J. Ann Tickner

J. Ann Tickner Centre Feminist Foreign Policy
J Ann Tickner Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy

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.  


Blessing Ikpa: Tell me about your current positions.

J. Ann Tickner: I have several positions. I’m a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at American University and a Professor Emerita at the University of Southern California. I have taught some graduate courses here at American, but mainly I’m doing research, advising students and serving on some Ph.D. committees.  I am also a professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, in their Gender, Peace and Security Centre. They received a generous grant from the university for this center, as well some support from the Australian government. Presently, I’m doing research on the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda of the UN. This agenda got started when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 in 2000 which stated that the international community should acknowledge women’s security needs and promote women’s participation in security and peace-building processes.  

BI: What led to you becoming a professor?

JAT: The subject matter interested me. I’ve always been concerned about international affairs. I grew up in London and experienced the bombing in WWII. Going through the experience of the war set me to trying to think about what we can do to prevent war; hence my interest in peace studies. In 1952, my father joined the permanent staff at the United Nations and we came to live in New York. So I’ve had a lot of exposure to international affairs and have always thought of myself as a “transatlantic” person. I think that was what really got me started. I got a master’s degree from Yale in 1961. But in those days, when women got married, it was not expected that they would continue working. I’ve told my students never to say that women who stay at home are not working, because raising children, housekeeping, and caregiving is a lot of work. But I did pause my academic career and stay at home to raise three children. Then, in 1976, when my youngest daughter was five, I decided to go back and get a Ph.D. While I still wasn’t sure about an academic career, I knew I wanted to get out of the house and do something in addition to raising three lovely daughters who have all turned out to be very strong feminists. Eventually it led me to university teaching.

J Ann Tickner Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy

BI: Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?

JAT: For me, there are two meanings of that word and I would say yes to both of them. The first meaning is believing that all people, regardless of race, class and national and gender identity, should have equal possibilities and opportunities in the world. The other meaning pertains to doing feminist work. When I first starting teaching I was not doing feminist research. I taught introductory courses in International Relations (IR); a great deal of what we taught in these courses was about war and national security. As it was during the Cold War, I taught about nuclear weapons, strategic planning, and so on. I began to notice that some of the women undergraduates would come to me and say they didn’t think they would do very well in this course. It didn’t seem quite right for them. I never really know what they meant, except that I would notice that there were a lot of men students who would sit in the front and discuss weapons while many of the women didn’t say anything. And of course, most of these women always did well on their exams, but nevertheless, it struck me that there was something about the IR field that didn’t speak to women.

I think that’s less true now because the field has broadened considerably to include other issues such as human rights, development and international political economy. Also from my perspective as a teacher of IR, there was something about how we talked about knowledge building that always bothered me. In the late 1980s, I happened to read a book by physicist Evelyn Fox Keller, called Gender and Science, in which she talks about how the natural sciences are masculine in the kinds of questions they ask and the way they go about answering them. This really intrigued me, and I thought you could apply the same ideas to IR theory. So not until after I started teaching and came to this realization did I begin my feminist work. In 1992, I published my book Gender in International Relations, which talks about IR theory and knowledge building and how it is gendered. The questions we ask in IR are very much governed by masculinity. So, that was how I got into feminism.

J Ann Tickner Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy

BI: I remember, you were one of the first feminist scholars we read in one of my seminar classes. A lot of my other classmates and I were really excited; we recognized there was a lot of theory from a masculine perspective and recognized that was not how the world works.

JAT: This was exactly how my students felt; they were not connecting with the material. Over the years, my students, as well as students from all over the world, have reached out to me, saying that when they read my book a light bulb went on in their heads and they saw IR differently. You don’t realize until you read something from a different perspective, that you are being fed only one way of looking at the world. Much of IR is written from a white, hegemonic, masculine perspective; not all men feel comfortable with this either. Often you don’t notice it, but if you’re studying something like international relations, you may think it’s a bit strange but just the way it is. And it has been very difficult to get the mainstream IR profession on board with what I do. They’re interested in some of the ideas, but they don’t think that feminists are doing theory correctly, which is very interesting.

Feminist would say there are many ways to construct theories. Since my work is not policy oriented, I didn’t think of it as having impact on policy. But someone who did some research on the women’s groups who were behind the effort to get the UN Security Council to adopt 1325 told me some of these women were using my work as background material. It gratifies me to think I’m having some policy impact. And then I have students who have gone out and used some of the ideas from my courses in the policy or activist world, something that I find very gratifying also.

BI: Do you have any projects you’re working on currently?

