserve study, but whether they are to be studied under the heading Economics or as some other sort of social phenomena is not an issue that is central to Feminism or IR.

The Feminist content of his argument is the linking of the fact that the reproductive economy is woman-centred with the fact that it has been excluded from formal economic study until relatively recently. Here Peterson descends into the usual Feminist, anti-male polemics:

Masculinist privilege and preferences pervade religious and educational instruction, public policies, and legal statutes that in turn institutionalize hierarchical relations31.

A Masculist such as myself would robustly take issue with the sentence from Peterson (2003) quoted above, since it is precisely the anti-male bias of the educational, policy and legal spheres that is the focus of much male anger nowadays32 . Although some areas of religious thought and practice are still conservative, large parts of that sector are also liberal, and inimical to men.

In addition, Peterson does not define the term masculinist, which is a term which Pettman (1997) also uses without definition. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines masculinist as:

an advocate of male superiority or dominance33

which seems to fit the sense in which Pettman and Peterson use the term. However, the Free Dictionary defines it as:

an advocate of the rights of men34 .

The former definition can be characterised as the Feminist definition of masculinist, whereas the latter definition is the Mascul(in)ist definition. The Feminist definition views men as "The Other," who think of themselves as superior to women and are always trying to dominate women. Men experience female and Feminist power and control, but, whever they mention it, the mere fact of their mentioning it is characterised by Feminists as "sexist", or otherwise oppressive. This dichotomising of men and women is central to the Feminist polemical approach to IR theory.

Kronsell (2006) exhibits the same sort of misandristic (man-hating) bias. Quoting another Feminist writer, she refers35 to what she calls the "rather perplexing situation" in which "men are 'persons' and there is no gender but the feminine", which she puts down to "hegemonic masculinity." In fact, however, it is Feminists who have made the word gender into a synonym for women, by creating the subject Gender Studies as a politicised offshoot of Women's Studies – i.e. of Feminism, which treats men as "The Other." In addition, in English certainly, the word man traditionally had two meanings – one being the generic human being, and the other being the specifically male human being. It was the Feminists who have determinedly ignored the generic meaning in their writings on "sexist language.36"

In Feminist thought, everything, it seems, is interpreted as being the fault of men. Kronsell even treats male-only conscription as being men's fault37 , despite the fact that Feminism has been in existence for over 200 years38 , has long claimed to have equality between men and women as its central claim, and yet has never made an issue of male-only conscription, alongside the many other issues which it has campaigned about. When the issue of sex discrimination in conscription recently came up in a court case39 , however, the Court refused to declare it illegal, and the sole female judge made a personal statement which emphasised the fact that women do want to serve in the armed forces, and ignored the central issue of compulsion, which only affected men.


Does Feminism inappropriately take up space (and time) in IR theory?

After reading a number of Feminist tracts about IR, it is easy to come away with the impression that this phenomenon is just a political movement aimed at forcing women and Feminism into the field of IR for the sake of doing so, and that Feminists do not actually have anything to contribute to what Youngs (2004) calls "malestream"40 IR except constant, repeated complaints about the nature of men and the absence of women. This impression is created by the fact that such Feminist writing is full of attacks on men, generalisations unsupported by evidence, and promising-sounding section-headings and chapter-headings that, yet again, reveal nothing of substance on closer inspection.

Before cementing in a conclusion along these lines, however, a last, desperate look at Steans (2006) is called for. After all, this book has managed to get itself into a second edition, which is evidence that it must be a high-quality work, by the standards of Feminist scholarship in the field of IR. Steans lists41 the following six "core tasks" for Feminism in IR:

first, to point to the exclusions and biases of mainstream IR, both in terms of the limitations of state-centric analyses and of positivism; second to make women visible as social, economic and political subjects in international politics; third, to analyse how gender inequalities were embedded in the day-to-day practices of international relations; and fourth, ... to empower women as subjects of knowledge by building theoretical understanding of international relations from the position of women and their lived, embodied experiences.... Fifth, to elucidate the ways that 'masculinities' and 'femininities' are forged, shaped and reproduced in relation to global forces and processes. Finally, to highlight specific sites and manifestations of gender relations outside of the western context and address the racialized and colonialized dimensions of international relations.

It is interesting to note that Steans seems to see the discrediting of state-centric analysis and of positivism as a precondition to the success of Feminism in IR. However, those are not specifically Feminist goals. Similarly, the sixth goal is more a reflection of divisions42 and alliances within the Feminist movement than a goal which has to do with Feminism in IR43 . The second goal is a purely political goal, and so inappropriate to an academic context. People should be visible or invisible in IR as a reflection of the relevance of their activities – otherwise we will end up with a quota system, where all sorts of interest groups will be demanding a certain proportion of visibility in every academic work!

