The Ms. Q&A: Valerie Hudson on Placing Women’s Rights at the Core of Foreign Policy

Editor’s note: Last Tuesday, Ms. released the first part of this series: From Sweden to Mexico, Foreign Policy Goes Feminist. Is the U.S. Next?

In 2014, Sweden became the first country to announce an explicitly feminist foreign policy. Three years later, Canada followed Sweden’s lead. And in January, Mexico became the first Global South country to make the jump.

As our neighbors to the North and South go feminist, it’s worth considering what such an approach would look like in the U.S.

Ms. writer Lyric Thompson had the chance to speak with Valerie Hudson, director of the Program on Women, Peace and Security at Texas A&M University.

In the new book The First Political Order, which she coauthored, Hudson makes 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 Ms. Q&A: Valerie Hudson on Placing Women’s Rights at the Core of Foreign Policy

Lyric Thompson: The First Political Order was not just the latest book in a series; it’s something that you say you came to over the course of many years. So could you just talk about what led you to this work?

Valerie Hudson: Well, it’s actually sort of a long story. 

When I went to graduate school, you could’ve gone through my entire doctoral program without knowing there were women on the planet Earth. National security was just so gendered male, and I read not one thing by a woman author in my graduate work, and I remember thinking that completely unremarkable, because I was socialized in that time period.

It wasn’t really ’til the ’90s that I began to think that maybe there was this big black hole, that half of the population seemed to have no relationship whatsoever with what was going on in their nation in terms of security. How could that possibly be? 

My awakening began when I read works by Ann Tickner, and Christine Sylvester, and Cynthia Enloe—that began sort of the feminist look at international relations. I also had my first daughter, Ariel, and that kind of woke me up. 

And then, lastly, it was other life experiences that I had. I remember distinctly sitting at a conference on NATO forward armed forces strategy (this was during the waning days of the Cold War), and somebody said, “What is this forward armed forces strategy?”

And the bright young man, the national security hawk said, “That’s simple. It’s simply a series of swift, penetrating thrusts to the enemy’s rear.” 

A few years before that when I’d been in graduate school, I probably would’ve nodded sagely and said, “That’s exactly right.”

Instead, I just started laughing hysterically, right in the middle of the conference room, and I had to leave the room. 

I was beginning to think that, not only do we have a blind spot, but the men who were dominating the field would only see things through a totally masculinist lens. 

That began my search for the links between what’s going on with women and national security, and my work on the abnormal sex ratios of China and India, and that led to the Woman Stats Project, and to Sex and World Peace, The Hillary Doctrine and The First Political Order.

LT: It is so wonderful that you can do this work and be this rare bird who can talk patriarchy and equality with buy-in among everybody from activists to academics, Republicans and Democrats, inside-the-Beltway types and down-home Texas types, where you are actually based. And I’m curious, how do you do that?

VH: I think you and I feel the same way about these issues, which is they’re so intuitive. Once you’re able to take off the blinders, it’s clear that what’s going on with half the population obviously is going to affect the health, the wealth, the security of a nation, and I think that taking off those blinders is not a partisan issue. It’s not a left issue; it’s not a right issue. It’s just a very human issue. 

All of us live with woman, and around women, and work with women, and so I’ve never really imagined that I had to craft a particular message for a particular audience. You’ve got to give me at least a half hour, let me help people take their blinders off, and let them reach their own conclusions, and they do, regardless of their background. The message just rings true, because people have lived it in their own lives.

LT: That’s right. You’ve got to meet people where they are. 

It strikes me that we’re having this conversation a day after the last woman has withdrawn from the Democratic presidential race. Of course, we all remember what happened in 2016. And I’ve been reading all the same stories about how sexism shaped the race, and voter perceptions about electability and likability, and press coverage, and the whole gamut of factors.

And your work is really talking about how it’s not just that, it’s that misogyny actually is the foundation upon which our political institutions were built. So, help us make sense of today in the context of what this book tells us about yesterday, and you know, the millennia before that.

VH: I’ve got to tell you, that was very sad to see the last woman leave the race. 

How my book speaks to this is that it’s not about whether women have equal educational opportunities. It’s not about whether women are equally in the labor force. That’s actually not where you’re going to get a change in these types of very deep-seated attitudes. Where you’re going to get those changed is in the societal microcosm of the household.

So we particularly look at practices that we think are like a straitjacket for women, that squeezes women and keeps them down. It takes different forms in different cultures, but certainly here in the United States of America, it takes the form of violence against women, extreme gender-based violence against women at the household level.