JAT: Yes, I have quite a few projects, mostly with my Australian colleagues. We just finished an edited book called Revisiting Gendered States recently published by Oxford University Press. One of the very first books about feminist IR came out of a conference I organized in 1990. It was an edited volume called Gendered States. So in 2014, we convened a workshop at Monash University in Australia centered on the theme of what we could say about gendered states 30 years later. Revisiting Gendered States contains the papers from this workshop. The authors include many scholars from the Global South, which is really great because the first book had a very Global North, Western focus.

I also just co-authored with Jacqui True, the Director of the Gender Peace and Security Centre at Monash, an article in the journal International Studies Quarterly.  In this article, we went back and looked at what women peace activists were doing in WWI. Women from both sides of the conflict met at The Hague, Netherlands in 1915 and devised a set of principles for what a just peace treaty would look like. At the time, their ideas were derided as useless, and they were called silly women. However the principles were very sensible; for example, one of them was not to punish the aggressors. Contrary to this, Germany was heavily punished in the peace treaty, one of the leading causes of the rise of fascism in the 1930s. Interestingly, Jacqui and I found that the principles were very similar to those put forward by the UN’s Women Peace and Security agenda that I talked about earlier. So, it has taken 100 years for these ideas to be taken seriously by the international community. I hope it will not be another 100 before they are fully implemented

I’ve also been doing more research on the early twentieth century and working on a paper on feminist diplomacy in that period; in other words seeing how women were practicing diplomacy before they were officially allowed to be diplomats. I have given talks on this topic, specifically about Jane Addams, a peace activist and one of the leaders at The Hague conference. I have titled these talks Hidden Figures; I thought of the title when I saw the movie. Most of my work over the years has been about stories that we never hear or that never get told in IR. One of my articles was about indigenous knowledge. Although we never hear anything about it, indigenous people have amazing things to say about how we could order the world in a better way. I have also written about those who were colonized. In the future, I would like to recover more histories that have not been told at least not in IR. Most post-colonial scholars, feel that recovering their own histories is a way to empower subordinated peoples.

J Ann Tickner Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy

BI: What are some challenges you have faced during your career?

JAT: Personally, I’ve been very fortunate. I started my academic career at Holy Cross College, a Jesuit college in Massachusetts. I t was a very good place for me to begin my feminist work because they didn’t mind what you chose to work on as long as you were good at it. If I had been at a big research university, I think I would have faced more obstacles because what I was doing was so outside the mainstream paradigm that is very hegemonic in the US. This continues to be a big problem today. When I got established and became known for my feminist approach, I moved to the University of Southern California, which had a very progressive and multi disciplinary School of International Relations. I have been very fortunate that my career has been at institutions that have accepted what I do. But it is a struggle in the wider profession. I have had Ph.D. students studying gender who fail to get jobs in academia. And even my Ph.D. students who have chosen subjects outside of what the mainstream considers acceptable, have difficulty getting jobs in the US. It is better outside the US, and many International Relations scholars outside the mainstream have moved to places like Australia and the UK.

BI: Do you think it’s because of that hegemony you mentioned previously here in the US?

JAT: I think so. U.S. IR is very unwilling to listen to different voices. I’ve also found it strange, that many, American IR scholars do not feel called to spend time outside the US. My late husband was in the same field, and we lived for a short time in many places overseas because we felt that you could not teach international relations unless you experienced the world from different locations. In the US, quantitative methods and rational choice theories are taking over the field. This is not so true outside the US though even this is changing. Universities are becoming very focused on rankings and credentials. To give you an example, a faculty member who has published in the American Political Science Review, the top journal in the field of political science, helps achieve promotion and tenure at one’s university. But the APSR tends to publish only mainstream research and I doubt the APSR would publish anything that I write. So people are rewarded for staying within the hegemonic mainstream of the discipline something that has been less of a problem for me personally, but more so for students who take non-traditional approaches. Sometimes I advise them not to go into academia and encourage them to pursue different paths. One of my former students now works for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and has a fascinating job directing its peace program in New York. She works a lot with the UN, and travels all over the world. Something that I do find troubling is that the consequence of this is that, in the US, there are no Ph.D. programs in feminist international relations and thus no teachers who can pass on this knowledge.

BI: How do you stay motivated?

JAT: I love what I do. I’m at an age when I could be retired, but I really enjoy research and working with students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I hope I can continue to inspire students to think about gender through my talks and writings. To be motivated you have to really enjoy and stay engaged with people and ideas. The global community of IR feminist is a wonderful community of which I feel privileged to be a part. And I’ve been very fortunate in always having jobs in places that have been very accepting of what I do. Sadly though the academy is becoming too focused on rankings and credentials rather than on critical thinking so if I were just starting out as a young person, I’m not sure I would enjoy it as much. But to end on a positive note, I always tell young people to pursue their passions and that they hold the power to shape the future.


Interview by Blessing Ikpa, Editor at CFFP. Twitter: @blessingikpa