Teaching Gender in International Relations Classrooms Matters

The 12-year-old girls weren’t supposed to have guns. Women and girls were victims, not warriors.

At least, that’s what many experts in the international development community thought. Yet during the late-1990s conflict in Sierra Leone, thousands of girls were showing up with male fighters at disarmament and demobilization centers. Dyan Mazurana, then a faculty member in the women’s studies program at the University of Montana, started to investigate who they were and why they had come.

Her research, conducted with University of Wyoming Professor Susan McKay, showed that the girls were combatants, spies and abducted “wives” who had served both the rebel and pro-government forces. Mazurana and McKay argued that Sierra Leone’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process had failed to integrate and serve women and girls, with major security consequences: Just like boys, disaffected girls could also be more susceptible to joining militias. Excluding single mothers from DDR, Mazurana and her co-authors pointed out, also meant excluding their children, spawning a generation of “unskilled, marginalized youth.”

For Mazurana, now an associate research professor at Tufts’ Fletcher School, it was a reminder of something crucial: You can’t understand international security without thinking about gender and the many ways it influences behavior, access and opportunity.

At the Fletcher School, Mazurana is in good company. There, she’s among a cohort of professors, students and leadership fighting gender discrimination and inequality around the world by transforming what Fletcher—a leading international relations and security studies policy school—teaches and who teaches it. Fueling their work is the growing recognition that national security and international relations policymakers can’t be effective without understanding how policy programs and strategies affect the genders (and other identity groups) differently, and how that blind spot can lead to worse or unexpected outcomes. Gender dynamics influence everything from peace processes to terrorism recruitment strategies. The greatest predictor social science has for a nation’s security and stability, it turns out, is how it treats its women.

Despite these considerations, my colleagues and I at New America have found that many national security policymakers don’t see gender as relevant to their work, in part because many didn’t really know what gender meant when it wasn’t used in reference to gender representation—making sure there are women at the table.

That may be because professors who teach security and gender courses—and schools that prioritize those courses—are still in the minority. In our new research, we found that many professors in the field see gender as irrelevant to their course material, and that others had no idea how to begin teaching the subject. We also found that both male and female students were eager for more gender content.

Although some universities have started to integrate gender into their curricula or to hire more diverse faculty, the Fletcher School seems to stand out as a rare success story.

At other schools where some professors and students have made gains, they were quick to emphasize the tenuous nature of that advancement. Several professors and students whom I interviewed requested that we speak off the record; they worried that if they opened up about the real state of affairs at their schools—places that claimed in public to be bastions of progressive programming but behind the scenes were less supportive—they could jeopardize their hard-fought gender programming.

In many cases, there was an illusion of progress. At Fletcher, it appeared to be the real thing. So I wondered: What could other institutions learn from the case of Fletcher? And what was holding others back?


Admiral James Stavridis had his gender epiphany in 1994. At that time, Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School, was a young navy commander serving as captain of his first warship, which the United States Navy chose as its first ship to welcome female crew members.

In the middle of Stavridis’ mission, 15 percent of his crew of around 350 left and were replaced by women. “I became kind of a control experiment,” he tells me. His discovery: “The ship was better with women. We achieved more, we had better attitudes and we were better at combat operations.”

A decade later, as he was finishing his Navy tenure, Stavridis became the dean at Fletcher and says he was immediately impressed by the already-strong student- and teacher-led movement to increase gender offerings. He committed himself to making gender a more coherent academic focus, which included increasing the numbers of female faculty members, especially those on the tenure track. Under his leadership, the school also introduced a program that gave small grants to professors to integrate gender into their classes, allowing them each to hire a teaching assistant with gender expertise who could help choose readings and make analytical connections.


In 2012, Phoebe Donnelly was a master’s student in class called “Internal Conflict and War.” The course was taught by a male professor and featured virtually no content focused on gender. This was around the time that Stavridis kicked off the gender grant program, which Donnelly says intrigued her.

When she asked her professor if he’d be willing to incorporate gender into his class, he responded enthusiastically with another question: Would she help him lead it? Now, after five years of co-teaching, Donnelly says that she sees progress, especially when it comes to students understanding that gender isn’t just about women. She illustrates the point when she introduces the subject of Al Shabaab, a Somalia-based jihadist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, asking her students, “What do you think makes a boy feel powerful or small?”

Both gender studies and security studies, Donnelly says, look at how shifting power dynamics can have huge effects on a country’s stability, and ignoring how one affects the other can have destabilizing policy consequences. Take, for instance, her research into disarmament, demobilization and re-integration programs in Somalia for men who were in al-Shabaab. In discussions with policy organizations like the International Organization for Migration and the Department of State, she discovered that there were no programs for women who had married into the terrorist organization. It was, she says, a huge oversight. “These women are married, quickly divorced and then stigmatized by their societies who see them as part of the terror group.” They’re unable to re-enter their families or get jobs. And there’s also a threat that al-Shabaab might recruit or abduct them again.

“This is a policy school, so I’m teaching students how to integrate gender into their policy work,” Donnelly says. In other words, she’s teaching them how not to make those same mistakes.


