Review of ‘Worlding Women: A Feminist International Politics’ by Jan Jindy Pettman

Reviewed by Ann Curthoys

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Jan Pettman’s Living in the Margins: Racism, Sexism and Feminism in Australia (Allen and Unwin 1992) was a valuable book, summarising and explaining the state of debates within feminist theorising and scholarship on the relationship between race and gender, racism and sexism. It has been quoted extensively in subsequent debate, and used frequently in teaching. Her new book, Worlding Women: a Feminist International Politics , (Allen and Unwin 1994) promises to have a similar impact, for it is a very similar kind of book; both a critique of the existing discipline of International Relations, which she describes and evokes as profoundly masculinist, and an attempt to synthesise the work of recent feminist scholarship aiming to provide a more gender-conscious alternative.

Pettman interprets the field far beyond the confines of traditional IR, drawing together debates on colonisation and postcolonialism, immigration and multiculturalism, war and peace, and international political economy, with an emphasis on the international trade in women’s labour, including their sexual labour. The result is to attempt a redefinition of what ‘international’ might precisely mean today, especially in relation to the female body.

While covering a vast and somewhat disparate literature, the book also draws out some common themes. One of those themes is the critique of IR itself, which was established, Pettman explains, as a distinct discipline in 1919, after the First World War to investigate “the causes of war and the conditions for peace”. Economic analysis was admitted much later, in the wake of the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Further shocks came with the rapid international changes of the last ten years, especially the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent intensification of the paradox of globalisation alongside localised conflict. As if all that wasn’t enough, along came the feminists, deconstructing the discipline from within, noting its avoidance of the highly gendered and sexualised nature of international contacts and relations of all kinds.

Another theme is the importance and yet permeability of ‘the state’. Worlding Women summarises feminist scholarship on ‘the state’ as a site for gendered relations, noting that it “is in almost all cases male dominated, and is in different ways a masculinist construct” (p.5). Pettman notes the remarkable similarities between states in the ways they construe women as mothers, and motherhood as a political matter, deserving of state attention.

She takes the reader through some fairly well known territory, including Carole Pateman’s work on the ways in which liberal theory establishes the rights of men over women, the differences between liberal, socialist and radical feminist understandings of the state: liberals emphasise its importance as a tool for feminist action, appropriating liberal universalist rhetoric to reveal inequalities and the protection of particular interests and rights in the democratic state; socialists reveal ambivalence; and radical feminists are hostile to state intrusion into women’s lives as individuals. There are some ambitious generalisations, about the implications of the Soviet and Eastern European communist collapse for women, and the increasing centralisation and bureaucratisation of life in third-world states since independence.

Another of Pettman’s chapters focuses on a gendered analysis of colonisation, especially on the complex and ambiguous ways white women are placed in the colonial project, and accounted for in colonial histories and analyses. They may be entirely absent, or seen as representing the arrival of ‘civilisation’, or alternatively as “ideal, pampered, petty, parasitic upon empire and tended by servants who are mistreated, spending time and energy only on gossip, complaint and concerns with status and display” (pp. 27-8).

Recent feminist scholarship has noted the ways in which white women benefited from colonisation, their sexual subordination being somewhat compensated for by their racial privilege in the colonial context. Pettman registers the impact of black feminist scholarship in particular, which emphasises how different have been the experiences of colonised/black women from those of colonising/white women in the spheres of family, sexuality, work, and political power.

In tackling the lively and seemingly endless field of gender and nationalism, Pettman manages to note both the immense variety of different national movements and yet some common features in the ways they call on gendered ideas and imagery. National discourses frequently rely on the language of family – “motherland, kin, blood, home” (p. 49) – in which the nation is gendered female and its members in a form of kinship relationship with one another. A sharp distinction is drawn here between dominant nationalism, including settler-state nationalisms like that in Australia, which identifies itself against both mother country and the indigenous people, and anti-colonial nationalism, which asserts an authentic culture against the intrusive west.

In this assertion of the local anti-colonialist culture, the position of women is often hotly contested, taken as a symbol of the true pre-western culture. In both kinds of nationalism, dominant and anti-colonial, women are both actors and acted upon, experiencing nationalist aims and movements themselves, yet frequently spoken for and about by men.

Closer to traditional IR territory. Pettman considers Kenneth Waltz’s classic IT text, Man, the State and War (1959), which offered different kinds of explanation for war – namely, the nature of man, the nature of the state, or the nature of the international system itself. She sets out to refocus these debates in a feminist framework, turning, for example, the older IR question: is man naturally aggressive? – into a feminist question: are men naturally aggressive? And she notes that appeals to women as mothers in the context of debates about war and peace seem to be universally effective, mobilised by both left and right, and by both supporters and opponents of a particular war.

But the most impressive discussion here is about rape in war, reminding us both how long-standing is its use ( by Japan and Germany in World War II, by occupying Russian troops in Germany at the end of World War II, by Pakistani soldiers of Bangladeshi women), and the recent widespread use of rape and other forms of sexual assault in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As Pettman puts it: “There is an ominous repetition in the stories of war rape and sexual torture internationally. The same techniques and scenarios recur, from Mozambique to El Salvador to the Philippines” (p. 102). In the modern world, she argues, rape and sexual torture have become significant strategies for establishing power and domination.

Yet Pettman is keen not to portray women simply as victims. She considers women’s role historically and internationally in movements for peace, noting the ways in which the issue of peace tends to exacerbate differences between feminists. Where some feminists see women as innately more peaceable than men, others reject this and argue instead for equal rights between men and women in the military. Others still both oppose a notion of women’s predisposition to peace, and at the same time oppose militarism, and therefore women’s involvement in it. The debate about women in combat has, as much as anything else, highlighted the continuing split within feminism between a desire for gender equality, and desire for respecting gender difference. Pettman, typically, concentrates on describing debates more than intervening in them, but does oppose the notion of women as necessarily more peaceable than men.

Surveys of a field of this kind are typically both ambitious and reticent at the same time – ambitious in taking on so many difficult issues and explaining them clearly to a broad audience, yet reticent in having, much of the time, to content themselves with presenting the various sides of a debate without very strongly offering the author’s views. Worlding Women is a classic in the genre. The scope could scarcely be broader, or the balance between generalisation and qualification more consistently maintained. Of necessity, it more often asks questions than answers them, its even-handedness somewhat exhausting at times. A quintessential sentence occurs on page 209: “Violence against women appears to be a universal characteristic of patriarchy, although its form, extent and intensity vary.”

This book is a truly useful guide to a vast and ongoing literature, a must for both feminist and IR scholars.


Ann Curthoys is Professor of History at the Australian National University

Worlding Women is published by Allen & Unwin

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