In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Feminist Approaches to International Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews: Anthologies and Treatises
  • International Humanitarian Law (Jus In Bello)
  • International Refugee Law, Female Migration, and Trafficking
  • International Labor Law
  • International Economic/Trade Law
  • International Environmental Law

International Law Feminist Approaches to International Law
Dianne Otto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0055


Feminist perspectives have informed the development of international law at least since the early 20th century, when women’s international peace organizations supported the development of international law and international institutions in the hope that they would provide a means to resolve international disputes peacefully. These and other early feminist efforts bore some fruit, notably with provision for greater protections for civilians in the context of armed conflict, the adoption of antitrafficking treaties, and International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions concerned with women’s conditions of employment. However, this engagement with international law was largely uncritical. International law was understood as a hopeful site for feminist engagement; as providing a means for the improvement of women’s lives as well as enabling a permanent peace. By the mid-1980s, more critical feminist approaches were emerging as it was becoming clear that the law was largely impervious to feminist concerns, with women’s issues marginalized by specialist institutions and instruments, and women still being treated protectively rather than as full rights-bearing subjects of the law. It is at this point that the following bibliography commences, with the emergence of feminist structural and postcolonial critiques of international law, which examined its normative and institutional structures, finding them deeply committed to masculinist and imperial power and therefore in need of significant reconstruction. Feminist approaches to international law have always fallen under a very broad umbrella, resulting in dynamic engagements with the law and its fraternity, as well as passionate internal critique and self-reflection. Feminism’s basic commitment can be described as the struggle to realize women’s equality, but the reality is that multiple strands of feminism have been used to inform international legal theories and practices, and women’s “equality” is considered by some to be an inadequate aspiration. Postcolonial and critical race feminisms have a particularly significant role to play in a field of law that grew from European as well as patriarchal origins. And more recently, the challenge to fully denaturalize “gender” and treat it as an entirely social category has highlighted the importance of questioning the received male/female duality and examining the new possibilities that more fluid conceptions of gender and sexuality open for analyzing the law’s enduring exclusionary effects. Feminist engagements with international law have fostered a vast and diverse literature—marked by both hopefulness and despair, by creative advocacy as well as deepening critique—which touches on every branch or subdiscipline of international law.

General Overviews: Anthologies and Treatises

Edited collections have played a catalytic role in fostering feminist scholarship in international law, encouraging fruitful collaborations and providing a means to represent the breadth of feminist perspectives. Those providing a general overview typically bring together both theory and practice in a number of fields of law, drawing attention to the often harsh realities of women’s everyday lives and the failure of the law to address them (Dallmeyer 1993, Wing 2000, Buss and Manji 2005, Kouvo and Pearson 2011). There are as yet few general theses that provide a comprehensive feminist reading of the core elements of the discipline, the notable exception being the pioneering analysis of Charlesworth and Chinkin 2000. Other literature that provides a “general overview” of international law, including textbooks, has been slow to integrate feminist approaches. There are, as yet, few examples of mainstream scholarly engagement with feminist issues, although there are some thoughtful reflections by way of book reviews (Koskenniemi 1995, Alvarez 2001) and an early response from a Kantian perspective (Tesón 1992–1993). Many of the subdisciplinary fields of international law also boast groundbreaking feminist treatises and edited collections. These works are included in this bibliography when the literature in their subdisciplines is discussed. See particularly The Use of Force, International Humanitarian Law, International Criminal Law, and International Human Rights Law.

  • Alvarez, Jose E. “Book Review: The Boundaries of International Law: A Feminist Analysis.” American Journal of International Law 95 (2001): 459–464.

    DOI: 10.2307/2661427

    Welcoming this volume as the summing up of a decade of pathbreaking feminist scholarship in international law, the author highlights some significant gaps, notably engagement with the issues of economic globalization and religious fundamentalism, while nevertheless acknowledging that it offers many springboards for new insights and the further development of feminist analysis.

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

    This collection provides a “snapshot” of the breadth of contemporary feminist engagement with international law, drawing together a range of feminist theoretical perspectives and analyses from a number of subdisciplines. Contributors explore the limits and the possibilities of this engagement in changing global circumstances.

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

    The authors urge a rethinking of the boundaries of international law, which have been shaped, conceptually and substantively, by men and male perspectives, reproducing hierarchies based on gendered assumptions. They subject the major topics of international law textbooks to feminist analysis, providing a compelling critical analysis of traditional legal doctrine.

  • Dallmeyer, Dorinda G., ed. Reconceiving Reality: Women and International Law. Studies in Transnational Legal Policy No. 25. Washington, DC: The American Society of International Law, 1993.

    The first collection of critical feminist scholarship in international law showcases the variety of issues that inspired the emergence of critical feminist perspectives, including the marginalization of women and women’s concerns in the discipline, the lack of state responsibility for the conduct of private actors, and the gendered effects of the laws of armed conflict.

  • Koskenniemi, Martti. “Book Review: Dallmeyer, Dorinda G. (ed.). Reconceiving Reality: Women and International Law.” American Journal of International Law 89 (1995): 227–230.

    The author remarks upon the tensions between reformism and the total reimagination of international law, which emerge from this pioneering collection. Torn between viewing this as inconsistency or theoretical sophistication, and discomforted by the emphasis on personal experience, he ultimately defends the importance of law’s capacity to create a distance from immediate fears and hopes, even if it is partial and formal.

  • 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.

    The tensions inherent in feminist engagement with international law, treating it as a means of changing women’s lives while also arguing that it is a discipline in need of reconstruction, animates this collection, which is organized around three contemporary themes: developments in theory and method, national and international security, and global and local justice.

  • Tesón, Fernando R. “Feminism and International Law: A Reply.” Virginia Journal of International Law 33 (1992–1993): 647–684.

    From the perspective of his Kantian theory of international law, the author criticizes the conflation of liberal and radical feminism in feminist critiques of international law, arguing that while liberal feminism has important things to say about international law, radical feminism is fundamentally inconsistent with a view of international law founded on individual human dignity, autonomy, and rights.

  • Wing, Adrien Katherine, ed. Global Critical Race Feminism: An International Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

    This anthology brings together feminist perspectives on laws that are concerned with the complex relationships between feminist, antiracist, and postcolonial struggles. While most contributors are United States based and many are concerned with the treatment of women of color by domestic legal systems, the theoretical and practical dilemmas discussed are also pertinent to international law.

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