A few years before Donnelly and Stavridis set foot on campus, Dyan Mazurana was teaching Fletcher’s only gender and security class. Back in 2005, it attracted about 20 people per semester. Now, it gets between 70 and 100 people, and has become one of the most popular classes at the school. Where the school had one course on gender in 2005, it now has 12, and has created the equivalent of a major at the graduate student level: gender analysis and international studies.

The movement owes its success to a combination of factors, Mazurana says: supportive leadership, strategic and highly motivated students and research and analysis that demonstrated persistent gender inequality. Early on, movement leaders measured gender gaps inside Fletcher, including how many female versus male speakers the school brought in, the ratio of male to female faculty members and the number of classes that incorporated gender as a subject.

They also crafted a non-threatening messaging strategy for faculty that emphasized academic freedom and choice: Professors should be able to choose whether they want to integrate the material, and students, too, should be able to make the choice whether or not to study gender and security. This approach was an attempt to address some of the common arguments that come from opponents, who claimed that the movement represented political correctness gone too far, and that teaching gender is inherently polemical, based in activism rather than in facts—or else that there’s no time to teach anything other than the canon.

One professor at a top university who’s active in the movement recalled a conversation with colleagues who questioned whether the subject was academically serious. “I thought, did you know the No. 1 cause of death in the world in the 20th century, more than any other conflict, was violence against women? So, is this serious? Gee, I don’t know.”


Oppositional forces can come from inside the community of advocates who push for gender inclusion in policy and academics too. Andrea Goldstein, a former special operations troop commander in the Navy who led a team of 60 sailors, recalls attending a conference where another attendee told Goldstein that she couldn’t possibly be a feminist because, by joining the military, she had been complicit in her own oppression.

Yet Goldstein, who today is finishing up her master’s at the Fletcher School, is a feminist. She began to actively identify as one in the military, when she started to see that gender inclusion was an issue not merely of social justice, but also of operational effectiveness. On the representation side, lacking diverse perspective meant that “we had a very myopic view of our work,” Goldstein explains. “We weren’t fully understanding the battle space.” On the strategy and policy end, “not knowing about gender exacerbated conflict. If you look at ISIL, it’s about constructing the idea of a state with a particular kind of masculinity and femininity that are prized, and saying we can’t have that in the West. We’re not doing a good enough job of paying attention to that [dynamic].”

“Hard” national security policymakers often don’t take feminists seriously, and “feminist security studies is deeply suspicious of national security and militarization— often at the expense of good ideas,” Goldstein explains.

Her experience highlights a challenging reality: The process of linking gender and security studies in academia is dogged not just by skeptical institutional leadership, but also by leaders in the gender equality and inclusion movement itself. Like so many feminist sub-movements, gender and security scholars tend to be ideologically fractured. Though the sub-groupings are complex, to put it simply, one group believes that linking gender studies and anything having to do with war or militarization is anti-feminist, and represents implicit support of a patriarchal system of oppression—an argument that emerged again recently with the debate over whether to let women into combat roles. The other group says that considering gender when analyzing both war and peace dynamics is essential to understanding the contours of a conflict and its effects on a population. Though the values of feminism and the aims of the military may seem to be at odds with each other, members of this latter camp argue that encouraging the military to think about gender will make the armed forces more effective, and that the military itself can be used as a means to further global stability and women’s rights.


“If I hear the words ‘caring and nurturing’ one more time, I’m going to scream.”

That was a student in Richard “Ike” Eichenberg’s gender and politics class at Tufts in the spring of 2012, responding to what was a common explanation for why public opinion surveys showed a gulf between the attitudes of women and men on national security issues. Historically, the rationale was that “it has to do with the more caring or nurturing personalities, or mindsets, that women bring to the table as opposed to men,” says Eichenberg, an associate professor who teaches international relations, plus an elective on gender and world politics. The objecting student pointed out that women are capable of taking a stance against war or defense spending on the basis of rational, self-interested calculation. The student further argued that using the “caring and nurturing” trope perpetuates the stereotype that women’s decisions are based on emotions, rather than on logic—and that women lack agency.

This was one of many instances that Eichenberg says have shaped his thinking on global politics since he first began integrating gender into his classes about 10 years ago, inspired by a report by two female political scientists.

On that original question—why those different attitudes toward national security and conflict exist—Eichenberg says his female students have strong opinions that often diverge from the scholarship. “What they consistently say to me is that ‘these scholars [we read in class] and our guy friends underestimate the extent to which violence or the potential for violence is a pervasive part of our lives.’ And that affects their attitude when someone says, ‘Let’s go bomb another country.'”

What the academic gender inclusion movement boils down to is the need to prepare policymakers to better understand and anticipate complexity—to recognize that women can play many roles in conflict (peacekeeper, combatant, victim, spy) and that they, like men, can offer myriad perspectives on those roles and experiences. It is about expanding the strategic toolkit, and refreshing antiquated solution sets. It is about preventing gender-blind policymaking that is, in Mazurana’s words, “actively harmful.”

“Gender-blind policy kills people,” she says. “To me it isn’t, ‘Oh this would be a nice thing if you could do it.’ It’s absolutely essential.”

This story originally appeared on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Sign up for the Pacific Standard newsletter to follow and support journalism in the public interest.

Elizabeth Weingarten is the Director of the Global Gender Parity Initiative, Editor of Humans of Cybersecurity and Senior Fellow in the Better Life Lab at New America. Follow her @elizabethw723.

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