Valerie Hudson

At the Center 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 (and book recommendations!).

Jennifer Brough (JB): Your book Sex and World Peace explores the link between gender, biological sex and peace. Could you give our readers an overview of this relationship and its impact on what we understand by conflict and peace?

Valerie Hudson (VH): We elaborate on this relationship in our forthcoming book, The First Political Order: Sex, Governance, and National Security. In that book, we assert that the first political order is the sexual order established within a society between the two halves of humanity, males and females, who together must cooperate for there to be a future in the form of their children. Males and females are the originary “Others” for each other, and the politics between them will profoundly influence the socialization of the children born to them—and the larger society that forms thereby. Consider but four political dimensions to the relationship: Will these two groups engage each other as equals, or as subordinate and superordinate? Will decisions for the society be made by one group or by both groups? If the two groups disagree, how is that disagreement to be resolved—can one group be coerced by the other? With regard to resources necessary for survival and persistence, such as food, land, weapons, children, wealth, which group will control these, or will control be shared?


If the answers to these questions are that the groups are not equals, that decision-making is dominated by one group, where conflict resolution is based on coercion of one group by the other, and where one group controls resources, how would such a sexual political order shape the development of the societal political order? The groundwork will have been laid for an inequitable political order ruled by monopolistic rent-seekers prepared to assure continued flow of their rents through exploitation, corruption and violence. Worse yet, such societal arrangements would seem “natural and right” given the original choices made with regard to the First Other, woman.

An unsurprising consequence is that all “others” in the society—those of different ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc.—will also thus tend to be relegated to the same lower status accorded to female, that is, in a sense, “feminized” because their status, agency, and so forth, correspond more to that of females in society than to males.  Historian Gerda Lerner states that, “The precedent of seeing women as an inferior group allows the transference of such a stigma onto any other group which is enslaveable”.

Our new book demonstrates how the creation of such a sexual political order translates into a society that is authoritarian, violent, unstable, corrupt, poorer, with a lower quality of life. In other words, the society will echo the characteristics of its households.


JB: The book also examines micro-level gender violence and macro-level state peacefulness, could you speak about the coterminous nature of these two concepts, particularly how the law contributes?

VH: If our thesis is correct, that the societal political order will express the sexual political order, then we should see that studies of individuals’ attitudes should harmonize with findings about societal predispositions—and this is what we see.

At the micro-level, I am very much taken by the work of Elin Bjarnegard, Erik Melander, Victor Asal, and others.  Using survey research, they empirically demonstrate that beliefs that women are men’s inferiors are associated with greater hostility towards other nations as well as towards minority groups within one’s own nation, and are predictive of actual engagement in political violence for both individuals and organizations (Bjarnegard et al., 2017; Bjarnegard and Melander, 2017; Asal et al., 2013, 2017).  In addition, Wood and Ramirez (2017) demonstrate from a nationally representative US survey that those with more gender egalitarian attitudes exhibit lower support for the use of force to achieve security objectives such as ensuring the oil supply and fighting terrorism, except in cases such as those involving genocide or other serious human rights abuses where support is actually higher.

At the same time, there’s a corpus of empirical work showing that nations demonstrating higher levels of gender inequality tend to be violent and unstable. Marshall and Ramsey (1999) find a relationship between gender empowerment and state willingness to use force, seeing that “the closer to equity of gender empowerment, the fewer involvements in militarized disputes”. Caprioli (2000; see also 2003, 2004) finds that greater domestic gender equality is correlated with less emphasis by the state on using military force to resolve international disputes. Caprioli and Boyer (2001) find that severity of violence used in an international conflict decreases with greater levels of domestic gender equality. Regan and Paskeviciute (2003) find that the degree of women’s access to political power in a society is predictive of the likelihood of that state engaging in interstate disputes and war. Caprioli and Trumbore (2006) find that states with lower levels of gender equality are more likely to be the aggressors and to initiate the use of force in interstate disputes (confirmed by Sobek, Abouharb, and Ingram, 2006). Caprioli and Trumbore (2003) and Melander (2005) find that states with lower levels of domestic gender equality are more likely to be involved in intrastate conflict. Harris and Milton (2016) find that states with higher levels of gender inequality also have significantly higher levels of domestic terrorism. Asal et al. (2013) find that states with greater commitment to gender equality show greater predisposition to peaceful strategies of contention, and also found the same with ethno-political subnational movements. Hudson, Caprioli, Ballif-Spanvill, McDermott, and Emmett (2008/2009) find that states with higher levels of violence against women are also less peaceful internationally, less compliant with international norms, and less likely to have good relations with neighboring states and that violence against women is a better predictor of these outcomes than level of democracy, level of wealth, or presence of Islamic civilization.  

