On “Women and the commentariat”: we’re here, we’re commenting, but are you listening?
I usually run my posts for G&L by Diana before posting them so she can help me make them better, but I read something that provoked such a strong reaction in me that I had to respond right away. (Forgive me, Diana)! Over at the Lowy Interpreter, Rodger Shanahan has written a post wondering why women are unwilling to write or talk publicly about international relations. At the end of this rather troubling post, Mr. Shanahan states that he “would welcome public comments from women who are unafraid to be published on the blog as to why women appear to be the forgotten sex when it comes to international relations commentary.” This proves to be rather a challenge, though, as the Interpreter has a policy against commentary, and when I sent my thoughts in an email, I got the following in return: “Your message can’t be delivered because delivery to this address is restricted.” Seeing no other avenues open to me to take Mr. Shanahan up on his offer of public comment, I am publishing my letter to him here, with the intention of demonstrating my personal willingness to engage in public commentary and the hope that Mr. Shanahan might see it.
Dear Mr. Shanahan,
I was troubled to read in your piece “Women and the commentariat” the assertion that women are unwilling to write or talk publicly about international relations. From my perspective, there is no shortage of smart, educated, engaged women who would love to be a part of this ‘commentariat’ on issues of international relations, national security, defense, and a range of related issues. The problem is more one of opportunity.
Micah Zenko addressed this in a piece for Foreign Policy back in July, putting forth some possible explanations for the overwhelming dominance of men in foreign policy, drawn in part from interviews with women in the field, and sparked a very lively discussion on other blogs and on Twitter. Zenko spoke of unconscious cronyism among men, compounded by discomfort experienced by women in an overwhelmingly male setting. He spoke of the demands of the foreign policy schedule being harder to bear for women, who still bear the bulk of the weight when it comes to caring for the family. He also spoke of the ‘hard power’ vs ‘soft power’ dichotomy, which I think has some bearing in a few ways. Some women told Zenko that they felt women are more drawn to the ‘soft power’ side of international relations, but that ‘hard power’ issues – the traditional domain of men – dominate international affairs. I found this problematic in a few ways: 1) Plenty of women I know are very interested in ‘hard power’ topics, but can have trouble being taken seriously on them; and 2) both should matter anyway. As I put it to someone on Twitter during a discussion on Zenko’s piece, “As long as it’s ‘guns for men, humanitarianism for ladies – by the way, guns are the only thing that matters,’ we have an issue. Meaning that it’s both the gender roles of who does what, as well as the priorities being so one-sided that are at issue. Women should have a voice on hard power, men on soft power, and both should matter.”
I also think there are more subtle, but potentially more damaging, sorts of gender discrimination at play in this field as in many others. By way of example, there are a lot of common expressions that associate one gender or the other with certain traits – fight/run/throw ‘like a girl,’ man up, sack up, take it like a man. These expressions seem harmless on their own, but they can do harm. We use them so often and so easily that we don’t even think about them. About two weeks ago, Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry made a comment that provoked a flurry of commentary. People were saying that Governor Perry had accused President Obama of being ‘unmanly’ or effeminate, to give a couple of examples. However, this is what Governor Perry actually said: “One of the reasons that I’m running for president is I want to make sure that every young man and woman who puts on the uniform of the United States respects highly the president of the United States.” All that it is clear Perry was implying with this statement (and not that this is not an important reference worthy of discussion for its civil-military implications, but that’s not the issue here) is that Obama does not have the respect of our military. I was struck that so many others took that and (presumably unconsciously) added gender to the mix, and for a few reasons. First of all, Perry never said he is manlier than Obama, or that Obama is effeminate, but a lot of people came up with like interpretations that he did. More disturbingly, so what if he did? Being a man should not be a prerequisite for military respect and being a woman should not disqualify one from such.
Unfortunately, I think the reason so many people made this leap of interpretation is that it was all too short a leap to make. It is common to impugn a man’s strength by comparing him to a woman or otherwise implying he has feminine qualities; it is common to associate toughness, strength and other such qualities with men; and there is undeniably a macho culture around a lot of the military, as well as the national security/defense field at large. To me, though, when a man says he wants the members of our military to respect the President, and a broad swath of people see it as a statement about gender, we have a problem. This indicates a culture where women are underrated, or even totally discounted, in large and important areas of life. It’s not hard to imagine that these attitudes contribute to the shortage of women in major positions of security and foreign policy. While women have made great strides, and there are a number of women making inroads every day, these things add up. As long as we accept the casual associations of toughness and strength and firmness and respect and defense and security with men, the similar associations of softness and sensitivity and weakness with women, and countless other thoughtlessly diminishing turns of phrase or attitudes – assigning some attributes to men, others to women, and placing the most value on the ‘male’ attributes – then the inequality will remain, because even casual associations, when made repeatedly enough, become habit.
Moving beyond the potential reasons why women are not more involved in international relations, I want to address the many women who are involved, quite a few of whom comment publicly on a regular basis, or would gladly do so given more opportunity. I myself have a M.A. in International Relations, am seeking employment in the security and/or foreign policy fields, and am very involved in discussions of these issues where I can be, on Twitter and blogs. Much more notable than me, though, I would direct you to established female voices like Princeton University’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, who currently writes for the Atlantic; counterterrorism expert Leah Farrall; Journalist Naheed Mustafa; the women who are helping to set policy at think tanks like Research Director Kristin Lord at the Center For a New American Security (the female representation of which was defended by Andrew Exum here); or young, vocal women such as Natalie Sambhi of Security Scholar; Diana Wueger, who writes for the Atlantic, UN Dispatch, and her own blog Gunpowder & Lead; the unconventional Courtney Messerschmidt of Great Satan’s Girlfriend; Lauren Jenkins of UN Dispatch and International Development Without Pity; Elmira Bayrasli of Forbes; entrepreneur and blogger Kalsoom Lakhani; Morehouse’s Laura Seay; and countless others currently seeking a voice through their work, through Twitter, or through a number of other avenues. All of these women, and many others, are writing, talking, tweeting, blogging, debating, working in the field, taking every opportunity they can get to be heard. We are here. We are in the public realm. We want to be heard. It’s just not clear that you are listening.
I intended to post this as a response to your blog post, but have sent it as an email as the Lowy Interpreter does not accept comments. Please feel free to publish this email in whole or in part.