Speaking of 'Respect for Women': Gender and Politics in U.S. Foreign Policy Discourse, 2001-2004

By Brenner, Alletta | Journal of International Women's Studies, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Speaking of 'Respect for Women': Gender and Politics in U.S. Foreign Policy Discourse, 2001-2004


Brenner, Alletta, Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

The aim of this paper is to examine how a language of 'women's rights' entered into foreign policy discourses of the Bush Administration in the period of 2001-2004. Through a discursive analysis of speeches, press releases, interviews and written documents, I find that feminist-inspired language and concepts entered into the mainstream discourse on numerous occasions throughout this period, though usually in the service of other foreign policy objectives. In this analysis, I identify three primary 'dialogical frames' in which such references appear, labelling these: 'Us vs. Them', 'The Active Leader', and 'The Moral Community'. Many feminists have argued that these kinds of references are disingenuous 'gender decoys'. While politically motivated calculation clearly played a role in this discourse, I argue that ideology and identity must also be taken into account as influencing factors. In conclusion, while problematic, the use of such language by the Bush Administration (or any government for that matter) also presents a discursive opening through which more substantive change may be achieved.

Keywords: Bush, Afghanistan, constructivism

Introduction

Since his earliest days in office, feminists have criticised George W. Bush for being what they perceive as hostile to 'women's rights'. In fact, many have argued that Bush's real war is not against terror, but rather against women, at home and around the world (Flanders et al 2004; Eisenstein 2006). Such criticism is not entirely unfair. Indeed throughout Bush's time in office, a wide range of domestic and foreign policies have had real detrimental impacts on women. Nonetheless, the claim that President Bush is simply 'anti-woman' is a vast oversimplification that fails to capture the true complexity of how ideas and language actually work to shape policy. In this paper I examine how and in what ways a rhetoric of 'women's rights' entered into the official foreign policy discourse of the Bush Administration from the period of 2001-2004. Through a close reading of speeches, press releases, interviews and foreign policy statements, I identify three 'dialogical frames', which, I argue, shed insight into the political and rhetorical manoeuvrings of the Bush Administration. By examining the ways that gender, identity and belief came to intersect with political realities during this period, I attempt to offer a partial explanation of how, why and to what effect such claims were made.

Before I begin, it is necessary to first lay down a methodological groundwork. In this work, I draw together two different methodological foundations from two disciplines--feminist studies and the school of constructivism in international relations (IR). Traditionally, there has been a disciplinary gap between international relations and feminist studies. For, while IR has in the past tended to ignore the ways in which international politics are influenced by cultural codes of masculinity, feminist scholars have likewise failed to theorise about international politics. Since the 1980s, however, critical feminist political theorists have begun attempting to fill this gap by examining the ways that politics is constructed and reproduced by material and ideational structures shaped by 'gender'--that is, how 'socially constructed, fluid, politically relevant identities, values, conventions and practices conceived as masculine and/or feminine' are mapped in multidimensional ways onto political structures, rules and norms' (Beckwith 131). 'Gender' is relevant to the study of IR because 'international processes have gender-differentiated consequences, and gender filters thought and practice' (Hooper 24). Historically, feminists argue, IR has been shaped according to the demands of hegemonic masculinity, resulting in a kind of international politics where certain kinds of values and norms are assumed to be natural and appropriate and others are either left out entirely or demonised. …

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