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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

A Feminist Critique of Realism and Liberalism

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

By the 1960s, women in western countries had won civil and political rights including the right to vote and right to own property unlike their counterparts in India, for example. However, they continued to face the brunt of systematic disadvantages in terms of access to political and economic opportunities and prosperity. It was around this time that the feminist movement in the disciplines of political science and international relations had a strong revival. Within international relations, extensive feminist scholarship attempted to explain how political institutions and structures helped perpetuate and sustain women’s oppression.

Feminist International Relations

Pioneers such as Cynthia Enloe (1990) introduced gender as an empirical category and analytical tool to understand global power relations. Sandra Whitworth proposed that international relations remains a preserve of ‘male-stream’ realist thinkers since gender is largely absent from the field. [1] Feminist IR argues that mainstream paradigms like realism and liberalism (including neorealism and liberal institutionalism) provide only an incomplete understanding of international politics as gender relations are ignored and even if paid heed to, they are often essentialist assumptions and articulations.

Feminist writers such as Ann Tickner (1988) have criticized the conventional dichotomies espoused in realism and liberalism, concerning binaries such objectivity and subjectivity; public and private life and the national and international. Tickner has noted how the former sphere in each of these dichotomies is ascribed a higher value because they represent ‘masculinity’ while the latter are judged to be more feminine and therefore, inferior. Analysing such gendered socially constructed language gives us insight into how concepts such as state, power, and security – which are all building blocks of liberalism and realism – are heavily gendered. [2]


Influential philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on whose works classical realism and liberalism are built upon, considered the state to be a heavily masculine and patriarchal. The state was envisioned as a strong paternal entity that protects its citizens from the anarchy of the state of nature. Feminist theorists have contended that this view of the state completely disregards the contribution of women as mothers and wives, particularly in the informal economy, to the survival of the state. Women are also seen as helpless and in the protection of male citizens or soldiers, who are seen as the extension of the state. [2]

Feminist analyses of the state have centered around rebuttals of the state as a masculine entity. For example, Jennifer Heeg Maruska (2010) defined hypermasculinity as “extreme behavior within gender roles brought about by a reaction to some internal or external threat”. Examples of this phenomenon can be seen throughout US history such as the period following the 9/11 attacks, when the US increased military occupation in the Middle-East. [3] Feminists also disagree with the realism’s heavy emphasis on the state as the key actor in international politics which sidelines the role of the individual, non-state actors and transnational actors. Jill Steans (1998) argued for the need to ‘move beyond the territorial and conceptual boundaries of state and nation’ by focusing on ‘issues of gender and identity in a global perspective’. [4]


Insights into the gendered nature of the state can help explain how realism and liberalism understands power. Traditional IR reckons that power is the ability of one state to get another state to do something it may not otherwise do (Keohane 1989). This often leads to states building up their military capacity to coerce or influence other states. Ann Tickner’s analysis of Morgenthau’s principles of realism led her to assert that the definition of power is distinctly masculine based on universal and rational politics and inconsiderate of feminine notions of the personal and private. [2] Feminist IR theorists also show a distinction between “power over” and “power with”, showing how power can be a collaborative benefit rather than just a way to dominate. [2]

Realists consider power primarily in terms of military might and state security while liberals place emphasis on institutions. Feminists, once again, contend that this concentration of power at the state level omits the other areas where power lies. Enloe contends that these incorrect assumptions make traditional theories unable to explain certain shifts in international relations as they presume “that margins stay marginal, the silent stay voiceless, and ladders are never turned upside down”. (Enloe, 2004)


According to realist theory, states seek to maximize security through a balance of power between states, primarily through military might and resorting to war at the extreme. From the outset, feminists argue that the overemphasis on state security leads to gender being excluded as a point of analysis and could lead to policies being exclusive of and detrimental to women. [5] Feminist arguments point out how war disproportionately and adversely affects women and debunks the notion that the state is the source of security for its people. For decades, feminists such as Tickner (1997) have argued that security should not just be understood in terms of defending a state from external threats but rather, it should be all-encompassing and multifaceted to include physical, structural, ecological, gender-based, sexual and systemic forms of violence. [2]

By asking critical questions surrounding the state, power and security, feminists aim to expose how realism and liberalism, with their tools of war, militarism and patriarchal institutions, leave no room for achieving gender equality, let alone considering gender as an empirical category in theory and practice. Therefore, feminist IR theory attempts to dismantle the inherent and underlying normative biases in mainstream theories by introducing a gender lens of analysis. If it can move away from the margins of the discipline and into the center, feminist IR has the ability to be a truly transformative and empowering framework.


1. Whitworth S. (1994), Gender in International Relations Theory, in Feminism and International Relations, accessed at:

2. A. Buskie, (2013, March 17), How Significant is Feminism’s Contribution to IR?, E-IR,

3. S. Parashar, J.A Tickner and J. True, (2018), Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations

4. J. Kantolla, (2007), The Gendered Reproduction of the State in International Relations, Political Studies Association, accessed at:

5. T. Ruiz, Feminist Theory and International Relations: The Feminist Challenge to Realism and Liberalism

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