Who Supports a Feminist Foreign Policy for the United States?

July 21, 2017

(Cross-posted with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Running Numbers blog)

In August 1995, President Bill Clinton established the President’s Interagency Council on Women and declared: “We are putting our efforts to protect and advance women’s rights where they belong–in the mainstream of American foreign policy.” Elsewhere, I have described the subsequent growth of policy activity on behalf of global women’s rights and traced which political actors have been most active in its implementation.

In this post I ask a different set of questions: how strong is popular support for a “feminist foreign policy” that makes women’s rights a central priority? What segments of the population are most supportive?  Is support for global women’s rights correlated with other policy attitudes?

Some answers to these questions can be found in the annual Chicago Council Survey of Americans on foreign policy issues conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In the 2016 survey, the Council asked respondents to rate the importance of a number possible foreign policy goals for the United States, including (among others), combating terrorism, maintaining military superiority, limiting global warming, and combating world hunger. Included among these foreign policy goals was promoting the rights of women and girls around the world. (In the analysis to follow I combine this question with a second that has very similar wording and yields almost identical results).

One feature of the results of the survey is that Americans consider most of these goals either very important or somewhat important. For example, 97 percent of respondents consider combating terrorism a very or somewhat important goal, versus 91 percent for maintaining military superiority, 90 percent for combating global hunger, and 83 percent for limiting global warming. A substantial majority –87 percent—considers promoting the rights of women and girls an important or somewhat important foreign goal.

Clearly, most foreign policy goals are considered important to some extent. The more interesting question is which segments of the population say the policy is very important. This seems all the more relevant given news reports that President Trump’s budget proposes to eliminate the office that administers global women’s issues. As Congress deliberates on that budget, it is important to know both the overall level of popular support for advancing global gender rights and who is more skeptical.

The graphic below shows the breakout of those who believe that promoting the rights of women and girls is a very important policy goal. There are few surprises. Women, Democrats, and those who intended to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are far more likely to identify global gender issues as “very important.” Black Americans are also very supportive. [Click on image to enlarge]

I also examined what other foreign policy attitudes were related to support for global gender rights. Those who believe that strengthening the United Nations would be an effective way for the US to achieve its goals also support the pursuit of global gender rights. The finding is not surprising because the United Nations has been a crucial forum for advocacy on global gender issues. In addition, scholars have found that opinions of the UN and opinions favoring global justice tend to cluster among citizens who favor a cooperative approach to global affairs or a redistribution of global resources (Gravelle, Reifler, and Scotto 2017).

A second correlation may be a bit more surprising to some readers: support for the pursuit of global women’s rights is also strongest among respondents who are very worried about being the target of gun violence. At first glance, a relationship between worries about gun violence and global gender rights may not seem obvious. Several factors likely explain it. First, fear of gun violence is highly gendered –women are more likely to worry about being a victim of gun violence. Second, women are no doubt aware that women are often the victim of violent crime and violent global conflicts. Securing the rights of women is not just a question of justice –it is a question of personal safety. As Valerie Hudson and her colleagues have put it, the security of women and the reduction of global violence are integrally related (Hudson et al 2012). What may be surprising is that a simple question about gun violence elicits responses that are cosmopolitan in their overtones.


Gravelle, Timothy B., Jason Reifler, and Thomas J. Scotto. 2017. “The Structure of Foreign Policy Attitudes in Transatlantic Perspective: Comparing the   United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany.” European Journal of Political Research, March. doi:10.1111/1475-6765.12197.

Hudson, Valerie M., et. al. (2012). Sex and world peace. New York: Columbia University Press.


Policy Activity in the Office of Global Women’s Issues, US Department of State 1995-2015

June 27, 2016

Richard C. Eichenberg, Tufts University

Elizabeth Robinson (Tufts 2015)

with the assistance of

Lily Hartzell (Tufts 2018)

Lara LoBrutto (Tufts 2017)

First in a series of posts

Update 7/12/2016: codebook now available


In August 1995, President William Clinton established the President’s Interagency Council on Women and declared:  “We are putting our efforts to protect and advance women’s rights where they belong–in the mainstream of American foreign policy.”  In January 2013, President Barack Obama issued a Presidential memorandum on the “Coordination of Policies and Programs to Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women and Girls Globally.”  The memorandum directed the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs to establish an inter-agency working group to coordinate government-wide implementation of policies to promote gender equality and advance the status of women and girls internationally.

There has been some scholarly attention to the subject. Karen Garner chronicled the origins and development of the policy in the Clinton administration and analyzed the role of important political figures in the pursuit of gender equality.  More recently, Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl traced the evolution of the policy through the Obama years and offered critical analysis of its implementation.  Helen Laville reviewed critical perspectives on the role of women’s rights in American policy since 1945.

Nonetheless, questions remain about the priority that is placed on the pursuit of women’s rights in foreign policy.  Has declaratory policy actually led to increased policy activity?  In what policy areas?  Is the policy focused on specific countries or regions? Which presidents and secretaries of state have been most active in the pursuit of global gender equality, and on which policy problems do they focus?

