In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Feminist Security Studies

  • Introduction
  • Traditions
  • Methodology
  • Women, the State, and Gendered Nationalism
  • Feminist Political Economy

International Relations Feminist Security Studies
Kristen P. Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0205


In studying what happens in international relations, Cynthia Enloe asked: “Where are the women?” It is this question that essentially underlies feminist international relations (IR). Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, feminist scholars critiqued mainstream IR theories (i.e., realism, liberalism), arguing that there is a masculinist bias in the field and that IR’s omission of gender in their analysis is problematic. Feminist research challenges the binaries of public/private, male/female, masculine/feminine, protector/protected, and perpetrator/victim that are inherent in IR. In 1988, the journal Millennium—Journal of International Studies published a special issue titled, “Women and International Relations,” and was the first time a major IR journal focused on the topic of women and IR. The issue marks the starting point for scholarship on women and international relations. As the scholarship continued to evolve and develop, so too did different feminist approaches to security (including liberal, critical, constructivist, post-colonial, and post-structural approaches). Feminist research also uses different methodologies (quantitative methods, case studies, interviews, narratives, and so forth). All feminist IR research utilizes a gender analysis that looks at women and men, masculinities and femininities, gender hierarchies/order, intersectionality (race, ethnicity, gender, class, etc.), positionality, and power relations. Moreover, feminist scholarship includes a normative aspect: in studying gender, power and women, feminist scholars seek to achieve gender equality and to increase women’s economic, political, cultural, and social status and rights around the world. As feminist IR scholarship developed in the 1990s, the field moved from “add women and stir” approaches to making gender a central category of analysis. In 1998, Millennium—Journal of International Studies published another special issue, “Gendering ‘the International,’” which reflected the evolution of feminist IR and the focus on gender as a social construction in the context of international relations. In utilizing a gender analysis, feminist scholars increasingly focused on security broadly defined, leading to the emergence of feminist security studies (FSS). A broader conception of security encompasses elements such as human security, domestic violence, economic security, social security, and environmental security as well as the security of the state. Feminist scholars also recognize that the security of the state can lead to insecurity of women and other marginalized groups. Since the early feminist IR works, feminist security studies scholarship has flourished, addressing issues such as the state and gendered nationalism, gender and conflict, militarism and militarized masculinity, sexual- and gender-based violence in wartime, women’s roles in conflict (as peace activists, victims and perpetrators of political violence), the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda, post-conflict reconstruction and transformation, and the connection with feminist international/global political economy.

General Overview

Blanchard 2003 presents a comprehensive review of feminist security theory, which challenges the key concepts of traditional international relations (IR): security, peace and war. In discussing the major feminist IR authors and their works, he asserts that the contribution to the IR literature by feminist security theory is in its “theoretical moves,” including how women and gender are relevant for understanding security, women are not often protected by the very state that is assumed to provide protection, and questions the assumption that women and peace are linked. The edited volume Sjoberg 2010 makes the case for the centrality of gender in the study of international security, instead of as a subcategory of the field of security studies. There are common themes for feminist security studies (FSS) while recognizing the different strands of feminist work in IR, as demonstrated by the different feminist perspectives of the contributing authors. Goldstein 2001 utilizes scholarship from different disciplines (i.e., political science, psychology, biology, history, sociology), to test twenty hypotheses and provide empirical evidence, to show how gender roles shape war, how war shapes gender, and what accounts for the consistency of gender roles in war across cultures/societies. Sylvester 2010 examines the tensions in feminism and feminist IR, including the historical connection of feminism with peace and nonviolence yet noting that feminist IR research increasingly has demonstrated how women participate in political violence and support wars. Three special forums and issues of journals present overviews of the state of feminist security studies, in terms of theory and policy. Security Dialogue’s special issue titled Gender and Security (Hansen and Olsson 2004) demonstrates the connection between gender and security, and often insecurity, in topics including democracy and human rights, ethnicity and post-conflict reconstruction, girl soldiers, and peace support operations. The articles in the forum, Critical Perspectives on Gender and Politics, in Politics & Gender, titled The State of Feminist Security Studies: A Conversation (Sjoberg and Lobasz 2011), focus on questions regarding the relationship between IR as a discipline (and the subfield of security studies) and FSS, such as the willingness of feminist approaches to engage with mainstream IR in using quantitative and positivist methodologies, and whether FSS is “about women and men” or “masculinities and femininities” (p. 575). The special issue of International Studies Perspectives, titled “Feminism in International Relations,” included a collection of articles in a forum, “The State of the Discipline: A Security Studies Forum” (Shepherd 2013), which responded to the articles in The State of Feminist Security Studies: A Conversation in the 2011 Politics & Gender issue (Sjoberg and Lobasz 2011), with the critiques that none of the contributors were from outside the United States and the discussions reproduced hierarchies of knowledge within feminist approaches to security.

