“Grappling” with Feminist IR: A Conversation with Cynthia Enloe

Editor-in-Chief Adam Stromme talks with Cynthia Enloe, highly-acclaimed Feminist International Relations (IR) scholar and author of numerous books, most famously “Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics”.

Adam Stromme: How did you first become interested in studying international relations?
Cynthia Enloe: I went to Berkeley as a Comparative Politics person, as a Southeast Asian specialist, before the US-Vietnam war. I was first drawn to Comparative Politics as an undergraduate when I interned in Washington for an Indonesian fisheries group. In particular, one man in the group took me under his wing because he was dismayed I knew nothing about the Indonesian revolution that overthrew Dutch colonialism. My studies of Comparative Politics are eventually what drew me into international relations.

Now, in the early days I wasn’t a feminist, but because of my background in Comparative Politics I looked at the Vietnam war differently than most IR people did. I didn’t start with the state, I started with local politics and political cultures.  I thought about things from the ground up.

AS: What have been some of the major shifts in the international scene since you first began writing?
CE: I’m not sure I can rank them, but in general I’d say that at least three big trends come to mind. The first is that UN peacekeeping operations have made us all come to terms with what peacekeeping looks like, and what the UN’s role is in world politics. That, in turn, makes us ask: what happens on the ground?

The second shift was that there is now so much transnational feminist organizing, and no longer originating just in the developed world. These feminist groups are changing the way international politics is carried on. Feminist scholars today are investigating how these movements get marginalized by both state and transnational elites, but the presence of these groups leads elites to practice a new kind of tokenism as a result. In doing so, they have opened a crack, and feminist activists can wedge themselves in that tokenist crack and potentially change the international system for the better, the fairer, the more just.

Finally, within the discipline, there is much more interaction between activists and researchers today. I personally love using rigorous research done by groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). By contrast, in the 1960’s, the veritable dark ages by comparison, almost no one assigned NGO (non-governmental organization) research reports as required university readings. Even today, not enough faculty assign it, even though some of their own IR alumni are NGO researchers.

AS: What is the most common misconception about Feminist IR?
CE: That it is marginal, a “oh-slightly-interesting” topic that you give it a term week and then count yourself done. What the real project is about is figuring out how to redefine how we study international relations. But Feminist IR requires that you don’t just rush through, for instance, Ann Tickner’s complex ideas in week 6; instead, you start thinking about her ideas in week 1 and let her questions and insights help shape how the rest of the course is understood. But, again, that she is there in the IR syllabus at all now is a certain kind of progress that clever lecturers and students can build upon.

Tokenist gestures can be used strategically.

AS: What does it mean to be a “Feminist” IR theorist?
First, you’ve got be curious about women’s lives. You can’t just talk about women in some abstract way. You have to be committed to understanding the ideas, the experiences, and the often contradictory actions of actual women. I know that some people trying to make careers in academia or in policy institutions are afraid that, if they express genuine interest, if they devote scarce resources to understanding the complex (not always heroic) lives of women, they will not be “take seriously” by their patriarchal colleagues.

So this also means that becoming a genuinely feminist IR analyst doesn’t allow you to shrink “women” down to “gender.” You have to stay interested in diverse women because they are so analytically interesting!

Nor can you shrink “gender” down to “women.” A feminist IR analyst always investigates “Who constructs femininities?” “Who constructs masculinities?”, and “What are the power dynamics causing and flowing from both of these efforts?”

Finally, to become and stay a feminist IR teacher and scholar, I think it’s valuable to avoid becoming part of any elite. Always, though, be aware of the elites, even if they are quite difficult to research in comparison to non-elites. Discourse analysis nowadays is the favored way to shine a light on gendered elites: but, really, it’s not enough.

AS: Has mainstream IR become more accommodating to feminist perspectives, and if so/if not, how so? (you’ll notice I refer throughout to a mainstream IR, and that’s because I harbor the suspicion that it may not have yet grappled with the stuff of Feminist IR as seriously as it should. That aside, I’d love to be wrong, but the shorthand was too handy to dismiss)
You’ve used two great words, accommodating and grappling. Accommodating, if not done genuinely, can invite tokenism. For instance, adding more feminist-informed panels at the ISA (International Studies Association) is progress, and having more women (feminist and non-feminists) as panelists are steps in the right direction. But who goes to those panels? Just the same 60 people over and over again? Answering that question may be another measure of whether the discipline is changing.

It’s true that there are some very influential senior International Relations people, who, if they edit some academic collections, will deliberately invite as contributors people like Cynthia Weber (a Queer International Relations theorist) or Marysia Zalewski (a feminist IR theorist), and that’s beyond accommodating; that’s more along the lines of grappling. But then who reads which chapters of the edited IR volume? To grapple is to allow yourself to be puzzled, to be surprised to the extent that it changes what you teach and how you do your next research.

