Feminists and international politics

Dr Megan MacKenzie is a leader expert on gender security and women in combat. She is an Associate Professor in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.  She's speaking at Clear Spot Club's event on "The Craft of Ideas".  She spoke to curator Jackie Dent about feminist international relations and how her ideas come to life.


Women are part of international politics and if we pay attention to what they are doing, we actually see different things in the world. If we have a feminist curiosity about war, we might ask different questions about war. And if we have a feminist curiosity about cyber security or drones, we may ask different and actually learn different aspects of that particular issue.

That's proven true to me when it comes to my research. When I went to Sierra Leone with a feminist curiosity, I learnt a lot about women who participated in that civil war — and I had read almost every book that I could get my hands on about the civil war and I hadn't read anything about female combatants yet.

MacKenzie's book on female soldiers in Sierra Leone

MacKenzie's book on female soldiers in Sierra Leone

It's not as if they didn't exist its just that nobody was paying attention.  There was a big piece of history of that war that was missing, some lessons learned that were missing and some experiences that were missing.   

I think looking at international relations problems with a feminist curiosity, paying attention not only to women but also to gender, and how ideas about masculinity and femininity shape international politics, gives us a different view.


For me, I have a broad area that I tend to focus on. You can't get good ideas by being a master of everything. You've got to narrow your field. For me, I'm really interested in war and militarism so I pay attention to that space. When I see problems that are really curious – right now, I'm really interested in why so many soldiers are committing suicide and I feel like there's not a good answer to that.  My ideas come from narrowing the space and seeing a problem that doesn't have clear answers or that you're not happy with the answer.

MacKenzie's book explores why women have been excluded from the frontline

MacKenzie's book explores why women have been excluded from the frontline

I'm looking at sexual violence in the military and some of the common answers are 'it's culture', 'its inevitable when men and women are together' and I don't like that answer. I don't think it's correct. So then I want to figure out if that is true. It's my instinct that there is something more.

You get better over time at developing an instinct that there's more to the story. Particularly when it comes to feminism, you can look at a problem and say, well this is really from one perspective, this is really from a male perspective or this isn't taking into consideration – say for example with suicide, masculinity or how gender might play into this.


It has come about for a number of reasons. For me, feminist international relations is trying to make the broader case that the personal is the political and that includes our personal experience as researchers. That doesn't mean naval gazing and writing your own narrative and self-indulging about your own experience but it's also about acknowledging that when you conduct research you are a part of it.

I came to embrace that approach after my work in Sierra Leone. After I wrote about that experience, I always took myself out of it. I would talk about what the women said but I would gloss over the interviews or what it was like.

My ideas come from when narrowing the space and seeing a problem that doesn’t have clear answers or that you’re not happy with the answer.

Often at conferences, people would be like, 'What was that like to interview 50 female combatants. How did you do it? How did it impact you? How did you even get to the space where you were able to do that?' They are very understandably curious how that happened, what it was like. I was always nervous talking about it but actually, it's an important part of the story that and makes it more real.

Otherwise, it's this cool representation of interviews without acknowledging these were conversations between human beings that weren't easy and writing about it wasn't easy either. I read Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern about interviewing male perpetrators of sexual violence and I was like 'Oh My God, how did they do that'? How did they do that work? How did they get ethics approval? What was it like when they got home?


I think there's a resistance, a scepticism that any kind of self reflexivity is indulgent and that this fixation of being objective and scientist stems back a long time in the field. I don't think students buy it. Maybe the old school realists cling to it but our students certainly don't.

Megan is speaking at “Hammer and Polish: the Craft of Ideas” on August 16, 2017 at Belvoir Street Theatre. She’ll be joined by an abstract painter and a philosopher as they explore where their ideas come from. How did they know what to focus on? How do they keep inspired? And in a culture focused on money and status, how do they stay committed to pursuing the creative and the intellectual? This panel is designed to get you thinking about your own ideas and what to do with them, as well as learn a bit about women soldiers fighting on the frontline, why brown paint is beautiful and whether children really are innocent.