How gender impacts politics & international relations | Interview with J. Ann Tickner

How gender impacts politics & international relations | Interview with J. Ann Tickner

We met with American University’s Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Dr. J. Ann Tickner to talk about the effects of gender on international relations, the need to expand and broaden mainstream academic thinking, and so much more. Enjoy!

Influential political scientist Dr. J. Ann Tickner addresses the effects of gender on international relations, the need to expand and broaden mainstream academic thinking, struggles within American democracy, and whether countries led by women are handling the COVID-19 pandemic better. Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the School of International Service, American University, and professor emerita at the University of Southern California, Dr. Tickner talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

Why haven’t we had a woman president in 100 years? I mean, ask these kind of questions, you need a, obviously, a different way of answering them.” – J. Ann Tickner

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Interview with Political Scientist
Dr. Ann Tickner

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:15From the beginning

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at and at Wake Forest University. And today we have the lovely pleasure of having a guest, Professor Ann Tickner, who’s going to tell us a little bit about how she began in her career, starting from the very beginning.

So Professor Tickner, can you take it away?

Ann Tickner: Sure. And first of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure to do this interview. I actually first got interested in international relations as a very small child, as I was living in London during the bombing, and I got this sort of sense of needing to think about ways to end war. That was my first motivation.

Jed: Amazing.

Ann: Later, my father joined the United Nations in 1953, very early days when people had great hopes for the United Nations, that it would indeed help to prevent war. So I think those two defining experiences really gave me a sense that I wanted to study international relations with a special emphasis on peace studies.

Jed: And when you went off to college, did you immediately get to take classes that would help you towards that goal?

Ann: No, because I went to the University of London, and the British Education system in those days, you only did one subject to hold it, reading subject, and they didn’t have international relations at that point, so I chose to read history. So I did nothing but history for three years.

Jed: Wow. And then in graduate school were you able to do some international?

Ann: Well yes. Then in graduate school I came to the United States where my parents were already living, and I went to the Yale Graduate School in the Department of International Relations.

Jed: Wonderful.

Ann: However, the department was really phasing out, it was almost finished. The program was not very attractive to me, and so I left with a master degree and took time out from my career to raise my three daughters. In those days, it was more or less expected that women would stay home with their children. I [02:54] ____ my mother and caregiver for many years, maybe about 15 years, and then I decided it was time to do something else.

So we spent one year in Geneva, Switzerland. My husband was there for his professional career. He actually was in the same field, his name was Hayward Alker and he was quite a well known international relations scholar, who sadly died a few years ago, but it was wonderful because we could share our professional interests as well as our personal ones. So that was very rewarding. But I met Hayward at Yale, but then I did drop out and raise my three children, which I say was quite normal.

And then we were in Geneva in 1975, and I took a course just out of interest with a very well known peace researcher, Johan Galtung . He was teaching a course there at the Development Institute on self-reliant development as a strategy for third world development. And I became very interested in that.

I applied to go back to graduate school, and I went to Brandeis University, which was near Cambridge where my husband was teaching. And I wanted to write a thesis somehow coming off Galtung’s ideas about self-reliant development.

Well, it wasn’t very easy to find a thesis supervisor because I’ve always been a little out of the discipline, so to speak. It’s probably something I’ve done my entire professional career. I was very fortunate that Robert Keohane came to Brandeis for a few years before he accepted his position at Harvard, and he was willing to take me on.

I wrote a very strange dissertation, which became my first book, Self-Reliance Versus Power Politics. It had not only… I did a comparative case study of the early United States and India post-independence. I also had some political theory in it, which is my other great interest and the late Susan Okin who was a feminist political theorist was on my committee. So I went in the profession with a very unusual thesis and I didn’t really quite fit anywhere. But I got a job at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass, which is a good institution.

Jed: Yeah, I know it.

Ann: They allowed me to do pretty much what I liked as long as I did it well.


They were not put off by the fact that I didn’t… That my thesis didn’t really fit. They did, however, have me teaching international political economy since I was a Keohane student and that I had done quite a bit of political economy.

So then I taught for about four or five years, this was sort of… My first phase was being a small child and having those experiences. My second was being trained in somewhat of the edge of a fairly conventional international relations career, in the sense that I taught international relations in a conventional way.

So after about two or three years of teaching, particularly the introduction to international relations, remember this was in the 1980s, we were all teaching strategic theory. So I taught a lot about bombs and missiles, etcetera. And I began to notice that some of my women students were not very comfortable with some of this material. And they would come to my office and say, “I don’t think I’m gonna do very well in this course, it doesn’t seem like it’s quite for me.” At first, I was a bit puzzled, then I began to realize that it was the subject matter they… We did a lot of realism and it doesn’t seem right for women.

I had never thought about the issue of feminism or women or who was missing in the discipline. And about the same time, I read a book by Evelyn Fox Keller and she’s a physicist and she wrote a book called Gender and Science. And it was a fascinating book talking about the questions that science asks and the way it goes about answering them. Which she said were very masculine, because obviously in those days, the natural sciences were even more gendered than international relations.