And also lack of decision-making over assets and finances in that household. It’s the foundation for what we’re seeing. One of the things we hope to do is to shift our view from, are women going to school on a par with men, to what’s actually happening in our households. Is there domestic terror that’s being perpetrated in our households? Is there exploitation taking place in our households? And if so, we’re going to see that mirrored.

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LT: I love that you called this the patrilineal-fraternal syndrome, and you’re very intentional in your use of the word “syndrome.” Can you talk more about that?

VH: What we found in our research was that the means by which women are subordinated, whether we’re talking about Latin America, North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia—that the forms of the subordination tend to be the same.

How could it be that the very same forms of subordination occur across religions, across cultures, ethnicities, geographical regions? Why is this universal? Being security studies scholars, I think one of our contributions is to suggest that it’s actually the search for physical security by men that drives this—that for men, life is very nasty, brutish and short. We try to show that throughout the millennia, if you talk about who actually gets killed, it’s mostly men who get killed by other men.

In fact, there are lots of historical studies that show that when the raiders came in, they would kill all the men and they would keep the women and the children. And so, whole Y chromosomes, particular genetic variations of Y chromosomes, would disappear from history. 

So we believe that a lot of human history has been driven by the male drive for physical security, and that they found their physical security creating fraternity with other men, and that the sturdiest form of fraternity was based on blood kinship. Throughout the world, in almost every traditional society, we see patrilineal cultures that try to build this fraternity among men—their brothers and their male cousins—and it functions as the security provision mechanism for the society.

And the minute you decide that fraternity is the way to go, then women are going to get subordinated to whatever that fraternity needs to survive. You’re going to see things like very early marriage for girls. You’re going to see lack of any property and inheritance rights for girls. You’re going to see a lot of gender-based violence against women. You’re going to see female infanticide. You’re going to see marriage that’s more like a chattel market than it is about any sort of equal partnership.

For example, all over the world, if a man is an adulterer, his male compatriots may actually pat him on the back. If a woman’s an adulterer, she’s killed, right? This severe inequality in even standing before the law sets the stage for society to not be based on rule of law. 

LT: You have catalogued 11 practices that make for what you call the straitjacket of subordination. You’ve got polygyny. You’ve got property and inheritance rights. You’ve got dowry, bride-price, cousin-marriage, sex ratios, all of these pieces. But my favorite thing about the book is you don’t just chronicle all of these interlocking factors and impacts of the syndrome. You also start to talk through these weak points at which we can attack the syndrome and push ourselves forward toward solutions. 

VH: Oftentimes, people say to me, “Professor Hudson, you don’t understand. It’s rich countries that can afford to treat their women better, or it’s democratic countries that can value their women.”

And I say, “No, I think you have it backward. Countries that severely subordinate their women will never become rich, and countries that severely subordinate their women, they will never become truly democratic.”

The notion that what’s going on with women could affect national security has been growing, but we set out in this book to undertake the comprehensive empirical case for that assertion. We looked at 122 outcome variables for nation-states: conflict, governance, health, wealth, demography, environmental preservation. We looked at outcomes that indicate how well a nation is doing, and we used what we call multivariate regression that holds all sorts of other things constant to see how strong the linkage is.

So, looking at the effect over and above how wealthy your nation is, over and above how democratic your nation is, over and above whether you’ve had a colonial experience or not. We held constant lots of variables, and we still discovered that across those 122 outcome variables, over 70 percent we found to be extremely highly related to how strongly you are subordinating your women. I think this is the most comprehensive empirical case that’s ever been made, and it means that you have to take women seriously if you are interested in national security, and if you don’t, you’re simply not a realist.

So you’re right about part of our book talking about what needs doing. Toward the end of the book, we begin to say, well, if this is the case, how would you kind of attack this syndrome? What’s the low-hanging fruit? And we identified several things that we considered to be critical. 

One is child marriage. Child marriage is a hub issue around which all sorts of miserable and dysfunctional outcomes for the nation occur, and we’ve seen a very successful effort over the last 10 years to raise the legal age of marriage for girls in many nations where girls were still being married off at puberty or even before puberty. I think we’ve won the battle on law. Now, of course, it’s a question of enforcement. If we can get these new laws to be enforced, I think that will make a huge dent in the syndrome. 

