Cynthia Enloe

Cynthia Enloe Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy
Cynthia Enloe Graphics (1).png

At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice.  


Marissa Conway: Hi Cynthia! Firstly, I am curious about your journey to becoming a feminist and incorporating gender into your analysis. What drew you to international relations in the first place?

Cynthia Enloe: The funny thing is, I wasn’t really trained as an international relations person. I was trained – and really it’s helped me, to tell you the truth – as a comparative politics person. That means, at the UC Berkeley, where I did my master’s and my PhD, I was a comparative politics person, specializing in Southeast Asia. And, in particular, focusing on Malaysia. So from the start, I had the great advantage of having a comparative politics perspective. Being an “area-specialist” had additional advantages. First, you compare whole countries and their political systems. As a comparative politics person, I never say “France” does that and “Nigeria” does that, because there is no such thing as “France,” there is no such thing as “Nigeria.” There is the particular elite in power at the moment and all of the career civil servants underneath them, and together they make decisions. Well, that’s not Nigeria and that’s not France. That is a particular cluster of people, usually men – although at first I never noticed that – making their own assessments, their own assumptions, being nervous about some things and aspiring to other things. So the great advantage of being a comparative politics person is I never thought that international politics was carried on by chess pieces called countries. The second great advantage of a comparative politics approach is that you never think that politics is just what goes on in government; you ask about wider social dynamics.

Early on, as a Southeast Asia person, I had to learn all about Southeast Asian histories: Indonesia is different than Malaysia, Malaysia is different than Vietnam, and Vietnam is different than Laos. And I had to learn about histories and cultures. Before my graduate studies, I hadn’t realized there were different streams of Islam, different traditions of Buddhism; I didn’t know the differences between the language groups or between the region’s hill people and people living in the lower regions. I had to learn about literatures. I read a lot of novels and short stories. The great advantage of being an area studies person, or at least thinking that I should make some small effort to immerse myself in one country, is that I didn’t shrink the definition of “politics.”

So, I learned that political life always was interacting with cultures, histories, literatures and specific socioeconomics. The result: when I did come to international relations, I had been equipped with a broad curiosity and a kind of super-awareness – I didn’t have the answers, I just had the awareness. It was this combination that never let me slip into thinking that actual international relations was something narrowly imagined to be “IR.” One of the things you might notice is that I never use those initials.

MC: Why not? What about that?

CE: Because I think that part of political science has really shrunk what it means to be interested in those political relationships that become international. I get worried about that. Now I have great buddies who really take on this thing called IR seriously –they are excellent critics of IR. Australians and Indians and Americans and Britons and Irish and Canadians, all of whom carefully challenge IR. But I was never inside it; so I was kind of inoculated against a lot of those presumptions. And that’s just sheer luck. If you start seeing international politics from the vantage point of the very complexly diverse people of Malaysia, you also are inoculated from seeing the world from Washington or from London or from Moscow or from Paris. That is definitely a big help.

So, when Bananas, Beaches and Bases first got published back in 1989 it was by British feminist press, Pandora. I didn’t write it for an academic press or for an academic audience. Then University of California Press picked it up and they’re the ones who have published “Bananas” since. When the original version was published, a lot more women were beginning to teach international politics, a lot more men were beginning to wake up to the realities of international politics being broader than they’d ever thought, and both sets of readers found Bananas, Beaches and Bases and started adopting it in their courses.

All of a sudden, all these people in IR, in that distinct academic field, began thinking that I was them. I was increasingly “adopted” by the international relations academic community, especially by the feminist IR community. While I always thought of myself as a comparative politics person, now all these wonderful women – and some men – in international relations began to say to me, “No, no, you belong with us.”

MC: That’s so funny. That’s such a great metaphor; you start on one path and you end up in a different place.

CE: Especially if people embrace you. I’ve given a fuller account of this story in the newest book, The Big Push (2017). Just like the original “Bananas,” this newest book is again co-published by a British trade/feminist press, Myriad, and by University of California Press. I had fun crafting the chapter that charts this winding feminist journey.

MC: I wanted to touch on this idea of having foreign policy, US foreign policy, be so internal-looking. And to some degree this is the nature of foreign policy, as you are trying to convince other people, other countries to act in your interests, it is a very selfish process. To me, this is where feminist foreign policy comes in. I’ve had conversations where I wonder whether these two ideas really go together. Before we get into feminist foreign policy itself, do you have any advice on how to counteract this very US-centric nature that American foreign policy tends to have?