There were practically no women in the profession, when I would go to professional meetings, I would see about four or five women. And really, I'd never thought about this before, it just seemed normal, it just seemed the way the world was.” – J. Ann Tickner

And so these two experiences working with the women students and reading this book, I suddenly realized that there was something about international relations that was very masculine. We were doing a lot about bombs, we didn’t think about much else. The thing that also struck me, there were no people in international relations, there were just states and billiard balls clashing around, as Kenneth Waltz told us, and that was when I had my sort of epiphany towards thinking about women. There were never any women I could assign to the students. There were practically no women in the profession, when I would go to professional meetings, I would see about four or five women. And really, I’d never thought about this before, it just seemed normal, it just seemed the way the world was. But that was really my defining moment that brought me to what I’m doing now or have done ever since.

09:57Where are all the women?

Jed: So after Holy Oak, and after this epiphany you had while you were teaching…

Ann: It was Holy Cross.

Jed: Holy Cross, sorry, Holy Cross.

What did you do next? What was your next move?

Ann: Well, my husband and I were both offered jobs at the University of Southern California in the US.

Jed: Oh, okay.

Ann: And I really wanted to go. He was teaching at MIT in it. But in some ways, he did it for me because I… Well, he got a name chair though, so he did fine, but it wasn’t kind of a step up for him. But what I really wanted was graduate students, which we didn’t have at Holy Cross, and I wanted to pass some of these new ideas on to graduate students so that these ideas could continue, because I was actually one of the first people to write about feminism in international relations.

My first book on gender in international relations was the first single authored book on the subject. There were others who were starting about the same time. That was also interesting, just backing up a little bit. I kind of came to these ideas on my own, but they seemed to be kind of bubbling up in many different places. I was invited in 1988 to a conference at the London School of Economics, where they had… The conference was about gender in international relations, and then I also discovered some Australian scholars thinking the same way, which is really fascinating because we were all doing it separately but we were all doing it about the same time.

Jed: Interesting.

Ann: And I think part of it was the end of the Cold War, the discipline opened up a little and began to sort of allow for different voices, different subject matter, different ways of understanding things.

[overlapping conversation]

Go ahead, sorry.

12:16Mainstream in international relations

Jed: So you got to University of Southern California, you got graduate students, you started working in this area that you said has carried you through your whole career, which is looking at gender in international relations. So for those of us who don’t know your work, tell us a little bit about the impact and especially the influence, since you are one of the most influential people in political science and certainly in international relations.

How did that all play out?

Ann: Well, it was a struggle, I must say. It’s always been a struggle. It’s been a struggle to be accepted by the mainstream. And at some level it’s still a struggle, but we have so many interesting publications now that it’s really taken off, I think, as a field. And I’ve really discovered that well my first 10 years of doing it, I… Most of my work was trying to have conversations with what I call the mainstream of the discipline. And by mainstream of the discipline, I mean people who use positivist rational choice methodologies. I think in some ways that kind of defines the mainstream in international relations.

Many of my articles, I had several articles in International Studies Quarterly, which is one of the main journals in the field, it’s the journal of the International Studies Association. I had many articles in that trying to talk to the mainstream. And one of them I wrote… Which was called You Just Don’t Understand, that was my first one. And Robert Keohane wrote a reply to that and they had a little symposium about it, and then I wrote a reply to him.

So then I wrote another one called… Because the questions he asked me in his rebut was not that he didn’t think studying women wasn’t very important, but it was just the way we did it, we were not really doing science, we were not really doing theory. So I wrote another piece which was called What is Your Research Program. And then I did a final one, which was published in Australia, which was perhaps a safer place, that was called You’ll Never Understand.


Jed: I kinda see the theme there.

Ann: But it’s not that they’re hostile to what we do. And it took me about 10 years to figure out what the problem was. And the problem is that they don’t accept the kind of methodologies that we use to study women, that they consider to be theory.

…gender is a social construction, it isn’t really something that you can measure quantitatively, it’s the relationship between women and men, which is unequal; men obviously have more power in the world than women.” – J. Ann Tickner

One example is the fact that gender is a social construction, it isn’t really something that you can measure quantitatively, it’s the relationship between women and men, which is unequal; men obviously have more power in the world than women. And so, when you talk about studying social constructions and identities, they don’t fit into positive methodologies. And I think the mainstream is well-meaning about it, but they just don’t understand. It’s the methodology rather than what… They’re quite understanding and accepting of what we write about, it’s how we do it that has been the problem.


Jed: What is the alternative, in your case, to positivism and positivistic methodologies? How would you classify the alternative?

Ann: Well, I would call it post-positivist. As I say, if you’re studying social constructions identities, you can’t use a positivist methodology, probably I would call it a version of constructivism.

