• The Gender Security Project

Exploring Sovereignty through a Feminist Lens

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Image Credits: Jackie Fawn Illustrations / Seeding Sovereignty (Link)

In international relations theory, the principle of sovereignty implies that the state is the supreme political authority within its territorial boundaries. Internal sovereignty refers to the ultimate authority of the state to make and enact laws within its territorial boundaries because of its relationship with people in the territory and consent-based governance. External sovereignty grants international recognition to a state and gives rise to the principle of non-intervention from other states. Sovereignty encompasses the social, political and economic rules and practices that constitute and give legitimacy to a state.

The idea of state sovereignty is at a crossroads in current times. On the one hand, the international nature of the world’s most pressing issues from climate change to refugee crises, warrant solutions and policy responses that are beyond the authority of a single state. Additionally, the growth of international governmental organisations and institutions such as the United Nations or European Union as well as the strengthening of non-state actors in regimes such as trade, security and environment has led to states pooling their sovereignty and making collective decisions. On the other hand, increasing nationalist rhetoric, Brexit and the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have reinforced territoriality and the power of state governments. In light of these contemporary dynamics, it is a good time to examine the origins of sovereignty, particularly the gendered conceptions and also look at some feminist alternatives.

Gendered and Patriarchal Conceptions of Sovereignty

The notion of sovereignty has its origins in Thomas Hobbes’ (17th century) idea of the state of nature and the need for ‘sovereign authority’ to rescue mankind from suffering in this brutal state and Jean Bodin’s (16th century) definition of sovereignty as a form of centralised, monopolised and legitimised power in the hands of those who governed. The dogmatic state-centric theories in international relations, such as realism and liberalism, are built on the foundations of theories by such philosophers and consider sovereignty to be a central tenet of an international order populated by states and nation-states. Since these mainstream theories personify the state as an ‘actor’, the ideal state is given humanistic and ‘masculine’ characteristics such as rational, utility-maximising, aggressive and self-reliant. In Johanna Kantola’s words, “states support a certain gender order to uphold their authority, a key aspect of sovereignty”.

In realism and liberalism, the conflation of the state and sovereignty leads to the exclusion of the domestic domain (and all of its problems), focusing primarily on external relations. Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s considerations of human nature, particularly the idea that men are the only gender capable of reason in political life, play a role here and as a result, masculine ideals are idealised. This way, the public-private dichotomy is enforced and since women are rendered to the private/personal spheres of housework and reproduction, they are regarded as non-sovereign beings or unimportant actors in international relations. In other words, men are associated with the public and political spheres and women are associated with the private sphere. Since sovereignty is given value in its operationalisation within and between states, the latter tends to exclude those who do not fit into the cis-het man category, as they are unsuitable for political life. Furthermore, because of this dichotomy, mainstream international relations become overly dependent on the ‘masculine’ spheres of war and territory – straying far away from the domestic sphere of families and reproduction. Feminist theories have decried these rigid binaries as untenable and theorists such as Cynthia Enloe and Jill Steans have championed the idea that the ‘personal is political’ and the ‘private is global’.

Feminist international relations theory has analysed the ways in which gender is central in the construction of sovereignty. Feminists critique the state on the grounds that this embodiment of masculinity colours the actions of all sovereign states, as they become masculine by nature. Building on Gerda Lerner’s Creation of Patriarchy (1986), Hoffman proposes that patriarchy is a creation of the state and that state sovereignty is gendered because of the assumption that leadership (“the sovereign”) is “monolithic, hierarchical and violent”. By valorising power as concentrated with the few, the state becomes an embodiment of masculinity and views power solely in negative terms – as domination and repression. Instead, power should be seen as non-absolute and sovereignty should be equated with autonomy and independence. Therefore, for Hoffman, since the state is intertwined with male domination and patriarchy, “a sovereignty that respects and empowers women, is a sovereignty beyond the state”. It is difficult to imagine sovereignty to be disentangled with the state, especially because it would mean letting go of everything we know and hold to be the grundnorm - since the end of the second world war, no state has ever relinquished its sovereignty and the post-cold war world has only seen an increase in the number of officially recognised sovereign states.