CE: Well, actually, most countries’ governments adopt self-serving foreign policies. What is distinct about the US government’s approach is that that self-serving is based on the narrowest possible notion of self-interest. After all, one could argue – feminists in fact do! – that it is any country’s people’s best interest to work together with other peoples to roll back the causes of climate change, to promote women’s rights, and to combat all kinds of racism.

Maybe Americans – not all certainly, but an alarmingly high percentage of them today  – are so unrealistically parochial in their understandings of “self interest” because they live in a country that in 2018 is so geographically large, so wealthy (unequally distributed wealth, of course), and with a government that has such a big military that they’ve allowed themselves to become oblivious of wider genuine interests, oblivious of the advantages of cross-country cooperation over competition, and oblivious of the negative consequences of fear mongering. Becoming oblivious is a very dangerous process, I think.

Again, one shouldn’t imagine that no other governments – its political elites, its ruling political party leaders, the chief interest groups to which it listens, its career foreign service officers – are guilty of adopting a narrow or parochial foreign policy. One cannot make sense of Brexit, of the Swedish domestic resistance to Margot Waldstrom’s feminist foreign policy initiatives, of the rightist political tendencies in today’s Italy, Hungary and Poland, of the militarily oppressive actions by the government officials of Turkey, Syria, Russia, or Iran without, in each case, digging into their unrealistically parochial notions of self-interest.

Foreign policy is a process. Often it’s a very messy and certainly a complex decision-making process. In the US today, there is a fierce debate amongst members of the American foreign policy class about whether or not the country’s interest is best pursued by adopting Donald Trump and his allies’ narrow “America first” international approach. Even among American political elites, for instance, there was not consensus on pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords. Debates matter.

That does not mean that all foreign policy debates are open, transparent and democratic. Who gets to take part in any foreign policy debate, who is taken seriously, who is treated dismissively – these are determined by the particular workings in each country of patriarchy, capitalism, cronyism, and racism. Once again, listening for debates while we monitor whose voices are heard and whose ignored in any foreign policy debate will protect us against naively talking about “the US does this” and “Iran does that.”

I don’t think of foreign policy, therefore, as happening on a chess board. The metaphor I prefer is a really complicated crowded dance floor. Sometimes some people are doing hip hop while other people are doing waltzes on the same dance floor.

MC: That’s so true. And they’re dancing with each other, doing different dances.

CE: Yes, and people cut in. I think of the crowded dance floor with competing bands that are playing different music. Then we can picture all the people in the gallery who aren’t allowed to dance, who are supposed to be grateful that they’re even allowed in to watch the dancers. And then there are all people who cleaned the ballroom before and after the dance but who are left outside in the cold or in the sweltering heat.

Developing a feminist analysis gives us a high tolerance for messiness. One of the things I found so frustrating with a lot of the most prestigious foreign policy analysts, people who chosen to comment on international politics and foreign policy are on the BBC or their Japanese or US or French national media counterparts, is their easy slide into the chess board analogy.

Cynthia Enloe Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy

MC: I think you’ve said this in something I read once about how feminist analysis allows you to understand silence and to read silence. It’s not necessarily analyzing what’s there, it’s analyzing what isn’t there and then knowing how to interpret that, what to do with that.

CE: Compared to our ways of making sense of foreign policy processes, we’re more aware of silence/es and the politics of silencing in, say, anti-poverty policy or in health policy. For instance, we’re more aware of who is not being heard when people are talking about the crisis in Britain’s NHS. We’re much more likely to ask: Where are the foreign nurses’ voices? Why are so many of these women now going home, worsening health care services? But in foreign policy processes, we don’t often ask: Who else has a stake? Who else has pertinent knowledge? What is suppressing their voices in foreign policy making?

The current #MeToo movement – which now is a transnational movement – is precisely about the politics of silences and of silencing. That is what is making it such a potentially transformative movement. It is a movement that is taking seriously the power to dismiss, the power to trivialize, the power to humiliate, the power to intimidate. It is taking seriously what enables the silenced to speak out, to be heard, to have an impact on businesses and institutions (including the UN and Oxfam and every military) , on laws, courts, media and cultural spaces.

MC: How do you see a feminist foreign policy fitting into this? How do you read this, I guess we’ll start as a theory, how do you read it in today’s political context?

