Feminism and Security Studies

This semester I have had the privilege to cross register into a Harvard Kennedy School course called “21st Century Global Feminisms.” Though I have done some work in gender studies in my undergraduate career, as a security studies student I have not had significant exposure to this type of material. It has made me realize the importance of gender and feminism studies for all fields and notice the severe lack of gender diversity in security studies.

On the first day of class we first talked about defining feminism, and I realized that I’ve only ever had a strong feeling of what feminism is, and that the words I’ve tried to use to define feminism have never felt right. The definition I came up with was, “Feminism is the movement on behalf of women, for their empowerment, equal rights, and global recognition.” While this may be an adequate definition, I can’t help but think that it doesn’t convey the feelings invoked in me when I think of feminism. When I call myself a feminist, I feel strength, solidarity, and a sense of responsibility. But I also feel imposter syndrome, or a sense that I’m not a “good enough” feminist. Do I understand what it means to be a feminist? Am I properly lifting up all women? Am I recognizing intersectionality and all versions of feminism to the best of my ability?

The definition “[Feminism is] anything you like, honey”[1] spoke to my insecurities about calling myself a feminist. Vasquez’s definition makes me feel that I am totally justified in fighting for it, and that I have a right to call myself a feminist. I find Vasquez’s other definition, “[There are] as many definitions of Feminism as there are feminists” striking as well. I’ve never considered something so powerful to have the ability to be so fluid. Because everyone defines themselves and understands where they stand in the world, why shouldn’t they define what it means for themselves to be empowered? I find this reassuring, because any definition that I make for myself is “correct” or “right.” I can also find inspiration in the definitions of feminism that other people have created, but ultimately find confidence in my own. I think the fluidity of this definition is fitting because of the fluidity of people- their identities, experiences, wants, needs, etc. Being able to understand feminism as you need it to be seems to be a great way to be a feminist.

I think the idea of silence is extremely powerful. It is easy to be silent, but it is difficult to see others being silent. I have found this in my classes, when I have fallen silent. When I’m one on one, or in small groups, I am able to stand out. But I can’t seem to break through the male domination happening in large groups in some of my classes. I’m frustrated with myself, and don’t know how to stop it. The interpretation of my silence is also frustrating, because I can’t help but think what my classmates or professors think of my silence.

My own education has been shaped in an extremely non-feminist way. Meaning, most of my professors and teachers have been men, and most of the readings/lessons from which entire classes have been based on are those written by men–in particular, white men. Going into the security studies field, which I knew was male dominated, I predicted that my education would reflect the gender bias. I didn’t expect to feel the guilt for not pushing harder to find the female scholars in this field. Especially knowing how easy it is for these men to discard my voice as a woman.[2] I feel as though I’ve been complacent in letting this happen to other women.

This relates to the idea that a woman’s knowledge is deemed increditable because women are seen as emotional. I don’t know if this practice is worse when other women do it to each other. It not only excludes women, but it prevents so much intellectual growth from happening. By not fully accepting women’s ideas with open minds, or being open to the idea of women having potentially legitimate work, the world is deprived of progress.

This is seen in the lack of women in history books. It is greatly upsetting to think about my inability to recognize so many of the influential women in history. History has been written by men, and so only men have been written of. Women have not been the subject of research, history, or books. But women are half of the human race, and they always have been. Subjects in history that affect women directly have been judged as unimportant, because they don’t affect the whole race. But subjects that directly affect (white) men are judged to have affected the whole human race. And when we ask where the women are, and where they were, people lose interest or become irate. So much of history has been and still is being overpowered by men who speak louder and write over women.

The two responses to feminist critiques that we discussed in class were first: accept and ignore the point, and second: dismiss the argument out of hand. This discussion almost made me laugh, because it’s so real! Thinking of every conversation I‘ve had with family members and stubborn acquaintances about feminism who have said “okay, so what?” and “you don’t really think that, do you?” has baffled me. More so, how we can have a full circle conversation and those people can reject everything I’ve said, writing me off as emotional and hurt. I expect any discussion of feminist critiques of security studies would be met with critiques such as this. This is particularly frustrating, because it is a field which so lacks a feminist pedagogy. Gender is everywhere, though representation is not, and this field which looks to protect but doesn’t represent or fully understand so many seems to be lacking. Introducing security to feminism is a great first step in closing this gap.

Written by: Cassandra Zavislak, F21

[1] Carmen Vasquez “Towards a Revolutionary Ethics” Coming Up, January 1983.

[2] Hooks, Bell. 1996 Talking Back. Ch. 8 “toward a revolutionary feminist pedagogy”