Feminist theories of ”the international’ have often had an awkward relationship with feminist political and social theory. While historically under pressure to temper the language of feminism and to alter feminist methodologies to fit within the discipline of International Relations (IR), this has meant that many aspects of feminist thought have translated in parochial ways within the discipline, leaving gaps over ideas that in other fields have been well trod. In our recent article in the Review of International Studies we explore one of these curious absences within IR: the theory of radical feminism.
We both have an interest in radical feminist thought because of its unvarnished political clarity, and emphasis on patriarchy as a structure. This approach has historically allowed radical feminists to provide incisive (if unnuanced) accounts of varied issues such as the sex trade, household labour, men’s violence against women, and sexuality. By identifying and naming patriarchy, radical feminism helped to animate broad action from the women’s liberation movement and has provided the basis for theorising gender inequality from the household to the battlefield. Despite this, the contributions of radical feminism have largely been written out of feminist theories of IR.
Our piece explores how the absence of radical feminism in feminist IR came to be. This is not to suggest that radical feminist thought has had no influence on IR (quite to the contrary), but rather that its contributions have been erased, its character misrepresented, and its ongoing potential prematurely foreclosed. By presenting radical feminism as outdated, uniquely insensitive to intersectional concerns, and marred by essentialism, feminist theories of IR have done a disservice to the radical inheritance that many of our core concepts are based on. And this has significant implications for the advancement of feminist IR’s understanding of contemporary issues, including (sexual) violence in war, the role of the state in patriarchal relations, and the patriarchal origins of economics and trade.
In our own works, we have each found the structural component of radical feminist thought (in placing patriarchy at its heart) has been integral for examining the linkage between different forms of violence and oppression. By highlighting the structural dominance of men in society, radical feminism has been able to show how different forms of violence exist on a patriarchal continuum ranging from interpersonal and intimate forms to total war. This contribution has provided the tools for analysing the economic and social foundations of violence and the links between them.
For example, this can be seen in radical feminist thought on the role of heterosexuality in maintaining a sex-class system of oppression. Radical feminists placed oppressive notions of sexuality, which eroticised women’s subordination to men, at the heart of their analysis of political economy and institutions such as the household. By focusing analytically on heterosexual marriage, which argued that oppression in the household was enabled by sexist ideas of romance, radical feminism was able to provide a conceptual account of how women’s sex-based subordination was rationalised and then enacted in a plethora of institutions and interactions. While through the 1990s, Feminist IR did not engage with questions of sexuality as explicitly, there has recently been a growth of interest in sexuality in IR (largely as a result of work from queer theorists). Radical feminist work, while resonating on some key points (such as Adrienne Rich’s incisive essay on compulsory heterosexuality), provides a profoundly different form of analysis to that of queer theorists on sex and sexuality. The materialist basis of radical feminist work, the emphasis on stability of structures, and the endorsement of revolutionary change over troubling/queering all make radical feminism an interesting and valuable alternative approach to those currently in vogue.
For both of us (as the above exchanges indicates), the different approach presented by radical feminism represents a valuable resource which has been overlooked and often maligned in our field. In presenting our analysis of radical feminism, we do not argue that it is the only approach of value in the field, nor do we try to engage in a recuperative project that reconciles all aspects of radical feminist work with its critics. Rather, we believe that there is much to be gained by ‘returning to the root’ – particularly in terms of how we understand sex relations as political and the extent to which those politics are immobilised in structures and institutions of international relations. By revisiting these theoretical debates, we hope it might spur productive tensions and new conversations between feminists on issues of structure, patriarchy and revolutionary change.