Filtering Us Out

Filtering Us Out

[Fiona de Londras is a Professor of Global Legal Studies at Birmingham University Law School. Ruth Houghton is an Assistant Professor at Newcastle University Law School and Aoife O’Donoghue is a Professor of International Law and Global Governance at Durham University Law School.]

Being a feminist international lawyer is exhausting. We are not the first to say this, nor, sadly, will we be the last. Even as we write this, we know it will be met with nods of agreement, smooth words of accord, and likely very little more. We also know that some of you have already stopped reading, and that others never started. Like most feminists reading this, we have too many stories to recount of subtle but potent dismissals and minimisations at papers, conferences, dinners and meetings. Thanks largely to the efforts of those who went before us (most of whom are still practising academics whose experiences are shockingly recent), we have been subject to few (although not no) incidents of downright misogyny or sexism. By and large academics nowadays know what not to say; disdain for feminist perspectives is now more likely to be smoothly condescending than baldly sexist, but it remains and for all its supposed subtlety it is, to those on the receiving end of it, entirely obvious.

Three Modes of Dismissal

Feminist scholars, and women scholars generally, are very familiar with the modes of this disdain, three of which we draw attention to here.

First, we are told that all feminists do not agree and, thus, that feminism is an incoherent theory to which ‘orthodox’ international lawyers need not attend. This is, of course, the classic ‘argumentative women’ trope recast as a critique of incoherence. If feminists cannot even agree among themselves, how are we to engage with them and their theories? This mode of dismissal makes two important moves: it marks disagreement among feminists (read: ‘women’) as different to disagreement among, for example, positivists, formalists, or natural lawyers. Rather than marking the richness and vibrancy of feminist theory and critique, it is deployed to undermine feminism’s reliability as an intellectual school. Furthermore, it exposes its proponents for their failure to grasp the core content or utility of feminist dialogue or collaboration, or indeed the intellectual richness that comes from the normative commitment within feminism to pluralism, disagreement, contestation and suspicion of authority.

Second, we are told that feminism has nothing new to say: other people have already talked about these things. Scholars have for years discussed humanity, equality, universality…there is nothing new here that cannot be found in Kant, or Kelsen or [insert European white male scholar, preferably not always deceased]? This, of course, misses the very obvious point that these ‘canonical’ accounts of equality and universality almost never included women or, for that matter, people of colour, those who identify as queer, or disabled people (to name but a few). The radical inadequacy of these canonical accounts is entirely dismissed by the claim that what feminism addresses has been written on—by implication definitively—before and thus requires no revisiting now. The fact that the products of these canonical accounts—the dominant articulations of rationality, reasonability, and the separation of the human from the natural world—has rarely meant anything positive for women is either missed or minimised by this approach. Feminists who declare in response that they are neither using Kant (for example) nor especially concerned with what he had to say about the subject of their interest are (un)subtly dismissed as insufficiently familiar with ‘the canon’, while those who cling to the unreconstructed notion of canonical knowledge seem blind to the limited intellectual ambition belied by their apparent lack of curiosity. Indeed, these same candidates have a tendency towards claiming novelty for work that, fundamentally, replicates work already done by feminist scholars, sometimes as part of the ‘feminist canon’. It is striking to us that the expectation of rigour seems so rarely to include scouring feminist scholarship to consider what has been written about this very issue, not to mention that simply citing to one article or book (‘for a feminist perspective see e.g. …’) is considered a sufficient engagement with a rich body of (yes, sometimes contested/ing) work.

Third, and perhaps most prevalent, is the ‘whatabout’ question. Whatabout [insert other harmed, discriminated against, or marginalised group]? This mode of dismissal at once communicates the suggestion that speaking‘only’ about women is inappropriate or illegitimate (as opposed to, for example, speaking never about women), and that feminists are to be held to some kind of higher standard in terms of range or scope of interest. Furthermore, it reveals a lack of insight into (and knowledge) of the nature of feminism as a political and intellectual project: a project that recognises the interaction of different forms of oppression, a project that is concerned fundamentally with the division and organisation of power, and a project that has a deep and enduring commitment to intersectionality. When feminists talk about women, we are never talking ‘only’ about women (although there would be nothing wrong with that): we are talking about systems of inclusion and exclusion, of the distribution of power and influence. That is of the essence of feminist enquiry.

Structuring Us Out

Beyond these modes of dismissal, are the structural dismissals experienced by feminist scholars—the quotidian organisational decisions that (consciously or not) structure feminist work into the margins. These include giving the graveyard shifts to feminist papers, the tendency towards directing ‘general’ questions to everyone on the panel apart from the feminist scholar (perhaps because they assume she would have nothing to say?), and the token woman (often, a panel chair).

The token woman is a familiar sight. Everyone knows manels are no longer acceptable (although they still take place, and the all-white panel is a common occurrence) and so women are often invited, but rarely able to set the agenda. She might be asked to chair the panel (NB: this doesn’t make it ‘not a manel’) or added on when the rest of the panel and – critically – the intellectual agenda for the panel has already been decided upon. Being a token woman is not only about being the only woman, but being marginal—sometimes superfluous—to the ‘real business’ of the panel, edited collection, meeting, viva… In our experience, it is becoming increasingly common for men to ‘apologise’ for having all-male meetings or collections by saying ‘I did try to get a woman, and nobody would say yes’ or ‘they did not meet the deadline’. Inevitably when we follow up on this it becomes clear that a woman was asked at the last minute, with short notice, or to a predesigned panel that—very frankly—she was not interested in. Alternatively, women who do not meet deadlines, deadlines extended repeatedly for grandees, are easily excluded. Surely, we must learn to meet people where they are and work with them. Women do not owe men our labour to balance out their panels or collections. Increasingly, and rightly, feminist scholars are refusing to play the token game, but too few of our male colleagues seem to understand that we are simply not interested in being ‘slotted in’ to their agendas. But it must be considered – by editors, publishers and reviewers – if there are missing perspectives, do you really have an edited collection/special issue/panel with anything novel to say?

Speaking from within the Filter

Nothing that we have written here is going to come as a surprise to other feminists, especially women and those who identify as women, reading this. Our sisters already knew what we were going to say. Our sisters of colour would say a lot more besides, and our disabled sisters would be forthright in how the system hurts them in very particular and insidious ways. Our sisters from global majority universities could testify to the immense privilege that we have in saying this, one more time, and indeed in not experiencing this dismissal and exclusion in different, never-ending ways that we cannot see and surely should do more to remedy.

Our experience as feminist international lawyers tells us that there is a filter within international legal academia. It is finely calibrated, allowing just enough space for feminists to say things, to points things out, to problematise things, and to demonstrate how things could change, but not quite enough space to secure productive disruption so that things actually change in the places where change is needed. 

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