In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Feminist Perspectives on International Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Bibliographies
  • Feminist Perspectives on Public International Law
  • Gender and International Institutions
  • International Human Rights and Self-Determination
  • Gender, Armed Conflict, and the Use of Force
  • Gender, Conflict Prevention, Peacekeeping, and Peacebuilding
  • Gender, International Criminal Law, and Justice
  • Feminist Perspectives on Transitional Justice
  • Critical Reflection on Feminist Theory and Methodologies in International Law
  • Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Queer Feminist Perspectives
  • Feminist Perspectives on International Refugee Law
  • Gender and International Economic and Trade Law
  • Feminist Perspectives on Oceans, Climate Change, and Adaptation

International Relations Feminist Perspectives on International Law
Amy Barrow
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0320


Feminist perspectives provide a critical lens through which to examine international law’s rules, systems, and structures. In the early twentieth century, women’s activism and organizing during World War I was instrumental in drawing attention to the absence of women in peacemaking processes, leading to the creation of feminist peace organizations whose advocacy was highly influential in generating debate regarding the role of international bodies and women’s equal participation in international lawmaking. Second-wave feminist scholarship during the sixties and seventies drew attention to women’s legal and political status, including issues such as reproductive rights and nondiscrimination, influencing legal reforms in domestic law systems. Significant societal debate on these questions of gender equality did not always directly translate to international law settings. However, the global women’s conferences that occurred at regular intervals during the UN Decade for Women (1975–1985) provided the political opportunity structure for women’s groups to organize transnationally. While evident political differences emerged between feminist activists from the Global North and Global South, these tensions nevertheless heightened awareness of international law’s limited engagement with women’s myriad lived experiences. The adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979 provided a foundation for feminist critique centering on the marginalization of women’s rights in international law. The application of a feminist lens to the entire ambit and breadth of international law occurred at a later period during the early nineties. This seminal scholarship coincided with the post–Cold War period, which saw significant social and political change globally. Witnessing a surge in regional ethnic-based conflicts and their gendered impacts, feminist scholars engaged in critique of the law of armed conflict, international criminal law, and transitional justice processes. While the successes of feminist interventions in international law, particularly in relation to the women, peace and security agenda at the UN Security Council, have been cautiously acknowledged, some areas of international law have proved to be particularly resistant to feminist analysis. Although theoretical perspectives, including postcolonial and Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), are yet to move from the periphery to the center of feminist analyses, they provide an important lens through which to understand the tensions that emerge from feminist interventions in international law, as does theoretical engagement with queer and nonbinary perspectives. Scholars have also increasingly engaged in feminist introspection, scrutinizing whether feminist methodologies provide an effective analytical tool to examine international law.

General Overviews and Bibliographies

Charlesworth and Chinkin 2000 is a seminal volume that defined the field; it comprehensively applied a feminist lens to international law’s rules, systems, and institutional structures. While several edited volumes engage with feminist approaches to international law, the majority do not apply a systematic feminist analysis to the entire breadth and ambit of international law. For example, Buss and Manji 2005 explores the scope of the field, situating the edited volume’s analyses in economic, political, and social change globally. Significantly, the edited collection Kouvo and Pearson 2011 seeks to capture the complexity of feminist engagement with international law, recognizing the tensions stemming from feminist activists’ and theorists’ oscillation between compliance and resistance with international law’s rules and institutions. These tensions are drawn out extensively by Heathcote 2019, a groundbreaking single-authored research monograph exploring the productive tensions that arise through feminist “dialogues” within international law. More recent edited volumes, such as Harris Rimmer and Ogg 2019, recognize the expansion of feminist theorizing to previously underexplored areas of international law, and encourage the broader application of feminist perspectives to areas perceived to be “hard” international law, such as trade law, that have traditionally proved resistant to feminist analysis. Hodson and Lavers 2019, an edited volume on the Feminist Judgments in International Law project, gives insight into how feminist perspectives may be applied to international law cases, providing insight into the feminist project’s transformative potential as well as any potential limitations. Together, these edited volumes provide rich insight into the scope of the field, raising significant questions for feminist methodologies and critique as well as future directions for research. In addition to these sources, an earlier annotated bibliography, Otto 2012, provides a comprehensive overview of scholarly articles, chapters, and edited volumes engaging feminist approaches to international law.

  • Buss, Doris, and Ambreena Manji, eds. International Law: Modern Feminist Approaches. Oxford and Portland, OR: Hart, 2005.

    This edited volume reflects on the scope of feminist approaches to international law while considering international law’s possibilities in the light of global change. Draws on a diverse range of feminist analyses, which engage with several subfields, including international environmental law, international economic law, and sexual violence and restorative justice. The contributions to the volume also focus a lens on international law’s institutions and their engagement with gender.

  • Charlesworth, Hilary, and Christine Chinkin. The Boundaries of International Law: A Feminist Analysis. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

    This seminal volume explores the implications of women’s absence in international law and its jurisprudence. Adopting a critical feminist perspective, the authors examine traditional international legal doctrine, including state sovereignty and state responsibility, human rights, the use of force, and self-determination. The authors call the objectivity of international law and its gendered hierarchy into question, encouraging a redrawing of international law’s boundaries to challenge the dichotomies that emerge.

  • Harris Rimmer, Susan, and Kate Ogg, eds. Handbook on Feminist Engagement with International Law. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2019.

    This edited volume explores how feminist perspectives have influenced international law (IL) and considers the issue of regression. Recognizes the need to engage with Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), queer and other critiques, and calls for feminist intervention in diverse areas perceived to be “hard” IL such as trade law. Chapters expand on feminist critique and analysis to developing areas of IL, including climate change and disaster law.

  • Heathcote, Gina. Feminist Dialogues on International Law: Successes, Tensions, Futures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199685103.001.0001

    This single-authored research monograph engages in an analysis of feminist methodologies in international law. The author seeks to interrogate how second-wave, Western feminist perspectives have been mainstreamed within international law at the expense of other non-Western perspectives, which remain on the periphery. The author recognizes the importance of engaging with tensions that emerge through feminist activist and critical scholarly “dialogues” to fully appreciate “feminist success stories.”

  • Hodson, Loveday, and Troy Lavers, eds. Feminist Judgements in International Law. Oxford: Hart, 2019.

    Drawing inspiration from feminist judgments as an emerging legal methodology, this volume pioneers the application of feminist perspectives to the rewriting of judgments in the international law arena. Through this collaborative practice of rewriting case law on themes such as state responsibility, the volume seeks to interrogate the transformative potential of feminist law perspectives, and whether the outcome of the judgments would have differed with the application of a feminist lens.

  • Kouvo, Sari, and Zoe Pearson, eds. Feminist Perspectives on Contemporary International Law: Between Resistance and Compliance? Onati International Series in Law and Society. Oxford: Hart, 2011.

    This edited volume explores how feminist positioning in international law is often situated between resistance and compliance. Drawing on a broad body of feminist scholarship, the book is organized around three themes: engaging feminist theory and method, international and national security, and local and global justice.

  • Otto, Dianne. “Feminist Approaches to International Law.” In Oxford Bibliographies in International Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    This annotated bibliography by seminal international law scholar Dianne Otto provides a comprehensive overview of scholarly works examining feminist approaches to international law, surveying its earliest foundations through to evolving topics of consideration that arose during the early 2010s. Several topics of interest are identified covering the entire breadth and ambit of international law.

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