Thursday, May 04, 2006


Taking Feminist Theology as an IR major

What does feminism have to do with international relations? Yesterday I got in a conversation with some people in the building I live in about IR curriculum reform at Tufts. They questioned my statement that feminism is a paradigm within international relations and a discipline on it’s own.

We argued a little about independent variables and positive verses normative analysis. My non-feminist friends told me that feminism couldn’t be a discipline because it is a form of activism and, furthermore, there was no independent variable other than feminism itself. I suggested gender/equality was the independent variable, but here is an example of a foreign policy issue in which both gender and sex are independent variables.

The Pope is making headlines for requesting a document to be written about the feasibility of using condoms during marital sex in one partner has AIDS. (if you don’t think this has anything to do with IR, read this from the Council on ForeignRelations.) Something to consider is The Catholic Church, is one of the largest organizations that does work in Africa related to AIDS, and condoms--the only way to prevent transmission of HIV during sex—are forbidden.

How is feminist analysis helpful in this issue?

Firstly, we can take a look at why the Pope hates condoms. The anti-sexual attitude of the Judeo-Christian traditions is arguably tied to geopolitical issues. According to Merlin Stone, in the book “The Sacred Sexual Customs,” sexual regulation associated with knowledge of paternity were “propagated for purely political motives, aiming at goals that would allow the invading patrilineal Hebrews greater access to land and governmental control by destroying the ancient matrilineal system.” Essentially, penalties against raped women, infidelity and loss of virginity was a way to suppress the society that existed when the conquers came, a society that worshiped goddesses.

Secondly, feminists can also shed light on why preaching abstinence in Africa doesn’t work based on the gender inequalities and sexual practices there. Furthermore, Rape is used a tool of war, and AIDS becomes a security threat.

Finally, we can also look to a gendered analysis of the Pope’s choices to understand the interests of the Catholic Church, just as we can with state actors. Feminist analysis would try to understand the significance of the Church’s exclusion of women to their foreign policy.

This is just one example in the news today. We can study causal relationships between the ways states treat gender and sex and their policy decisions. Look at how often inequality of women in the Middle East is invoked as a reason for intervention. Gendered analysis may actually help us to understand that those are actually NOT the reasons that motivated US intervention, but rather other political concerns.

The point is, the variables of gender and sex are useful for understanding international politics and I can study it without burning any bras.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anna, it's a big (and incorrect) leap to assume that the Catholic leadership's opposition to condoms is based on Hebrew political tactics for preserving patrilineage. I think, rather, that the Hebrew tactics you mentioned exemplify a number of such practices the world over that are certainly not unique to the ancient Israelites. Men have a vested interest in holding women accountable for sexual morality, because men can spread their seed far and wide, and an egg is a cherished commodity. If there's no mechanism for showing that children are yours, you lose the ability to further your estate, your political power, the assets that will protect you in your old age, etc. Genetic studies of the male population in New York city indicate that as many as 30% of male residents are descendants of one Celtic warlord. Similarly astronomical estimates apply to Genghis Khan and his progeny. Thus the ability to spread one's seed, as well as the ability to connect oneself to it, has always been vital to men's pursuit of power.

Now, given that the majority of Christians do not disapprove of birth control, let's reexamine the Pope's opposition to it. Since he isn't trying to invade matrilineal societies, I think it's safe to assume that Hebrew conceptions of sexuality are only a vestige of tradition at this point. Tradition is powerful, but the Catholic church has strong doctrinal reasons for opposing birth control. The biblibal admonition found in Genesis to "be fruitful and multiply" is a major foundation of this doctrine. Additionally, Catholics believe that intentionally frustrating God's purpose for sex (procreation) is a violation of "natural law" (not your kind, Anna). The Catechism, the Church Fathers (as early as 2,000 years ago) and scriptural interpretation of coitus interruptus all comrpise the Pope's opposition to birth control.

So, while Hebrew practices may have had a minor influence on modern Catholic doctrine, it is more accurate to say that the Hebrew practices are based on the same biological principles as those that may explain the theology and doctrine of the church. Feminism does little to explain this, and goddesses do nothing. History, theology, and biology provide more compelling answers for why the church opposes birth control.


7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anna said...


I’m not saying that feminism explains everything. I’m saying you can’t explain everything without feminism. If you notice, you are actually agreeing with me by talking about sex as a determinant of male power. Feminism certainly takes biology, history and theology into account (considering I got that example from a history book about theology and women.) All academic disciplines have many subfields, and they do little to explain anything alone. Feminism is interdisciplinary—and it sort of picks up the slack where all the other disciplines ignore the “other” half of the population. Again, women have to do twice the work to earn half the credit.

9:04 PM  
Anonymous carl said...

Its interesting that people don't see feminism as being relevant to fields of study such as IR. Feminism acknowledges the pervasive gender inequality in the world and uses a cautious approach when analysing an issue or situation. Realizing that gender inequality is relative to whatever issue may be under the microscope is a realistic and probably accurate assesment of what is going on. I think people get the wrong idea when feminism is brought up, too much stigma attachted to the word. A shame considering how much it has to offer considering its realistic approach to current issues.

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a side note, what's this "theology" business? Theology is the study of God, or at least centers around some kind of religious question. There's nothing theological about feminism.


8:12 PM  
Blogger Tufts Feminist Alliance said...

to anon -
If you don't think there's anything theological about feminism, you can still probably agree that there is a lot of feminism in theology. Like --- why is god a "he" in all Christian, Hebrew, and Islamic texts and doctrine? That's one major feminist question. Does the figure of the Virgin Mary indirectly lead to the oppression of women? There's a more specific one. And I bet there are a lot of women out there, suffering under religious fanaticism, who would equate questions of theodicy with questions of gender. (Hmmm...why is my husband allowed to pour acid on my face if I talk? Because God says women are worthless!) In Christianity, after all, the official Vatican response to the question of theodicy lies in the gender division between Adam and Eve! (Theodicy is the study of suffering and evil, and in official Catholicism the advent of both of these things are blamed specifically upon a WOMAN). I agree with everything that's been said on this comment board about the DEEP relationship between religion and politics. Since religious beliefs are often formed by political necessity, and women's lives and interests are regulated by these political and religious debates...well I think that means that theology is just another one of the many disciplines that feminism ties into!

1:05 PM  

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