AS: In the late 90’s, the mainstream International Relations theorist Robert Keohane famously, (or perhaps infamously), challenged Feminist IR to come up with its own research program, catalyzing a long debate between a skeptical mainstream IR and a vigorously independent and engaged feminist scholarship led by Ann Tickner, Laura Sjoberg, as well as yourself. What do you believe was your most potent role in this debate, and how has it affected the discipline?
I give Bob Keohane credit for really engaging in these printed conversations, particularly with Ann Tickner. Ann, not me, gets the credit for getting this into print. The result has been that lot of IR people who have never read Ann Tickner have grappled with her important ideas! It made her ideas credible. It gave many students and faculty more confidence that pursuing feminist questions could lead to IR research that would be taken seriously by others in IR. I think that has changed the social and intellectual dynamics of the discipline for the better.

On Her Work:
AS: Many people consider your work “Bananas, Beaches and Bases” to be a masterpiece of Feminist IR. What inspired you to write “Bananas, Beaches and Bases”, and how well was the work originally received?
Well, Adam, the funny thing is I certainly didn’t think I was writing a masterpiece. I’ll tell you the exact moment I decided to write it.

I was down in the basement of one of my university’s class buildings. There was a teach-in on the US-Vietnam War was being held. A colleague, Charlie, was talking about what it was like to be an ordinary American soldier in the war. To give you a sense of what American academia was like at the time,  Charlie was the only person on the university’s faculty who had been an infantry soldier in Vietnam.

Describing the mundane experiences of an American male soldier, Charlie told us, “Well, a lot of the time was spent in between being scared out of our wits and following base routines. For instance, may of us hired  ‘hootch girls’ [a derogatory term for Vietnamese women domestic workers] who cleaned our barracks and shined our dress shoes

As Charlie spoke, I sat there in that basement classroom and suddenly wondered, “What would the Vietnamese war look like from the perspective of one of those Vietnamese cleaning women?”

By that time I was a feminist, and I was learning that asking such a question was away to spur your curiosity. And, of course, just asking this opening question would spark important follow-up research questions: What does this Vietnamese woman herself think of this war? How did she deal with the French war a decade earlier? What would asking these questions tell us about the entire process of war waging and the complicated wartime realities on the ground?

That Vietnamese woman became a muse for me.

As I began thinking about her, questions about where women are in international trade, labour, tourism and diplomacy started popping up as well. It was very exciting. I think of international politics as a big room that most people imagine has only one door. These new questions made me realize that there were scores more doors and windows to open on to that room, through which to see it more fully, more accurately. They just needed to be pried open. There are probably today windows we haven’t even discovered yet.

From researching my first feminist work “Does Khaki Become You?” – the book I did before “Bananas” – I’d learned that state male elites are really nervous about the relationships between male state officials and their wives. But they couldn’t admit it because doing so would make the state seem less powerful,  less securely removed from the messy daily realities of life. And I took this realization – that male state elites are more nervous about women than they’ll admit – with me as I began to research what became Bananas.

AS: A common feminist adage is “The Personal is Political” and in a new iteration on this theme you argued that “the personal is international, and the international is personal.” What did you mean by this?
That Second Wave theoretical assertion just shows you how much I was influenced in my teaching and research by feminist activists. Those smart 1970s-80s activists were arguing that if you want to understand the workings of power and the contestations of power, you can’t look just at the elite dynamics; you have to look at the most intimate and the most seemingly trivial dynamics of domestic life. Look at the dynamics of marriage, of sexuality, of daycare. As a researcher, if you want to test this assertion, you’ll need to revolutionize your investigatory methodology.

How many political scientists have been taught how to study sexual relations, friendship, domestic life?

It follows from this that to understand state behavior, we’ll need need to investigate how and when – and with what (often unintended) results – mostly male state policy makers attempt to control the most personal elements of women’s and men’s everyday relationships, including their notions of manliness and of feminine respectability. Suddenly, the field of “politics” expanded enormously!

AS: Some academics do not believe that Feminist IR, almost by virtue of how it identifies itself, concerns itself much with the stuff of high politics (war, peace, diplomacy, statecraft, etc), a contention that is vigorously opposed by the Feminist IR community. How does paying particular attention to gender help shape our understanding of the international community?
The first thing it does is dismantle the state as a monolithic actor. And since so much of what passes for mainstream International Relations is so comfortable, I would even say lazy: talking about “Germany” doing this and “Russia” doing that. I honestly try never to say “Saudi Arabia” is doing this or “China” is doing that when what I mean is that the Saudi state elite is doing something or the Chinese state senior leadership is doing something else. Drawing on my background in comparative politics has been so helpful in learning to think about how not to take neither the monolithic state nor the alleged nation-state for granted.

