The wrong turn (3): siren voices

Rosemary Bechler
23 October 2008

Sometimes referred to as ‘standpoint analysis', what was and remains exciting about this body of work, committed to articulating the experiences and perspectives of women, was its recognition of the gendered nature of power itself. As a point of critique it raised the possibility of a radical reconstruction of core concepts central to the study of international relations, such as autonomy, power, conflict and security.

The introduction of a recent collection of essays, ‘Rethinking Insecurity, War and Violence' cites J.Ann Tickner alongside Ken Booth as key theorists who have helped to reformulate security studies in particular in the direction of human security: ‘a security based upon "the elimination of unjust social relations, including unequal gender relations" and... a reformulation of international relations in terms of the "multiple insecurities" represented by ecological destruction, poverty and (gendered) structural violence, rather than the abstract threats to the integrity of states, their interests and "core values".'Read more on similar themes from 50:50

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This intervention in turn has wider implications for a whole host of themes from the personal to the political. A gendered reading leads, for example, to a critique of rigid notions of autonomy and separation in the construction of identities and boundaries, and a counter-emphasis instead on interdependence and connectedness. Where autonomy and separation is presented as desirable in international relations, standpoint analysis demonstrates the underlying relationships of dependency - and explores the denial involved. Rather than join the fray, when conflict is presented as inescapable, these analysts offered an alternative perspective and ways of addressing enemy images. This analytical approach carries forward the kind of insights which made the Greenham Common experiment an abiding source of intellectual and emotional provocation.

It does so by understanding the subtle mechanism and dynamics of the ‘gender dichotomisation' process supporting ‘hegemonic masculinity'. One core function of ‘power over' is to project itself as all possible forms of ‘power', and complete ‘powerlessness' as its sole alternative. But there are other alternatives that are more effective in many circumstances - for example, power between or shared or mutual power. Quite a few key binary oppositions, apart from discrediting the feminine caricature which is the opposing term, have a secondary function equally essential to the maintenance of the dominant order. Some significant third terms which initially appear less demeaning seem to be drawn into a process of stigmatisation by association. Key binary gender oppositions work in this way, as follows:

Powerful - powerless/ power between or mutually empowering

Independence - dependence/ connection

Competitive - uncompetitive/ non-competitive or caring

Self-reliant - other-reliant/ mutual help

Strong - weak/ sensitive or vulnerable

Capacity for violence - incapacity for violence/ non-violence or peace

It is not surprising that many of these third terms constitute the siren voices of personal or domestic happiness. In 1981, sensing the power of a refusal to let these ‘third terms' be despised, silenced or privatised, many of the Greenham Common women left homes and families to join the peace camp protesting against the installation of cruise missiles in Britain. Defining peace as people claiming control over their lives, women learnt how to protest effectively and assertively by confronting the police and the military, but their action was explicitly non-violent. Deciding that militarism could not be sustained without the cooperation of women, they also tried to work in mutually supportive ways, sharing tasks, skills and knowledge. Arguing that a diverse range of views among the women in the camp was a source of strength, they saw this avoidance of top-down organisation as ‘women's culture and practise' - essential in defeating a ‘warring patriarchy'. Perhaps most ambitiously of all, they rejected the inevitability of escalating war against the Other, and the binary choice between ‘power over' and ‘powerlessness'. They adopted a technique of ‘empowerment' which, rather than confront ‘hegemonic masculinity' head on, sought to loosen its hold through demonstrating to a widening audience its dubious claims to hegemony.

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