Online Program Enrolling Now - Seton Hall - United Nations Institute for Training and Research
Online Program Enrolling Now - Seton Hall - United Nations Institute for Training and Research

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What, Exactly, Is a Feminist Foreign Policy? A New Website Explores the Subject


Ushers attend the meeting of the government consulting body Economic, Social and Cultural Council at the Palais de Congres in Niamey, Niger, September 16, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY)
Ushers attend a meeting of a government consulting body at the Congress Palace Convention Center in Niamey, Niger, September 2013. JOE PENNEY/REUTERS

Two young women in London are taking on what they call the elitist nature of foreign policy and turning it toward a more feminist approach that could play out in many different pathways, said Marissa Conway, a founder of a new blog, Feminist Foreign Policy, in a phone call recently.

“We want to provide a platform for various discussions about what a feminist foreign policy might actually be, but not necessarily be an authoritative voice but invite discussion,” Conway, 27, said in the call.

Dina Hussein, 28, is Conway’s partner in the venture, which so far consists of a bare-bones website in which they plan to publish essays and articles on what people around the world think a feminist foreign policy could look like and become realistically. The women have no formal financial backing yet.

Conway is an American from Palo Alto, Calif., who recently obtained a master’s degree in gender studies from SOAS University of London. Hussein, who is Egyptian, has just obtained a master’s degree in law from SOAS.

Having finished their studies, the women felt “compelled to continue the line of inquiry we were developing during our master’s degree” programs, Conway said. So, after a fateful cup of coffee and discussion on gender and foreign policy, “we decided to pursue the idea of developing this feminist foreign policy.”

Their inspiration has come mainly from American feminist thinkers and the first foreign minister to publicly declare her government was following a “feminist foreign policy” line, Margot Wallstrom of Sweden. She was also the first UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict from 2010 to 2012.

“The phrase ‘feminist foreign policy’ got caught in my mind, based on what Sweden is doing,” Conway said. But academic feminists have equally invigorated her thoughts on how international relations and foreign policy could espouse gender parity around the world.

Conway cited Cynthia Enloe, a renowned feminist writer and a political science professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., “who has provided a large source of the theoretical approach that I’m using in talking about ideas” on the website, Conway said.

Another creative source is Carol Cohn, a scholar in global politics and armed conflict who is the founding director of the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Cohn has written about the masculine culture around the use of weapons of mass destruction, among other related topics. Conway wrote her own dissertation around that subject, she said.

Wallstrom may be the most visible face of a working feminist foreign policy at the foreign ministry level, and at this point she seems to be the only woman in the world in her position pushing demonstrably for a gender-equality approach in foreign affairs, including a country’s human-rights record and calling for an end to sexual violence against women in conflicts.

The notion of a feminist foreign policy has a long history bound up in women’s peace and rights movements that have been working hard, often with shoestring budgets and much resistance from powerful countries and parties, to bring recognition and positive government policy results for women.

These groups include the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy Program, the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Center for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics.

Hillary Clinton, when she was US secretary of state, invested enormous energy pushing the centrality of women as a core feature in American foreign policy, and before that she was always pressing the agenda at UN conferences in the 1990s.

Wallstrom took up the agenda in Sweden in 2014, when she became foreign minister, generating attention among governments and policy, academic and mainstream cultures, even though her strategy was unclear. Her strong position on mainstreaming gender equality in foreign policy hit a wall after a blunder arose with her and Saudi Arabia in 2015. After she criticized the Saudis’ human-rights record, such as their restrictions on women, Wallstrom incited a diplomatic disturbance that led to the Saudis’ recalling their ambassador in Stockholm and stoked anxiety in Swedish industry when the government canceled a Saudi security deal, reportedly forgoing arms sales worth millions.

The Swedes said this year that they did not experience any economic effects from the cancellation and that relations were good with the Saudis. Yet since the diplomatic tensions in 2015, Wallstrom’s push for a feminist perspective in foreign policy has receded, although Sweden could revive the agenda more fully when it sits as an elected member on the United Nations Security Council in January for two years.

Conway thought that it was interesting to see how Sweden’s feminist policy has played out internationally, a topic that she thinks should be a normal course of discussion and not an exception, even though it is a difficult topic for many governments to tackle and carry out.

The new Feminist Foreign Policy site will create space for such discussions, Conway envisions, with gender the “uniting principle.”

She added, “We’re challenging assumptions about how international relations need to operate” and questioning power in the hierarchy of global order, “trying to understand who has it, who doesn’t and why.”

Realistically, that could mean a shift in how marginalized voices are heard; or as Conway said, taking “the elite from foreign policy and include voices that haven’t been included before.”

As her website notes: “At FFP, we recognize that there are a multitude of opinions, thoughts, and ideas about both feminism and foreign policy, and we celebrate challenging yet respectful conversations that aim to disrupt the global injustices of today. We emphasize the following core values to guide conversations: Question assumptions, challenge existing power structures, understand how identity shapes policy; decipher systemic bias.”

The first topic under discussion, she said, might be this year’s selection of yet another man to become the next UN secretary-general, combined with the UN’s controversial choice of Wonder Woman to emblemize the power of women and girls.

That move set off a negative international reaction that rallied staff members in the UN to start an online petition asking Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general, to reconsider Wonder Woman as a UN representative for half the world’s population. The petition, which was first reported by PassBlue on its Twitter page, and was accompanied by a silent protest at the UN by dozens of staff members, has reached almost 29,000 signatures. UN officials, though, have not given up on Wonder Woman.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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What, Exactly, Is a Feminist Foreign Policy? A New Website Explores the Subject
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