Recently, the blog IntLawGrrls featured a month-long series on the 1991 AJIL article ‘Feminist Approaches to International Law’, by co-authors Hilary Charlesworth, Christine Chinkin, and Shelley Wright. Here Hilary, Christine and Shelley conclude the series by reflecting on their article and its impact. View the original article here, and the IntLawGrrls series here. We would like to thank the editors of IntLawGrrls for allowing us to post ‘Looking Back on Feminist Approaches to International Law’ on Regarding Rights .
We are so grateful to Jaya Ramji-Nogales for organizing this IntLawGrrls series, to Jaya and our colleagues Sari Kouvo, Aoife O’Donoghue, Fiona de Londras, Siobhán Mullally, Doris Buss, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, and Diane Marie Amann for their generous posts, and to the readers who commented on those posts. It has been heartening to read the responses to our article and to see different ways of understanding it.
Our article, ‘Feminist Approaches to International Law’, came to life in a haphazard way.
During a long dinner at the Australian Jessup Moot finals in February 1989, the three of us had discussed our separate interests in feminist legal theory and the difficulties in applying feminist thought to international law. A conference paper, we thought, would test and refine our fuzzy ideas. We decided to offer the paper for the mid-year annual meeting of international lawyers organized by Professor Don Greig at the Australian National University. We expected that our paper proposal would be rejected as too off-beat and provocative, so we were surprised, and rather daunted, when Professor Greig accepted it without hesitation.
We began writing the paper with no sense of where we would end up, and would regularly share bouts of long-distance panic by phone between Sydney and Melbourne. We wondered constantly whether we would ever manage to pull it all together.
In the end, facing a room full of our curious colleagues, Shelley began with a general overview of feminist legal theory; Christine followed with a discussion of legal instruments and the gender imbalance within international organizations; and Hilary (heavily pregnant) ended with a discussion of the international right to development as an example of how the gendered nature of international law serves to disempower and marginalise women. We did not see ourselves as adding anything to feminist theories, but rather as professional borrowers, using feminist insights to illuminate our discipline.
The reaction to our paper was mixed.
Several people were enthusiastic, while many of the audience looked discomfited and embarrassed (perhaps on our behalf!). One senior figure in the Australian international law community said in the discussion following the paper that the ideas were quite unrealistic, as they would mean enlarging the scope of international law and depriving our discipline of its distinctive character. Some of our colleagues advised us to get back to “real world” international law, for the sake of our careers. Another type of reaction was interest in the paper as an intriguing academic sideshow.
With some hubris, we decided to submit the revised paper to the American Journal of International Law, as it represented for us the mainstream of the discipline that we wanted to challenge. We expected a peremptory rejection, but instead received a guardedly positive response from Professor Tom Franck, the Editor in Chief. He was sympathetic to the topic, but he and the Journal’s readers did not think our draft was our ‘best shot’. His proposals for revision were, characteristically, insightful, and made the paper much tighter. Although we only saw this later, this interchange was typical of Tom’s openness to new ideas, his encouragement of junior scholars and his rigorous thinking.
After the article appeared in the Journal’s October 1991 issue, we found that we began to be asked to appear at symposia and on panels to present what were seen as controversial and contentious feminist ideas – but the ideas were rarely taken up or engaged with. As the three of us became more closely associated with “feminist approaches to international law,” our colleagues were sometimes rather disconcerted if we spoke on international law issues without taking an explicitly feminist approach.
Over the years feminist work in international law has attracted both strongly negative responses and support from unexpected sources. It is striking that feminist analysis is debated mainly by feminists and is rarely taken up even by other critical scholars. The adoption of some feminist vocabulary by international institutions, such as gender mainstreaming, has by and large provided an alibi for the status quo.
Perhaps, we often think, the article created a splash without waves, but it’s been wonderful to learn through this series that it has been helpful to some members of a younger generation of scholars.
Looking back over the article, we see aspects that appear naïve or inconsistent, and we each still struggle with what feminist approaches might mean in international law. However, the impact of the article for us was as much personal and emotional as it was intellectual or academic. The article brought us into contact with a wonderful group of people across the globe. We ourselves have sometimes disagreed vigorously about the directions of our work, yet through it all have maintained close ties of friendship, a great and sustaining gift.