CE: I think exploring a feminist foreign policy requires us all to be curious about at least two of its dimensions. One, what would be a feminist process by which any country would create a feminist foreign policy? What would be a feminist process by which Ireland or the Czech Republic would create a foreign policy? Asking these questions makes you bring to bear what feminists have taught us about the politics of silencing and silences. You (“you” is a strong intersectional movement) would craft a process that that dismantled both the silences and the silencing.

 For instance, one of the things feminists have gotten very good about is who is considered an “expert”. I put quotes around “expert” all the time so that all of us will be a little questioning and dubious and skeptical about somebody called an expert. I like “specialist” better. Specialist is someone who devotes time to trying to make sense of something, migrant workers’ rights, Iranian nuclear policy or American military policy in Syria. By contrast, I find that alleged “expertise” tends to be masculinized.

The second dimension of creating a feminist foreign policy concerns hammering out – together - its substantive goals. And that really needs to be thought of in terms of redefining both “national interest” and “national security.”  One of the great political leaps forward in the last 20 years has been the development of the whole field of feminist security studies. People now developing this field ask, for instance, who is counted as part of the “nation” when any national security priority is set? The elite in the capital? The dominant ethnic or racial group? Feminists have learned to dissect the so-called “nation.” So a feminist foreign policy specialist never will say “national interest” as if it’s not problematic.

The same is true of discussions of alleged “national security.” Feminists will always ask the double question: First, whose nation? Who is included, who is left out? And second, what sort of security? Does a government buying a new fighter jet feed the country’s food-deprived? Does celebrating soldiers’ alleged battlefield heroism protect women from male domestic violence?

MC: That’s really true. I’m so fascinated by foreign policy, I see it as such a problematic field. It’s so overwhelming when you think about yourself as an individual trying to take on this institution, this giant structure: what do you even do, how do you even start? But knowing that I can do just a tiny bit of work every day on this project - maybe it’s a very selfish thing, maybe this is a very self-serving project, I don’t know - it makes me feel like I am doing something. I’m with other people who are so passionate about this and who want to change things and shake up the status quo. But alone it’s just not going to happen, it’s so overwhelming.

Cynthia Enloe Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy

CE: One of the things to do is get people involved who have been following foreign policy decisions in a particular area. Take particular treaties that really have been hammered out in ways that are supposed to be particularly useful for gender equality and gender justice. Take what’s called the Rome Statute - it is the founding document for the International Crimes Court (ICC) and The Hague. The ICC treaty was hammered out in Rome with a lot of feminist strategists on the scene and they talk about staying up until two in the morning. If you have to drink whisky with some state delegation at two in the morning in order to argue your point, you do. And they got into the ICC treaty things that had never been in an international treaty before. That’s the only reason that – well, it started with the Yugoslav Tribunal and then the Rwandan Tribunal, but then it’s in the Rome Statute – that rape, systematic wartime rape, is now considered and prosecuted as an international war crime in The Hague is because of these women lobbying in the hotel corridors in Rome.

MC: That’s incredible.

CE: None of the guys who went to Rome to hammer out this treaty, almost none of them had sexual abuse on their minds as a war crime. Treaties are hammered out by state delegations. The US government had a delegation, so did the Netherlands, China, Saudi Arabia, the Vatican, and Russia and all the other major players. The only reason that sexual abuse committed as part of waging war is in the treaty’s small but very critical print is because these women activists, who were not part of state delegations, went there and worked 24/7 to persuade different state delegates to back the insertion of systematic wartime rape as an internationally recognized – and prosecutable – war crime. The late (and much missed) feminist international lawyer, Rhonda Copelon, was one of the really savvy, completely tireless, sharp feminist legal specialists who was there lobbying late at night in that Rome hotel.

MC: That is quite a feat.

CE: It’s an amazing feat of international foreign policy making. But then there is always Act 2. This is the country by country, government by government treaty ratification process. Which ratification processes were the most difficult? I’m guessing, in this case, one of the difficult IIC treaty ratification dramas may have been within the Italian government because of the continued influence of the Vatican – and its patriarchal presumptions about women, men, sexuality, marriage and reproduction. The Italian government has ratified the Rome Statute creating the ICC, with its recognition of systematic wartime rape as a prosecutable war crime. How did the Italian feminists overcome the official Catholic challenges? Feminist foreign policy specialists and advocates want to know!