AS: In the book chapter “Margins, Silences, and Bottom Rungs: How to Overcome the Underestimation of Power in International Relations”, you attacked what you charmingly called the “Joe Friday” approach to IR scholarship, convinced as it is that it is out for “just the facts, Ma’am”, by writing that while “Joe Friday may have gotten his man, but he probably underestimated his crime”. What did you mean by this, and what lessons should mainstream IR draw from it?
Well, for starters, for all of your readers not familiar with American pop culture, Joe Friday was a fictional Los Angeles police detective. He began as a radio drama hero in the 1950s, then morphed in 1960s into a television police procedural hero. In his fedora, Joe Friday was anti-flamboyant. “Just the facts, ma’am” was his famous mantra.

What was interesting to me in writing that essay was the idea of “the facts”. While facts do exist, there is so much that goes into producing them. You have to ask ,“What version of any reality is most reliable?” and “How did they go about uncovering that as evidence?”

Today, “the facts” are so crucial to ascertain if we are to not be seduced by “fake news.” So, perhaps oddly, today I’m more on Joe Friday’s side than I was back in the 1990s, though Joe Friday was less reliable than he should have been because he did not employ a feminist reflective methodology. My point then and still is that “just the facts” isn’t quite so obvious as the radio and tv script writers – or non-feminist international politics investigators and commentators – would have had us believe. It takes a lot more curiosity, combined with a lot more nuanced attentiveness and intellectual stamina to reveal political realities in ways that are truly reliable.

The Contemporary Situation:
AS: In 2000 you wrote another book chapter (in “The Curious Feminist”) entitled: “The Surprised Feminist” in which you argued feminist theorists, and international relations theorists more generally, should resist hiding their surprise at the unexpected turns in international affairs: have recent developments in the international scene given you much cause for surprise?
I think one of my biggest surprises was to learn how much contestation there is around ideas of gender going on today in big international organizations. I don’t think I had a clue until I reached out to my friends who have been lobbying the UN, and until they started tutoring me in what is going on inside the WHO (World Health Organization), the UNSC (United Nations Security Council), and the UNPKO (the UN Peacekeeping Office). Nowadays I’m fascinated with these contests, what fuels them, what are the implications of which understandings of gender inform resultant international agency actions. So, for instance, in my newest book (out now), I decided to describe the 2016 battle inside the UN over whether a comic book character should be designated a UN “ambassador.” It was surprising to discover who vigorously opposed this choice was– and why.

AS: What do you see as the greatest challenges the international community faces today?
I think the single greatest overarching challenge is preventing, even reducing climate change, because climate change affects everything: where birds can fly, where apples can grow, what coastal lands are inhabitable, and so on. No human or animal is immune from these drastic changes. Not just people in small island nations, but residents of New York, London and Hong Kong.

That there is a new international legal category of people, “climate refugees,” is a sign of how powerful and political these forces are.

One of the key drivers of the forces creating climate change is gender – ideas about, expressions of and practices of masculinities and femininities. Gender is not a minor dynamic in climate change politics. For example, a friend of mine who is a climate scientist and a UN consultant points out that among the most polluted places on the planet are military bases. Bases’ oil runoff, air pollutions, and noise pollution affect wildlife, human life and the overall environmental quality. Being a feminist environmental specialist, she goes on to show how bases are sustained by ideas and practices of masculinities and femininities. Thus if one does not know how to conduct a gender analysis of military bases – foreign and local – one will be unsuccessful in rolling back their negative environmental consequence. The same is true for agriculture, ocean use, transportation, industry and the design of cities. Act as though gender analysis is inconsequential, and we will fail in efforts to prevent climate change.

AS: You are often lauded within the profession for your witty and engaging style or writing, which is at once intellectually serious yet playful and concise. What recommendations would you give to academics struggling to avoid the turgid writing style which has plagued academia since time immemorial?
CE: Don’t make your dissertation committee your chief audience. Don’t write just for the editors of the most prestigious journals. Write for the students who deliberately sit in the back row. If you get them engaged, everyone will sit up. That’s not dumbing down, I guarantee you. This means, I think, writing as a teacher, not pedantically, but as if your readers deserve your respect and are on a common journey with you. Make your own teaching and writing mutually enlivening. Use narrative, description, diverse people’s voices as well as analysis.

Above all, be humble.

Photo by Clark University/ Flickr

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