Positing the state as the referent object and key identity category in international relations results in the exclusion of other identity attributes such as gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class, thus ignoring intersectionality. In other words, the homogenisation of political identities within states discounts the diversity and differences that exist among the politic. Moreover, current conceptions of sovereignty, in that they're tied exclusively to the state, are inadequate at best because the state represents and makes laws even for people that it oppresses and marginalises. As John Hoffman (2001) perfectly summarised, “if we see sovereignty as autonomy, freedom and emancipation, then the state is a barrier to sovereignty, despite the fact that we frequently speak of ‘state sovereignty’ as though sovereignty was an intrinsically state concept”. In this context, theorists such as Jill Steans and Judith Allen criticise the idea that citizens identify first and foremost with the state, and advocate for the study of other sites such as the household and civil society, as well as other actors such as individuals and social movements, in the study of sovereignty.

Feminist Conceptions of Sovereignty

Feminist critiques of sovereignty would argue that it is an outmoded way of defining and understanding contemporary international relations. In terms of the relationship between power and agency, as John Hoffman states, “sovereignty seems necessarily and inevitably infused with notions of repression, command and a monolithic concept of unity”. Feminist conceptions of sovereignty would move beyond the implication of sovereignty as domination, towards sovereignty as the right to individual agency and prosperity. In this context, Miriam Ronzoni differentiates between positive and negative sovereignty (Westphalian sovereignty). While the latter indicates the “immunity from external interference”, the former refers to the ability “to provide fundamental political goods (such as welfare, security, and the rule of law) to their own citizens”. Looking at sovereignty from this empirical view, rather than a normative view, views the concept as more than just an entitlement but as a way of self-governance that does not discriminate.

As with most other feminist conceptions of development, policy and politics, a feminist conception of sovereignty would be bottom-up, rather than top-down. It would start with the premise of individual and community-level sovereignty, positive sovereignty is more likely and more efficiently attained in these settings. A perfect example of such communities are the women-only villages such as Jinwar (Syria), Umoja (Kenya) and Tumai (Kenya) which are self-sustained communities. Even though these villages exist within the structures of a state, they all bear the hallmarks of feminist sovereignty – positive sovereignty, respect and non-interference from external actors, inclusivity, individual agency, autonomy and empowerment, as well as the capacity to self-govern in a non-discriminatory and bottom-up manner.

No discussion on alternative conceptions of sovereignty is complete without exploring indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. Modern-state building and the pursuit of sovereignty have historically pillaged and destroyed indigenous communities, their homes and forced them to assimilate into Westphalian state structures. Today, many indigenous nations/communities reject Westphalian sovereignty and refuse the law and order of the settler colonial states that have usurped their land and way of life. For instance, Rauna Kuokkanen has argued that the Ellos Deatnu (Long Live Deatnu), an indigenous intersectional feminist movement of the Sámi people from north Scandinavia, have endeavoured to become post-state by reverting to forgotten and erased practices of self-government. They have done this by reclaiming local, traditional and kinship-based governance practices, spiritual leadership, gift economies and relationship-building with the land. Rauna suggests that the practice of indigenous feminist sovereignty not only chips away at patriarchal, colonial, violent and structural violence of settler-states but also provides a model of emancipatory nationhood.


1. J. Kantola, (2007), The Gendered Reproduction of the State in International Relations, Political Studies Association, https://blogs.tuni.fi/uploads/2018/03/9ca23b3c-bjpir-gendered-reproduction-of-the-state.pdf

2. A. Gilleir and A. Defurne, (2020) STRATEGIC IMAGINATIONS, Women and the Gender of Sovereignty in European Culture

3. L. Veneracion-Rallonza, (2004) Women and the Post-Sovereign State: A Feminist Analytic of the State in the Age of Globalization

4. J. Hoffman, (2001), Gender and Sovereignty, Feminism, the State and International Relations

5. M. Ronzoni, Two Conceptions of State Sovereignty and Their Implications For Global Institutional Design, https://ecpr.eu/filestore/paperproposal/4ecd5722-de86-403f-ada9-a89c675765b7.pdf

6. R. Kuokkanen, (2021), Ellos Deatnu and post-state Indigenous feminist sovereignty in Routledge Handbook of Critical Indigenous Studies

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