The third, fourth and fifth goals are prima facie relevant to IR, but the question is how well they are achieved in practice. The problem with the third goal is that Feminists inevitably apply a biased process when working towards it. As we have seen, Feminists interpret the term gender inequalities simply to denote inequalities affecting people other than heterosexual males, because they believe in a model of reality, according to which heterosexual males (especially White, able-bodied, heterosexual males) oppress everyone else. This is grossly simplistic, since it ignores the twin effects of chivalry and Feminism on social reality, which is oppressive to males in many respects, which Feminists ignore as much as they are permitted to. It is beyond the scope of this essay to survey the entire Feminism in IR literature, but the impression gained by this writer is that little of substance has been achieved in relation to the fourth and fifth goals.



It is not true by definition, or otherwise self-evident, that all fields of scholarly activity must be about equal numbers of men and women and that the participants in all fields of such activity must consist of equal numbers of men and women. Yet Feminists often act as if these are indeed necessary truths – except in areas which are already mainly about women, or where the participants are already mainly women.

Feminism, which, in practice is indistinguishable from its political arm, the Women's Movement, is a political movement which aims to dominate academia. It is hard to see how effective mere academic argument can be in the face of such a political force. Political force needs to be met with political force, and sidelining or exclusion are both appropriate in this context.

As stated above, some of the goals of Feminism in IR are legitimate subjects of scholarly inquiry, in principle. However, these goals are pursued in a tendentious manner. Given that some of its goals are legitimate, it is hard to argue for the exclusion of Feminism from IR. Moreover, the boundaries of IR are so ill-defined at present that it would be hard to build a case for excluding almost anything from IR! The only feasible solution seems to be the status quo, under which regime Feminism is marginalised within IR. If Feminism in IR comes to include Masculist theorists in its sessions and journals, then it will have come of age, and will perhaps be able to make a stronger case for inclusion in mainstream IR.



  1. This article originated as an essay for a Victoria University of Wellington course in International Relations.

  2. Zohrab (2011), page 1.

  3. Burchill 1996, page 3.

  4. Robert Deuchars, personal communication, April 2011.

  5. op. cit., page 10.

  6. op. cit., pages 11, (three times), 12, 13 & 14 (once each).

  7. op. cit., pages 14, 19, 21 and 26.

  8. op. cit., pages 16 (twice), 18, 21 and 23.

  9. op. cit., page 17.

  10. op. cit., page 20.

  11. See, for example, Zohrab (2006).

  12. Steans 2006, page 16.

  13. See, for an example of stupidity in Feminist "scholarship", Zohrab 2004.

  14. Steans 2006, page 16.

  15. Bacchetta 2002, page 302.

  16. Fiebert (2010).

  17. When one searches Google for "evidence for the Power and Control model" or "evidence for the Duluth model", one gets zero results – except for pages written by myself where I comment on that fact.

  18. <http://www.whiteribbon.ca/>, last accessed on 29 April 2011.

  19. <http://mensnewsdaily.com/2010/05/26/violence-against-women-act-turning-the-unwary-into-political-roadkill/>, last accessed on 29 April 2011.

  20. See, for example, Kaplan 2001, page 219.

  21. See Sacks (2002).

  22. <http://www.police.govt.nz/news/release/4499.html>, last accessed on 22 April 2011.

  23. Sheaffer (1996).

  24. Pettman 1997, page 489.

  25. Pettman 1997, page 491.

  26. Tickner 1992, page 1, also stresses this point.

  27. Pettman 1997, page 484.

  28. See <http://blackribboncampaign.t15.org/isstupid.html>, last accessed 23 April 2011.

  29. Peterson 2003, page 78.

  30. Peterson 2003, page 79.

  31. Peterson 2003, page 80.

  32. See, for example, the manifesto at <http://blackribboncampaign.t15.org/manifest.html>, last accessed on 22 April 2011.

  33. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/masculinist>, last accessed on 22 April 2011.

  34. <http://www.thefreedictionary.com/masculinist>, last accessed on 22 April 2011.

  35. Kronsell 2006, page 109.

  36. Sack the Liar, Professor Janet Holmes! <http://blackribboncampaign.t15.org/janthoms.html>, last accessed 29 June 2011.

  37. Kronsell 2006, page 113.

  38. dating its inception from Wollstonecraft (1792).

  39. See Zohrab (2010).

  40. Youngs 2004, page 75.

  41. Steans 2006, page 27.

  42. For example, Alvarez (2000) states that Latin American and Caribbean Leftists initially saw Feminism as a "bourgeois, imperialist import", and Amrita Basu (Aidoo et al. 2000, page 3) reports the charge that Feminism is Western and elitist.

  43. It should also be noted that it is racist to treat history as if it started when Europeans started colonising non-European countries. Groups of people were colonising their neighbours long before that time, and to ignore their activities just because their skins were not white is racist.




Aidoo, Ama Ata, Edna Acosta-Belén, Amrita Basu, Maryse Condé, Nell Painter, and Nawal ElSaadawi Speak on Feminism, Race, and Transnationalism, Meridians, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 1-28.

Alvarez, Sonia E. (2000), Translating the Global Effects of Transnational Organizing on Local Feminist Discourses and Practices in Latin America, Meridians, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 29-67.

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Zohrab, P.D. (2011), Forget IR Theory? Victoria University of Wellington, MS.


See also:




Peter Douglas Zohrab

Latest Update

30 January 2021