You mention law, and law is important. Societal sanction for an inegalitarian sexual order is often encoded in formal law. At the same, time, law does not tell the whole story, and it is necessary to see what is actually happening on the ground. There is no area of law that is less respected than law that grants women equal rights. So, for example, almost 60% of Afghan women are married before the legal age of marriage in that country. While we must fight for more egalitarian laws for women—and EqualityNow has done terrific work making this case—it is also true that we must be tracking the degree of discrepancy between law and practice concerning women.

JB: In one interview discussing the parallels between domestic violence and state violence, you describe a ‘pincer-movement’ approach to making states more equitable for women from a top-down and bottom-up perspective. Can you elaborate on this comment and how actors at different societal levels can encourage this?

VH: This ties in nicely with the previous discussion on law. It is incumbent upon the government to demonstrate by the laws it promulgates and the actions it takes to enforce such law that they take the nature of the sexual political order seriously. This can be done not only through legislation and law enforcement, but the collection of disaggregated data, rhetorical strategies, altering the web of economic incentives and disincentives for certain actions.


At the same time, unless there is change in the hearts and minds of those in the society, those laws may wind up being ultimately ineffective. Prenatal sex selection was criminalized in India in 1994, and the birth sex ratio is the worst it has ever been since independence. That tells us there must be a pincer movement, that is, top-down approaches undertaken by the government, and bottom-up approaches taken by more societally-based forces, such as the media and grassroots movements. The home is the seat of the sexual political order, and that is where the order is literally reproduced. While the law can somewhat affect behavior in the home, only a true change of heart can alter what happens between men and women and boys and girls within the four walls of a home.

JB: The WomanStats Project is a research project that answers questions related to the role of women, international/national security and explores the relationship between them. What are the noticeable trends that have emerged since its founding in 2001? For instance, the correlation between state unrest and levels of violence against women?

VH: Thanks for asking! I hope your readers know that our online database is completely free to use. We have good longitudinal coverage from 1995 to the present on over 350 variables about the situation, status, and security of women for all countries with at least 200,000 population (176 countries). We have over a quarter of a million individual data points, both qualitative and quantitative in nature. We have information that is not obtainable in any other data resource, such as prevalence of patrilocal marriage, property rights in practice for women, and many other important variables for studying the sexual political order. We create cross-national scales based on our data, and we also map those scales.


What we have noticed in trends centers around improvements in law, and improvements in maternal mortality, primary school enrollment for girls, and the representation of women in national legislatures. For example, far more nations now set the legal age of marriage to be 18 than we saw when we began our data collection effort. However, what happens in practice (as versus law) has not changed significantly except in certain areas for certain countries (such as rates of FGM). Also, the rate of violence against women has not really budged since we began our work. It is still a worldwide scourge. Certain phenomena have actually worsened, such as the number of countries where birth sex ratios are significantly abnormal favoring males.

JB: What do you envisage a feminist foreign policy to look like?

VH: My co-author Lauren Eason and I wrote about this topic for the new volume edited by Jacqui True and Sara Davies entitled The Oxford Handbook of Women, Peace, and Security (2018).  Here’s an excerpt from our conclusion:

• Feminist foreign policy admits no contradiction in the simultaneous use of soft power and hard power instruments. Feminist foreign policy is not inherently pacifist, though it does seek peace. That means that the use of military instruments, and the pursuit of military alliances and military acquisitions are not anathema—but they must be carefully evaluated along feminist just war theory principles, perhaps including the Steinem Rule.
• Feminist foreign policy does not argue that women are inherently peaceful; rather, it argues that the promulgation of gender equality norms will make possible deep attitudinal change about the possibility and the desirability of living in peace, respect, and equality with others who are different.  These norms concerning the treatment of the “First Difference” deeply color foreign and security policy.
• The promulgation of gender equality norms is thus a mechanism by which the old templates of violent coercion through male dominance are shed, permitting greater stability, security, and peace for the nation. Such promulgation requires, at a minimum:
o A revamping of just war theory to include women’s reality. This involves revision not only of jus ad bellum and jus in bello principles, but also the development of new jus ex bello principles.
o Hard target quotas for women’s participation in all aspects of foreign and security decision-making and implementation so that gender equality is lived by those who govern and who act for the government.
o Constant vigilance to improve women’s rights within one’s own country, and dedicated observation of the situation of women’s rights in the countries with which one interacts. It may be necessary to forego close relations with nations that grievously subordinate women, and aid programming to improve women’s rights abroad should be a priority issue.
o Constant vigilance also to foresee implementation issues which will undermine a feminist foreign policy. For example, contractors and subcontractors must be scrutinized for their propensity to undermine feminist foreign policy. While there must be will at the highest levels of government for gender equality norms to really take root, attention to gender must be a skill cultivated not only among generals, but among sergeants, as well.  
o Adequate resource commitment to achieve gender equality goals must be a priority for the government, and this means sex-disaggregated data will be key for gender-sensitive budgeting purposes.

Interview by Jennifer Brough, Interview Coordinator. Twitter: @Jennifer_Brough

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