From Sweden to Mexico, Foreign Policy Goes Feminist. Is the U.S. Next?

As Mexico launches a feminist foreign policy, it’s worth considering what such an approach would look like in the U.S.

In 2014, under the leadership of then-Foreign-Minister Margot Wallström, Sweden became the first country to announce an explicitly feminist foreign policy—which was largely met with skepticism and even laughter.

Three years later, Canada followed Sweden’s lead, though, admittedly, it stopped short of diving all the way in—rolling out its Feminist International Assistance Policy rather than a full-fledged foreign policy.

And in the course of the past year, other countries have announced their intention to launch feminist foreign policies, with Mexico in January becoming the latest to publish its policy. In so doing, it became the first Global South country to make the jump.

It appears that the wind may well be shifting in favor of foreign policies going feminist.

So What Exactly Is a Feminist Foreign Policy?

Looking across the countries that have stepped up to the plate and published feminist policies, Sweden’s is the oldest and most comprehensive.

The Swedish framework encompasses women’s rights, resources and representation within foreign and national security, development and trade. It squarely places gender equality as both a priority objective in its own right and a tool to advance other foreign policy priorities.

For instance, Sweden has pushed the U.N. Security Council to consult with women peace-builders in its debates. And in response to the Trump administration’s reinstitution and dramatic expansion of the Global Gag Rule, Sweden stepped up its foreign assistance to providers of sexual and reproductive health care.

From Sweden to Mexico, Foreign Policy Goes Feminist. Is the U.S. Next?
U.N. peacekeepers—a feminist foreign policy gives women an equal role in conflict resolution and peacekeeping. (UN Photo / Eric Kanalstein)

This is broader in scope than the Canadian policy framework to date, which is focused on international aid, not foreign policy overall. Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy has established a benchmark of committing 95 percent of Canada’s foreign assistance to gender equality—such as providing education to girls, offering family planning to women or promoting women’s political participation.

Although the portion of Canadian aid that is in some way advancing gender equality has been on the rise (it increased from 69 percent in 2016 to 87 percent in 2017), setting a target of 95 percent represents a significant hike for Canada and one of the most ambitious targets around the world.

From Sweden to Mexico, Foreign Policy Goes Feminist. Is the U.S. Next?
International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau launches Canada’s Feminist International Assistance policy. (Development Canada)

Having published its own feminist foreign policy in January, Mexico proves that a country doesn’t have to be rich to make strides. Its “Política Exterior Feminista” commits to an ambitious number of immediate actions across five principles:

  • conducting all aspects of foreign policy with the intent to advance gender equality and a “feminist” agenda;
  • achieving gender parity at all levels of staffing in its foreign ministry;
  • combating all forms of gender-based violence, including within the ministry;
  • making equality visible; and
  • practicing intersectional feminism.

By all accounts, this is the first feminist foreign policy to explicitly assert an intersectional approach to the policy.

What Would Feminist Foreign Policy Look Like in the United States?

With all of this momentum, a number of feminist activists and foreign policy analysts have come together to consider what such an approach might look like for the U.S.

We are calling for a blue-sky vision that borrows the best of the ingredients from all the existing countries: Sweden’s comprehensive approach, Canada’s budgetary ambitions and Mexico’s focus on intersectionality.

A bold and ambitious U.S. feminist foreign policy would set as its goals not only the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality, but also peace and a healthy planet. It would apply this lens consistently to decisions across all streams of foreign policy—not solely in so-called “soft power” levers like international development.

And throughout all stages of design, implementation and evaluation, the government would seek the counsel of those who would benefit most, so that every step of the process is cocreated.

But how exactly would this play out?

What form would American defense, diplomacy, trade, development and immigration take under a feminist approach?

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2020 issue of Ms.

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On diplomacy, ambassadors would review evidence on the status of women in their host countries and prioritize women’s issues that are most in need of attention. 

On international development and humanitarian assistance, there would be robust and transparent funding for gender equality throughout foreign assistance, specifically supporting women’s rights programming—family planning and sex education, or support for feminist organizing on climate change—as well as requiring that U.S. foreign assistance programs conduct a gender analysis to determine the impact of their funding on people of all genders, ensuring that they foster equality rather than disproportionately favor one group.

On trade, the U.S. would refrain from agreements that do not equally benefit women workers and would pen deals that set targets for doing business with women-owned firms.

On defense, the U.S. would fully implement its commitments under the National Action Plan and the National Strategy for the Women, Peace and Security Act—the federal law that calls for women’s inclusion in peace processes and their protection in conflict settings. Tragically, the law has so far been ignored by the Trump administration in its engagements with Afghanistan and Syria.

In an ideal scenario, there would be top-down buy-in and accountability at every level of government—from the president to program implementers. To be effective, the president would first announce the development of a feminist foreign policy and then tap a senior official (a feminist inspector general, perhaps) to develop and implement it. That official would be based at the White House and would have statutory authority and a budget to give the initiative more teeth.

Each agency—from the Department of Defense to the U.S. Agency for International Development—would be required to achieve gender parity and racial diversity at all levels of staffing and to prioritize the policy’s implementation across legislative, communications and budgetary functions.

Globally, momentum is building for feminist foreign policy that prioritizes women’s rights, development and political empowerment.

But the U.S. is being left behind. Our closest neighbors, Canada to our north and Mexico to our south, are well on their way. As other countries follow their lead, the U.S. could take bold steps to join the others—and maybe even raise the bar.

Read the second half of this series, “The Ms. Q&A: Valerie Hudson on Placing Women’s Rights at the Core of Foreign Policy.” Valerie Hudson, director of the Program on Women, Peace and Security at Texas A&M University, talks with Ms. writer Lyric Thompson to make a compelling argument for placing women’s rights and representation at the core of foreign policy and national security—because what happens to half the population is obviously going to affect the health, the wealth and the security of a nation.

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-movingDuring this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


Lyric Thompson is the founder and CEO of the Feminist Foreign Policy Collaborative, where she leads global coalition efforts to refine and advance the highest level of ambition and impact for feminist foreign policies. Previously, she served vice president of policy, advocacy and strategy at the International Center for Research on Women, as a primary expert and strategist for Amnesty International USA’s women’s human rights program, and senior policy manager at Women for Women International. She writes regularly on feminist issues for such platforms as the New York Times, Foreign Policy Magazine, Devex and Ms.