Now here comes the third step. Once the government has ratified an international treaty, it becomes part of its country’s foreign policy, an official commitment even if the political elites don’t uphold it in practice. How do feminist activists and researchers in each country go about compelling their own governments to abide by the treaties they have ratified? And how do feminists hold the ICC prosecutors and judges accountable for actively pursuing cases of wartime sexual abuse? There is a transnational feminist group that has been formed to monitor and document and pressure the officials of the ICC. The group calls itself Initiative for Gender Justice. They have a website and you can see all the things they’ve been doing since 2000 to make sure that the ICC actually carries out their treaty mission. Understanding the work – and the frustrations faced by – the Initiative for Gender Justice would be a wonderful way to gain useful knowledge of both the processes and the goals of one crucial area of feminist foreign policy.

Another big area of international politics to dig into with one’s feminist shovel is the creation of, ratifications of and implementations of Convention on the Rights of Domestic Work. Do you have the new copy of Bananas? Go to the chapter on domestic workers. One of the reasons I loved doing this big updating and revising of Bananas (new edition, 2014) was that so much has been happening in feminist transnational organizing, and I wanted that to be visible.

MC: Scrubbing the Globalized Tub: Domestic Servants in World Politics.

CE: One of the things you’ll see in there in this new chapter is the new international network of domestic worker advocates, especially from the Philippines and Brazil; they have been among the real activists. They lobbied the International Labour Organization (ILO) to create a new convention on the rights of domestic workers. Now, that means nothing unless each individual government ratifies it. The ILO Convention 189 is one of the biggest feminist successes in international politics recently. One the most radical things that the convention says is that domestic workers are workers, because until 2012 or 2013, when the ILO Convention 189 was passed, domestic workers were excluded from every international treaty on the rights of workers.

Just think, who doesn’t want women working as domestic workers to have labour rights? Many of the families that hire them. So many of those women and men who need their homes cleaned don’t want to think they are hiring someone who has rights. So those people – again it tells us about silences and silencing – those people, the employers, they pushed for domestic workers to be defined as “companions.” Not real workers. The International Domestic Workers’ Federation, the International Domestic Workers’ Network, their first big success was to get the ILO to admit for the first time that domestic women, who vacuum, scrub bathrooms and mind children, are actually workers and if they are workers they have rights. Now that question is, which governments have refused to ratify?

So here’s another way to kind of chart feminist foreign policy. That’s what I’m really pushing here: take a very specific area that feminists have said is really important to feminists, to all women, to diverse women, including women who do not call themselves feminists, a part of foreign policy that diverse women have a stake in – for instance, the certification of and the implementation of rights of all sorts of women workers. And then watch what happens.

MC: I love this. I love your brain.

CE: I love dreaming up “homework” for everyone else.

MC: These are homework assignments I am very happy to do.

Cynthia Enloe Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy

CE: And also you can get a lot of other people to do them. The UK hasn’t signed onto the ILO Convention 189. The first country’s government to sign on was Brazil. Brazilians really saw the national interest of Brazil as being tied to fairness for the thousands of women who work as domestic workers domestically and overseas. The second government was that of the Philippines, because their government has been deeply involved in international policy for domestic workers, particularly Filipinos as migrant workers, as domestic workers. Watch which government officials see domestic workers’ rights as national interests and which governments’ officials are afraid of domestic worker rights because they think it will undermine so-called national interests.

I think each of us can choose to examine the gun trade, or the lives of migrant domestic workers, or the workings of international war crimes prosecution; that is, we each can focus on a particular issue and then our task won’t seem overwhelming. And, as feminists, we know the power of trading our findings. So then we can build a collective knowledge, out of which we can craft collectively meaningful foreign policies.

MC: Your perspective is truly a very fresh way of looking at feminist foreign policy, with this kind of understanding of particular issues. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

CE: The good thing is we are all investigators, we are all detectives.

MC: I want to say it before you go, to pay you a compliment. One of the things I’ve noticed purely through your writing and has proven very true in this interview is you have a wonderful ability to call out problems and to critique things while still emanating this kindness and this compassion, which I feel is a very difficult thing to balance sometimes. When you are facing the negativity in the world, it can be very overwhelming and I know if I read something that you’ve written, I’m going to walk away with a better understanding of the problem but also feeling inspired to do something about it. I just want to say thank you for that.

CE: Marissa, that is so heartening. Really. I figure all the people who support patriarchy want to depress us because, if they can depress us, they can immobilize us. I figure, if I become daunted or depressed or isolated, they, the patriarchs win. We’re not going to let them win.

MC: No! I’m feeling very excited and very fired up. Thank you.


Interview by Marissa Conway, Founding Director of CFFP. Twitter: @marissakconway