  • Blanchard, Eric M. “Gender, International Relations, and the Development of Feminist Security Theory.” Signs 28.4 (Summer 2003): 1289–1312.

    DOI: 10.1086/368328

    This article provides an outstanding overview of the feminist security theory (FST) scholarship that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s, demonstrating that this scholarship has challenged traditional IR conceptions of security by questioning who is being secured, specifically the connection between gender and power in IR.

  • Goldstein, Joshua S. War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    This book provides an excellent analysis of the role of gender (not just women) in war and an overview of feminist theories. Importantly, this work examines how gender roles in war are found across cultures, and tests hypotheses on the factors that explain the link between gender and war, including biology, social identity of groups, and militarized masculinity, as well as the causes of wartime sexual violence.

  • Hansen, Lene, and Louise Olsson, eds. Special Issue: Gender and Security. Security Dialogue 35.4 (December 2004): 403–508.

    This issue, edited by Lene Hansen and Louise Olsson, covers an array of topics (“gendered security problems”) utilizing a gender lens (and different theoretical and empirical perspectives), including democracy and human rights; ethnicity and post-conflict reconstruction; girl soldiers; peace support operations. In all these articles, the authors address the connection between gender, security, and insecurity.

  • Shepherd, Laura J., ed. The State of the Discipline: A Security Studies Forum. In Special Issue: Feminism in International Relations. International Studies Perspectives 14.4 (2013): 436–462.

    The seven articles in the forum in this special issue on feminism in international relations were a response to the 2011 Politics & Gender, forum titled Critical Perspectives on Gender and Politics: The State of Feminist Security Studies: A Conversation.” The authors (themselves from around the world) challenge and critique the contributions in the Politics & Gender issue, noting the need to acknowledge non-U.S. and non-Western feminist scholars’ work in security, and the tensions within feminist IR.

  • Sjoberg, Laura, ed. Gender and International Security: Feminist Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    This edited volume focuses on gendering IR theories (cult of the offensive, power transition theory) and issues in IR (environmental security, arms control, human trafficking, role of the state), and presents several case studies of war, peace, and security, including Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, South Asia, Rwanda, and Cote d’Ivorie. Several chapters appeared in a special issue of the journal Security Studies: Feminist Contributions, edited by Laura Sjoberg 2009.

  • Sjoberg, Laura, and Jennifer K. Lobasz, eds. Special Issue: The State of Feminist Security Studies: A Conversation. Politics & Gender 7.4 (December 2011): 573–604.

    The authors of the articles in this special forum coming from different perspectives, provide an excellent overview of the state of feminist security studies (FSS). Their contributions grapple with questions that continue to be asked in feminist security studies, including how FSS is related to the field of IR in general, and in the subfield of security studies in particular.

  • Sylvester, Christine. “Tensions in Feminist Security Studies.” Security Dialogue 41.6 (2010): 607–614.

    DOI: 10.1177/0967010610388206

    The article begins with a brief overview of the evolution of feminist IR, and then focuses primarily on discussing two main tensions that exist in feminism and feminist IR: (1) while feminism has historically been linked to peace and nonviolence, new feminist IR scholarship has shown that women also engage in political violence; (2) “difficult differences” regarding “good” feminists and which ideas and people should be supported and which should be ignored/criticized.

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