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The wrong turn (2): 'hegemonic masculinity'

Rosemary Bechler
23 October 2008

How has it come to this - this lack of any vocabulary about what feminist ambition ought to look like? I was particularly struck because I have just spent some weeks exploring the revelatory advances made by US feminist researchers in the last twenty years in the field of international relations (IR). These advances emerged in the wake of the 1970's, precisely at the point when equal rights activists realised that women could be brought from the periphery into the centre of leadership and decision-making without changing either or the relationship between them, and when they began to investigate how discrimination against women comes to be enmeshed in the economic, cultural and social structures of society.

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Women and WarOne fruit of this research was the discovery of a process of ‘gender dichotomisation' which throughout many centuries of western culture has pitted such social and cultural characteristics associated with masculinity, as power, autonomy, rationality, activity and public against their opposite, subordinated feminine characteristics - weakness, dependency/connection, emotionality, passivity, and private. In each case doubt is cast on the second term of the binary opposition for being lesser or a threat. The ascription of gender involves a highly complex system of mutually reinforcing stereotypes, supported by a whole range of social institutions and practises that in turn have profound effects on people's bodies and minds.

J.Ann Tickner's pioneering critique, predicated on gender dichotomisation and inequality, of the six principles of power politics in Hans Morgenthau's Politics Among Nations (1948), is generally regarded as a founding moment in the development of a critical perspective in IR studies. Published in 1988, her exploration began with a query about why women had been conspicuous only by their absence in the worlds of diplomacy and military and foreign policy-making. But Tickner concentrated her critique not on the interests and activities of these men in high office, but on a particular ideal of the male warrior espoused by western political theory from the Greeks to Machiavelli and Hobbes - ‘hegemonic masculinity' - which in its evolving versions continues to this day to be used to understand the behaviour of nation states.

The ‘hegemonic masculine' model privileges certain types of behaviours over others. Since its birth in early modern Europe, the western state system has constructed its encounters with ‘uncivilised' or dangerous others in ways that have justified expansion, conquest and a state of military preparedness. Characteristics such as self-help, autonomy, and power maximising that are prescribed by international relations ‘realists' as security-enhancing behaviour have come straight from the ‘hegemonic masculine' palette. But so too does the instrumentally competitive behaviour of states which results in power balancing, echoed in equilibrium theory and the market behaviour of rational economic man. States do indeed behave in these ways, Tickner pointed out, but they also engage in cooperation. Privileging a ‘masculinist' model delegitimates other ways of behaving as less ‘realistic'.

In the same period of state formation, another process of inclusion and exclusion, again characterised by ‘hegemonic masculinity', took place internally. This time, the construction of internal boundaries between the ‘public‘ and ‘private' realms of society excluded women from citizenship rights. Civil and political rights applied to the public sphere. What went on inside families was deemed to be a private matter beyond the reach of law. While men were socialised to identify with constructions of masculinity that emphasise autonomy, male superiority, fraternity, strength, public protector roles and ultimately the bearing of arms, ‘women, on the other hand, were taught to defer, as wives and daughters, to the protection and stronger will of men, while providing the private emotional, economic and social support systems for men's war activities.'

Tickner tracked ‘hegemonic masculinity' and its opposite, ‘subordinated femininities', through history to show how partial the realist account was, and to highlight the extent to which mainstream IR thinking relied on gender dichotomies, stereotypes and practises, while at the same time being completely oblivious to gender. If this was one of the last social sciences to be touched by a gender analysis, Tickner argued, it was because the field was ‘so thoroughly masculinized that the workings of these hierarchical gender relations [were] hidden.'

Not surprisingly, a vocabulary that propounded the defence at all costs of state sovereignty from foreign threat, flourished in the Cold War period. Neo-realists striving to build a truly detached, instrumental ‘science ‘of International Relations, borrowed methodologies from the natural sciences, statistics, and, particularly in national security studies, game theory. This privileged scientific objectivity, emotional distance and instrumentality over more feminine conceptions such as interdependence and power as mutual enablement.

But as the Cold War gave way to the rising importance of global interdependence, non-state actors, and cultural controversies over religious and ethnic identities, the relevance of the state as a rational actor with a unitary ‘national interest' has come increasingly under scrutiny. A broad debate mobilising constructivists, world order and critical theorists and postmodernists began to challenge the national security core of mainstream IR thinking.

Gender analysts argued that possible solutions to new threats - the recognition of the need for understanding of the ‘Other', dialogue and cooperation - were at odds with the power politics prescriptions of traditional international relations theory. What had been presented as a rational pursuit of interests in an objective reality, in fact rested on a historically and socially-constructed, gender-specific notion of autonomous agency and ‘power over'. This, they thought, was in danger of legitimising and sustaining anarchy in the international order as a self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘Gender dichotomisation' had moreover been deployed not only to denigrate femininity, but also ‘foreigners', ‘minorities' and various ‘subordinated masculinities'. They began to notice the ways that inequalities of race, sexuality and class compounded gender inequality. And to ask what the field of IR would look like were this not the case.

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