The world – at least its human population – has suddenly become remarkably different. The changes from the global pandemic are happening quietly and in solitude, as people shelter in place and renegotiate their patterns of life as best they can, seeking physical, economic, and even spiritual ways to stay healthy, secure, and buoyant. There are so many losses – tragic, painful, grueling, and mostly unmeasured losses – for those who contract the covid-19 virus, for those who care for and worry about them, and for those who depend upon them. We know this is a phase; there will be a time when this is over, when at least some of the accounting of suffering and loss can occur. We’ll mourn, we’ll find ways to heal, we’ll dust ourselves off, and we will move on.
But move on to what?
The invitation to imagine a future characterized by radically positive changes helps many of us make it through this deeply unsettling, troubling time. What we have endured (and still have yet to endure) from the pandemic has earned us at least that freedom to speculate. What if? Why not? Isn’t it long overdue? We find time to ponder what most about the past has failed us, and what simply must change. It’s a time to think big, and to seize an opportunity that may not come again for a very long time.
So here goes…
What if we demand that the patriarchal world order justifies itself? What if we insist that all who benefit most from patriarchal norms explain why we should not all give feminism a try? While patriarchy has many entrenched beneficiaries, the norms and power relations of patriarchy cause most of the planet’s population to be disadvantaged, diminished, disrespected, and exploited, now and since time immemorial. It need not be this way.
I can almost hear the scoffs, but I challenge you to read on…
Recently, I joined a small group of people on Zoom (yes, all women, although men had been invited) to discuss and constructively critique a thoughtful policy paper two of them had written and shared. Their paper dispassionately contemplated a feminist foreign policy for the United States; not as bizarre a notion as it might seem on first blush. Sweden, Mexico and Canada have variants of such policies in place now, and France, Luxembourg, and (if the Labor Party has its way) the United Kingdom are expressing promising intentions. But “feminism” is a fraught concept – a large proportion of women shy away from identifying as feminists, and arguably most men really haven’t bothered to learn even what feminism means. After all, they have seen no need to; presumably men have less frivolous things to think about and decide upon. Few women really expect men to engage on this topic; as women we’ve had good reasons to lower our expectations. Men have been almost entirely absent over the past four decades of advocacy for fundamental aspects of pursuing gender equality: ending domestic violence, stopping child marriages, shutting down sex trafficking, and granting women and girls equal legal status. Worse still, women have come to expect and even tolerate the absence of men in this important work.
If we cannot get individual men even to engage in serious discussions on the violence, exploitation, inequalities and marginalization faced by so many women and girls around the world – which men are at the center of perpetrating – what chance have we to find many men engaging on a feminist foreign policy for the world’s super power? The United States is unapologetically patriarchal; feminine values are relegated to a subordinate status and largely ignored. The United States exudes patriarchy in nearly all our political, cultural, religious, and governance institutions, and our foreign policy naturally follows this focus on power, dominance, strength, security, and wealth maximization. Yes, there are a few aberrations – for example the Peace Corps – but their modest budget has just been slashed again.
Why should our foreign policy be any different?
From the safety of your respective pandemic lock-down, hunker-down vantage points, I urge you to use this moment of global disarray and catastrophe to take a hard look at the system of moral values that underpins and sustains our world now. It’s a system that made a Trump presidency possible. It’s a system that is motivated by fierce competition, rigid hierarchies, “virtuous” self-interest, manipulation of others (persons, countries, genders) to serve the manipulator’s goals, accumulation of wealth and power with no “enough” point ever being defined, and security conceived primarily as the military and economic capacity to dominate (or at least intimidate) any perceived competitor or adversary. We measure our strength in weaponry, superbly trained and highly professional fighting forces, and wealth. Peace is seen only as a (temporary) lull in violent conflict. That system of moral values has a name – patriarchy – even if we are not encouraged to use that word.
