Christian Realists and sex-realist feminists have much in common. While insisting that significant aspects of the world are unchangeable, both nevertheless seek to improve it within the bounds proscribed by the immutable features of reality. Bearing in mind these substantive agreements over essential premises and objectives, both should care about feminist international relations (IR) theory and practice.
Sadly, the trajectory of feminism in IR has veered ever further from any kind of realism. As more governments adopt “feminist” foreign policies, Christian Realists and sex-realist feminists must ask: if a renewal of feminism in international relations is possible, where could we look for inspiration?
Erika Bachiochi, a leader in the sex-realist feminist movement and author of The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (2021), provides an excellent starting point. Reviews (positive, negative, and everywhere in between) abounded; however, no one, to my knowledge, has connected the ideas presented in the book to feminist international relations theory and practice.
This is unsurprising since the book does not explicitly address international relations. Nonetheless, getting the international applications of feminism right requires getting feminism right first. The Rights of Women does so, and it therefore offers important correctives to current feminist IR theory and practice.
Feminism needs sound philosophy.
The work and thought of Mary Wollstonecraft serve as the backdrop for Bachiochi’s project; she returns time and again to Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, measuring the historical and legal developments of feminism against the “Wollstonecraftian” vision of women’s rights. As Bachiochi demonstrates, this vision was based on a view of human nature deeply influenced by Wollstonecraft’s Christianity and understanding of Aristotelian philosophy:
“Her philosophical case…was grounded in…the unalterable truth about God and the wondrous capacities of His human creation. Human beings are endowed with the ennobling capacity to reason…Thus, the ultimate purpose of every human life is to conform oneself to the nature of things as God has designed them, and thus to unfold one’s human faculties in order to better oneself and be of service to others.”(Bachiochi 2021, 27)
Like many of her contemporary Enlightenment thinkers, Wollstonecraft championed rights, but she grounded these rights in the duty to seek excellence, or virtue. (Bachiochi 2021, 6) She acknowledged that the duties of many women (particularly duties tied to pregnancy and breastfeeding) might differ from those of men; however, she also recognized the full humanity and rationality of both sexes, thus extending both the duty to seek excellence and the corresponding rights to women. (Bachiochi 2021, 34)
This philosophical framework is a welcome antidote to the constructivist, postpositivist, and pragmatist assumptions underlying much of feminist IR theory. As J. Ann Tickner, the author of Gender in International Relations (arguably the first in-depth exposition of feminist IR theory), put it: “Since most contemporary feminist scholars believe that knowledge is socially constructed, they are skeptical of finding an unmediated foundation for knowledge that realists claim is possible.” (Tickner 1992, 36) In contrast, Bachiochi, quoting Wollstonecraft, writes that “‘(f)or man and woman, truth…must be the same, yet…virtue becomes a relative idea, having no other foundation than utility…’” Feminist IR theory is a normative discipline (Tickner 1992, 19), yet it lacks a philosophical framework grounding the norms it promotes in any objective, universal truth. It thus becomes a hostage to the views of the most powerful interest group and cannot deliver on its own promise to make the world more peaceful and just.
To go forward, look back.
Through her in-depth historical and legal analysis, Bachiochi makes a convincing case that feminism is necessary and undermines the perception, common in some Christian and conservative circles, that it has been doomed from the start. The Rights of Women masterfully traces the evolution of Anglo-American feminist thought and advocacy from proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft through joint property advocates such as Lucretia Mott, suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and workers’ rights advocates such as Alice Paul and Florence Kelley.
While Bachiochi acknowledges that competing philosophical visions and political programs often divided the women’s movement, she shows that, until second wave feminism took a “wrong turn,” feminism generally upheld the dignity of motherhood and “sought to elevate legally and politically the essential work of the home: that person-oriented island in a market-driven sea.” (Bachiochi 2021, 281) While emphasizing that modern feminism has erred in abandoning this project, Bachiochi acknowledges the importance of equal protection legislation and, drawing on the work of Wollstonecraft and contemporary scholar Mary Ann Glendon, calls for a renewed, “dignitarian” feminism. Such a feminism respects women’s potential for motherhood while also fully recognizing their rights and duties as unique human beings, not simply “potential mothers.”
Unfortunately, the vision underpinning most of feminist IR theory is a far cry from the “lost vision” Bachiochi extols. While the roots of feminism in IR arguably trace back to the early 1900’s and the women’s peace movement, the discipline fully emerged in the early 1990’s. By then, the feminist movement in the United States had taken its “wrong turn” and the resultant errors resurfaced in the realm of international relations.
Feminist IR theory began with the assertion that, though having been ignored by IR scholars until the late 20th Century, women’s experiences were nevertheless essential to the broader academic discipline (Tickner 1992, 5) This was, and is, a worthwhile endeavor; however, feminist IR theory was never clear about the inherent differences between men and women. Having bought into the divorce of sex from gender, feminist IR theory viewed the differing experiences of men and women as the result of social constructs and domination. (Tickner 1992, 6-7) Thus, feminist IR theory was unable to adequately define what it means to be a woman and account for what Bachiochi terms “sexual asymmetry” – the unalterable fact that, due to the capacity for pregnancy and breastfeeding, human reproduction places greater vulnerabilities and burdens on women than men. By reducing male/female differences to social constructs of domination, feminist IR theorists also failed to acknowledge, as Bachiochi does, that motherhood and its attendant capacities are noble and dignified.