Another way to make a huge dent in the syndrome is a pension plan, because security, not just physical security in terms of, say, defending you from armed invaders, but physical security in terms of providing a temporal existence that is bringing in the money has been totally male-dominated. Men have wealth and women do not, and so what we find is that parents absolutely favor sons and devalue daughters. It’s sons that provide an elderly parent’s social security in these fraternity-based cultures.

Breaking that cycle through social security that allows the elderly to survive whether they have daughters or sons, has been shown to be critically important in altering the calculation of how valuable a daughter is versus how valuable a son is.

I think urbanization trends are also helpful. If your society urbanizes, it’s really hard to maintain patrilocal control over other individuals because the real estate prices are simply too high in an urban environment to do that. Young couples may not be able to live with in-laws.

And of course, lastly, I think there have been some new and very exciting movements within countries to start to ban bride-price, and given how prevalent bride-price is throughout the world, that would be truly revolutionary and really help the situation of women, as well as the national security of the state.

LT: I love the idea about pension plans. It’s a surprising way to attack the problem a couple of steps down the chessboard. It really speaks to our economic fears and the way we structure our economy. And so, it was interesting to me that there’s nothing in your book on unpaid care. That’s getting a lot of attention in other work that’s happening. Even this week, there was a New York Times op-ed about the $10.9 trillion value of women’s unpaid care work last year—caring for children, elderly, sick. So, just curious, did you think about care at all?

VH: We think about care a lot. In fact, I always assign my students Marilyn Waring’s book Counting for Nothing, and one of my favorite scholars to read is Nancy Folbre, who wrote The Invisible Heart, which is just a classic of feminist economics. I’m totally with you. We didn’t bring that to the fore in describing the syndrome because we can imagine that there are alternative ways to structure caregiving where the unpaid-ness of it is distributed more equitably, and where the unpaid-ness of it is not punished by the state.

Here in the United States, you get absolutely no credit whatsoever for any unpaid caregiving that you might do. That’s not the case in other nations. In other nations, whoever does a significant amount of unpaid caregiving labor, women or men, can get an automatic credit for that within the pension system. So it’s not the unpaid-ness of it. It’s what we make of the fact that there is caregiving. Is it all on the shoulders on the women? Do you get no credit for it whatsoever in the eyes of the government? You can change those things without completely making it on a paid basis.

I agree with you that it absolutely is a symptom of the devaluation of women that none of this has been seen as work. The story that Marilyn Waring tells about how Richard Stone and others first came up with the GDP measure, the gross domestic product measure, is fascinating, to see how their minds thought about what women do. To them, it was absolutely nothing.

One of the healthiest things we can do is to raise a generation of women who are doing economics, who can see things differently. Just like the antidote to the military strategy being seen in male sexual terms—the swift, penetrating thrust to the enemy’s rear—that’s a function of the fact that all we had were males doing national security. That’s why the inclusion of women is so important to all of this.

LT: You’ve just given so many examples of the U.S. offering no credit for care, perpetuating violence against women, all of this, and it’s just striking to me that in the book’s index where you measure syndrome scores for 176 countries, the U.S. does so well. Low scores are good and high scores are bad, and we get a 1. 

VH: In a global comparison, I think that’s right. We have fewer practices such as bride-price and polygyny here. But as someone who lives in America, I can see the problems here, too. I spent 25 years in Utah, and we had a polygamous enclave down the road, and something that was very shocking for me this past month was to see the Utah state legislature decriminalize polygamy. 

I wrote an op-ed for one of the state newspapers in which I said, on the basis of all the research that I’ve done, this is a really foolish. So that score for the U.S. may actually worsen over time, as we’re now moving back on some of the laws that brought us to a place of relatively greater democracy and relatively greater prosperity.

It’s not just Utah, but for example, in Central Asia, there’s a movement to legalize polygyny once more. Certainly, in the Arab uprising countries, we saw regression for women in virtually every state. I think that it’s going to be critical for women and their allies to suggest what is and is not progress for women, and to make the case that the effort to ban polygyny is not rooted in any sort of racism or religious bigotry, but is rather a clear-eyed view that polygyny is a recipe for societal instability, and that the data on that is unequivocal. It’s critical to be vigilant about regression for women in the world today.

I hope policy-makers will pay specific attention to the last part of our book, where we discuss how altering the way that we view these things concerning women—that is, seeing that “women’s issues” have outsized effects on national security outcomes—can alter the way that we develop policy initiatives.

LT: I hope so, too, and I hope to do that work with you.

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

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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.