In this and subsequent posts, we describe a new data set that documents the volume of policy activity announced by the bureaucratic organization that is most responsible for the pursuit of gender equality in US foreign policy: the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the US Department of State (OGWI –the name has varied over the years). In this first post, we provide a brief description of the procedures that we employed to collect the data and an overview of the number of policy actions in the years 1995-2015.  Subsequent posts will focus on the apparent priority placed on gender equality by different secretaries of state; the programmatic focus of policy; and the regional focus of policy actions. (A separate data collection on gender equality actions in USAID is underway)


Measuring Policy Activity

We define policy activity as any policy action that is publicly announced or otherwise reproduced on the OGWI website. These actions appear on the main webpage of the Office of Global Women’s Issues (on the “Releases” link on the left sidebar), which further links to the following two categories: “Remarks, Testimony” and “Other Releases.”  (A list of links for all actions since 1995 are reproduced in a Codebook that we will eventually distribute with project materials).

Within the two categories above, we counted any occurrence of the following types of actions: a government official speaking in public; all remarks, testimony, speeches, round table discussions, interviews, and public appearance; and all press releases, reports, fact sheets, newsletters, op-eds, legislation, and blog posts.

Two examples illustrate the sorts of “action” that we count.   In June of 2008, First Lady Laura Bush traveled to Afghanistan to meet with a variety of women’s groups and to announce several grants to support universities and literacy programs.  More recently, in March 2016 Secretary of State Kerry announced a $47 million initiative for a Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls.

We do not claim that this measure of the policy output of one office provides a comprehensive picture of the government’s commitment to women’s rights in foreign policy. That will require a fuller study of the budgetary resources and personnel that are committed to the policy, together with a qualitative assessment of the depth and persistence with which the policy is pursued. A full picture would also include a study of legislative actions, such as the Women’s Peace and Security Act, which is now making its way through both houses of the US Congress.

Nonetheless, the OGWI is the US government’s primary implementing office in the pursuit of global women’s rights, and we believe that a description of the volume of its policy activity and its programmatic and geographic priorities represents an important tool for tracing the evolution of an important foreign policy priority.


Overview: Total Policy Actions, 1995-2015

The graphic below displays the number of policy actions announced by the OGWI in each year since 1995.  Three features of the data stand out. First,  the priority of women’s rights in American foreign policy has indeed grown.  In the last two years of President Clinton’s first term, a total of 12 policy actions were announced.  In the last two years of President Obama’s first term, at least one policy action was announced every two to three days (151 actions in 2011).  Although there was a decline after 2012 in the volume of policy activity, in 2015 the number of actions was nonetheless higher than in any year prior to the Obama administration.










Second, there are two identifiable spurts in policy activity:  during the middle years of the Bush presidency (2002-2006) and most prominently during the first term of the Obama presidency (especially 2010-2012).  In the case of the former, the spike in activity occurs during the most intense years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In a future post, we will explore the extent to which policy activity was in fact focused on those two countries.  In the case of the increase during Obama’s first term, it is of course possible that policy activity was simply following the President’s own priorities, but that explanation falters in light of the substantial decline in activity that occurred after 2012. It therefore seems equally plausible that the peak of policy activity during the first Obama term was due to the personal interest and priorities of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had been the first honorary chair of the President’s Interagency Council on Women before giving her famous 1995 speech to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.  In a future post, we will explore the extent to which each Secretary of State was personally associated with the policy actions announced during their tenure.

Third, although policy activity does grow incrementally, there are also periods of decline, specifically at the end of the second Bush term and the end of the first Obama term.  In each case, the likely explanation is a pressing competing priority on the agenda of the Secretary of State (the Iraq surge under Secretary Condoleeza Rice and the negotiations with Israel, Palestinians, and Iran undertaken by Secretary of State Kerry).  Nonetheless, each decline is followed by a period of increase, which suggests that women’s rights have become an institutionalized priority in American foreign policy.


Technical Note

Because of the large spike in policy activity during the tenure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the political interest that surrounds her candidacy for president, we invested additional effort to double-check the accuracy of our data for the period of her tenure as Secretary and the period following her tenure.  The data through 2012 were originally collected by Coder 1.  To double-check her work, two additional coders replicated the data collection for the period 2009-2015.  For the period of overlap (2009-2012), the number of policy actions recorded by Coder 1 and Coder 3 were nearly identical, but Coder 2 counted fewer actions in two years (22 fewer in 2011 and 17 fewer in 2012).  For the period 2013-2015, Coders 2 and 3 were nearly identical in their counts.  We chose a conservative method for reconciling the two years of difference during 2011 and 2012 and all other years of overlap: we averaged the number of policy actions recorded by the three coders.  This method has the effect of slightly lowering the totals for these two years in particular.  For other years, as noted, the counts for all three coders are nearly identical so that averaging has little impact.