In my own career in international development and human rights advocacy, my colleagues and I in this shared endeavor have been very poorly served by our existing American patriarchal foreign policy (although it is almost never referred to in such terms). Foreign aid and international development has no cabinet-level seat, and it rarely features in geopolitical strategizing. Those of us who work in this sector know that this isn’t a particularly lucrative or prestigious calling, but we don’t do it for the money. We do this work because we care. We want our efforts to make a meaningful difference in helping those who are marginalized, vulnerable, and largely ignored to overcome crushing poverty, to rise above lives of suffering, and to achieve freedoms and opportunities that most Americans simply (and rightly) take as a birthright. We want human dignity to be respected as an inviolable and universal threshold, and we commit our lives to this work.
For foreign policy, feminist demands are radical. We want economies everywhere to serve people; not the other way around. We want to see women and others who have been traditionally marginalized now have fair and reasonable access everywhere to genuine participation in decision-making and leadership. We want to see new norms, with room at the top of our “national self-interest” for making global such notions as justice, fairness, solidarity, collaboration, empathy, compassion, mercy, altruism, and long-term thinking. We want to measure our strength not only in our ability to defend ourselves, but also in the ways that we sustainably, creatively, and harmoniously live with each other and with our planet, in peace. We want leadership that inspires, motivates, and transforms – leadership that we now see in the countries that are doing the best in responding to and mitigating the pandemic – Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Norway. They are all led by women.
Mostly, what I and others of a similar mind (not all of whom are women) want is to be respected. We want to know why we all should simply be expected to default to patriarchal norms. We demand that the advocates of patriarchy make their case for its continuance. I’m not here to make an irrefutable case for feminism, or for a feminist foreign policy for the United States. Instead, I ask a different question: why should we not have a feminist foreign policy? That’s a discussion I am very prepared for, and I am not alone.
Getting an answer means that the men and women who support and benefit most from the overwhelming dominance of patriarchal norms would have to undertake a task that they have long ignored and neglected. They would need to learn what feminism means. Only then could they contemplate the implications of instituting a feminist foreign policy in lieu of the patriarchal status quo. Only then could they understand the patriarchy that surrounds them and that defines the world that we now experience. Once they have opened their eyes, they might not like what they see.
So yes, an almost unique opportunity is soon upon us to push the reset button. Those of us on the outer fringes of the current power structure – we who claim the “feminist” label without ambivalence or hesitation – know we can’t argue our way to get anywhere near to that reset button. The outer fringes offer no leverage; it’s not a place from which to make a compelling case, even if it is grounded in universal human dignity and is morally strong. So instead we turn the tables, and employ our democratic prerogatives to demand that the advocates for patriarchy explain why their system’s dominance in the norms, means, and goals of our international relations and in our foreign aid ought to continue as it now is. We have been patiently asking for this dialogue for decades, and consistently we’ve been ignored and waved aside. At best we are cast as an “irritation”; more frequently we’re subjected to far more pejorative or crudely sexualized labels. The arrogance of those who would wish for patriarchy to remain The System is most clearly seen in the condescending ways in which they reject taking any initiative to open their own minds to explore any alternatives, no matter the egregious cost the status quo has on others.
Feminists know that we cannot force them to do so, so why should the defenders of patriarchy bother?
They should bother because for human dignity to matter, it must be universal. If we want a world in which unnecessary suffering, violence, marginalization, inequality, and exploitation will no longer be “the way things are”, human dignity must be a defensible threshold for all. If we want a planet that is environmentally sustainable – one that avoids the impending climate catastrophe – we need different values and transformed leadership. If we want a world in which we no longer tolerate the rapidly growing inequalities between the few who are wealthy and the masses who are in poverty, we need to end patriarchy.
That dialogue has yet to happen. We are not even close right now, and the ravages of the current pandemic bear grim testimony to our dysfunction under patriarchy. It is time to rethink. It is time for the beneficiaries of patriarchy to deign to learn about feminism, and to realize what it offers.
Feminism isn’t a panacea. But a world moderated and influenced by feminism in a meaningful way, at scale, now, would offer such promise.
Find out why.