Feminist IR theory contained the seeds of its own destruction from the start. As Tickner wrote:
“A genuinely emancipatory feminist international relations will take gender difference as its starting point but it will not take it as a given. While attempting to explain how gender has been constructed and maintained in international relations, we must also see how it can be removed.” (Tickner 1992, 24-25)
This contrasts with Bachiochi’s view that feminism must “harmonize” (Bachiochi 2021, 106) the sexual asymmetry between men and women, not eradicate it. Perhaps feminist IR theorists such as Tickner believed that they could ultimately remove gender from IR theory without discarding women’s experiences of sexual asymmetry and motherhood. If so, the resulting feminist IR practice and foreign policy over the last three decades proves that they were wrong. We must return to the “lost vision” that Bachiochi recovered – and that feminist IR theory lost before it began.
Fertility suppression is not the answer.
As Bachiochi documents, early feminists almost universally rejected artificial contraception and abortion, viewing these practices as “technological incursions into women’s bodies and facilitators of male oppression of women.” (Bachiochi 2021, 115) In the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, the marriage of second wave feminism with the population control movement solidified contraception and abortion access as the keystone of the modern women’s movement in the United States. (Bachiochi 2021, 200)
A similar shift took place at the international level between the 1970’s and 1990’s. In 1974, Henry Kissinger’s National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 200 designated population control and the promotion of contraception as major US foreign policy priorities to be undertaken in cooperation with the United Nations and other countries. The document further acknowledged that “no country has reduced its population growth without resorting to abortion.” By 1995, the agenda pushed in the name of “women’s rights” at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women was almost indistinguishable from this population control agenda. The intensity of lobbying in favor of “sexual rights” and abortion, and against any positive references to motherhood, surprised even Mary Ann Glendon, a seasoned expert and head of the Holy See’s delegation to the conference. She concluded that “the sexual libertarians, old-line feminists, and coercive population controllers can be expected to keep on trying to insert their least popular ideas into UN documents for unveiling at home as ‘international norms.’”
Nearly 30 years later, it is no longer a surprise when international organizations and powerful states equate feminism with the technological suppression of women’s fertility. One of the key insights of feminist IR theory is that the divide between public and private is porous (Tickner 1992, 137) and that the world cannot experience true security until all levels of society attain security. (Tickner 1992, 66) Unfortunately, most feminist practitioners of international relations are blind to the ways that their promotion of contraception and abortion undermines this insight.
A particularly egregious passage in “Defining Feminist Foreign Policy [FFP]: The 2023 Edition” makes this painfully clear, praising Argentina as the “first government to have a gender-inclusive abortion law,” while only sentences later noting with approval that “a number of FFP countries…have focused on redefining care as a human right” and lauding Colombia as “the first country to introduce an explicitly pacifist approach to FFP.” Thus, in just two paragraphs, it rejects the existence of women’s sexual asymmetry (hence the need for all-gender abortion) while implying that abortion is still a solution to sexual asymmetry; it calls for pacifism while ignoring the violence done to women and their unborn children through abortion; and it recognizes care as a human right while refusing the most basic care to children in the womb and allowing irresponsible fathers to evade their duties of care. While this is formally the viewpoint of one organization, it demonstrates the inconsistencies inherent in feminist approaches to international relations today.
For Bachiochi, feminism’s embrace of contraception and abortion betrayed the vision of women’s rights espoused by Wollstonecraft and other early feminists, as it “tilted the sexual playing field further in the male direction” (Bachiochi 2021, 216) and forced women to compete with men in the public sphere at the cost of bearing the burden of sexual asymmetry “alone” and “in the most private—and desperate—of acts.” (Bachiochi 2021, 213) Bachiochi, following Wollstonecraft, rejects the sacrifice of the private on the altar of the public, instead positing the priority of the domestic sphere for both men and women and claiming that parents’ “first duty as citizens (is): to transform private persons into public citizens, capable of respect and benevolence toward their fellow creatures…” (Bachiochi 2021, 36) Thus, rather than seeking equality by freeing women from parental or domestic obligations, Bachiochi adheres to Wollstonecraft’s view that:
“Children were not a burden or impediment to women’s ‘real’ work; they were her real work, and an ennobling and important work they were. But they might not be her only work. And they were not only her work.” (Bachiochi 2021, 40)
Feminist theorists and practitioners of IR should heed Bachiochi’s advice and, rather than suppressing women’s fertility, focus their energy on supporting women in all their human complexity, including as mothers and caregivers.
Toward a New Feminism in IR
These observations only scratch the surface of the insights into feminist IR theory and practice that can be gleaned from The Rights of Women. Even the most thorough application of Bachiochi’s thought to the realm of international relations would only be a beginning; it would be a promising beginning, though. Christian Realism and sex-realist feminism are broad schools of thought, and some adherents to these schools may disagree with Bachiochi on certain points. Nonetheless, all would doubtless agree that a feminist approach to IR built on the foundation Bachiochi has laid would be a great improvement. Christian Realists and sex-realist feminists can and should work together to build a new feminist IR theory and put it into practice. It is noteworthy that Jean Bethke Elshtain’s book Women and War is often cited as a foundational text in early feminist IR theory. Elshtain was a Christian Realist and, in today’s terminology, a sex-realist feminist. The Rights of Women mentions Elshtain only once, but, as noted on the back cover, “Bachiochi proposes a philosophical and legal framework for rights that builds on the communitarian tradition of feminist thought as seen in the work of…Jean Bethke Elshtain.” Christian Realists and sex-realist feminists should read The Rights of Women, then read it again through the lens of international relations. Perhaps Bachiochi’s impressive scholarship will inspire a new generation to pick up where Elshtain left off, bringing the truths of Christian Realism and sex-realist feminism to the realm of international relations.