Jed: And there’s also interpretism in there too?

Ann: Well, that is a word that some people use.

Jed: Is that a word that you would use to describe your alternative?

Ann: No, I would use post-positivist.

Jed: And what would be the difference between somebody who says, “Well, I’m an interpretist,” and for you as a post-positivist?

Ann: Well, I don’t think there is much difference. I just… [chuckle]

Jed: Just different words. That’s great.

Ann: And I have nothing against doing positivist work, it just doesn’t work for what we’re doing. And I think to have a complete acceptance… And I’ve written also a lot about, “Well, can’t we accept the fact that there’s not only one way of doing science,” and that seems to be very difficult. It doesn’t bother me that if you’re asking questions that demand a positivist, maybe a quantitative methodology to solve them, that’s fine with me. But it doesn’t seem to work the other way around for many people who are positivists. It doesn’t work to say, “Well, you can use whatever methodology fits the question that you’re trying to ask.”

Jed: Can you give us an example of a question that works better in a post-positivist methodology or an interpretist methodology that… Just an example, maybe from your own work?

Ann: Well, all I do is… One example I like to give is women got the vote now 100 years ago, as we’re celebrating. So 100 years later, can we say that women are equally represented in this country in the government, in business, in whatever? That’s a research question, because legally, you have given women 100 years ago more or less all the same rights as men. So if you’ve… So you ask that question, “So why don’t we have equal representation in Congress?” Just to take one example. We don’t, so how would you go about answering that question? You can’t really do it by counting or looking at legislation. It’s an identity issue, it’s a social construction, it’s the fact that we still, after 100 years, somehow have the sense that women are not quite up to these things. Not all of us, but enough of us. Why haven’t we had a woman president in 100 years? Ask these kind of questions, you need a, obviously, a different way of answering them. And the answer is that gender is a social construction, it’s what some people call a package of expectations, expectations about the way women ought to behave, the way men ought to behave, or what women do, what men do.

I always ask my students these questions, and they can tell me exactly, they can divide up gender, they can… I can ask them, “So what do you associate with masculinity?” And they’ll say, “Power, autonomy, strength, words like this.” And I’ll ask them, “Well, so what do you associate with femininity?” “Emotionality, weakness,” all these words. And then I’ll say… And many of them are women ’cause they’re taking a course on gender, and I don’t know why women always take courses on gender because gender equally applies to men; and then I’ll say, “Well, where do you fit?” And they all say the masculine side, for themselves, but at the same time because they don’t see themselves that way, they know that those are definitions of what it means to be a woman, which is…


Jed: Interesting. That is fascinating. So as we close out this interview, I would like to apply some of that stuff that you’ve been talking about to two things, the COVID response, particularly in countries where the primary leader is a woman, and the difference between the 2016 US elections and the 2020 Presidential election, and just comment on both of those things. So let’s start with the COVID response, that some people have said that in countries where the prime minister or main leader is a woman, the response has been better for the health of the people, for the economy. Do you wanna comment on that?

Ann: Well, it is actually empirically the case. I’m not really quite sure why it’s happened, but it actually has happened, although not… Well, there aren’t that many, so these things are always hard to really say a lot about because you haven’t got many women leaders. That’s always a problem when people ask if women make a difference. But it does seem to have happened that countries like New Zealand that have a woman president… But it’s very hard for me to say whether it’s because there’s a woman there, or whether it’s something about the society that elected a woman to… Having spent quite a bit of time in New Zealand, it’s a rather different kind of country, and I think the same goes with Sweden. I don’t know how they’re doing in terms of COVID, but it’s a society that accepts… Both of those societies accept equality. There are as many women in the Swedish parliament as there are men.

And so it’s hard for me to say whether it’s because a leader at the top is a woman or just because of the society itself may be more conformist, more willing to go along. There’s something very… And I don’t… When I use these terms, masculine and feminine, they don’t apply to all men and all women. I’ve talked about how they don’t apply to women, but they equally don’t apply to a lot of men. But nevertheless, they’re still expectations. And I think at the moment in this society, for instance, we’re in very sort of macho fear phase because we have an extremely macho leader, and so now we have all this sort of, “I’m a real man, I don’t wear a mask,” kind of thing going on. And so there’s something about those societies that’s different, I think, in some cases.

24:222016 and 2020 elections

Jed: Interesting, that’s an interesting way of framing it, so looking at the society, which leads to then the last question, which is about the elections. In 2016, the United States had an opportunity to elect a woman to President, and it did not. And what do you…

How do you think of the United States’ population relative to places like New Zealand and Sweden you mentioned? Can you talk a little bit about where we’re at now in 2020 versus 2016, versus our country compared to other countries?

Ann: Well, we have to remember that Hillary Clinton actually won the election. She got 3 million more votes, so that’s the first thing we have to say. But I do still think that there is something about being a woman, and she herself said that. The book she wrote, she said something about getting through the gender barrier. In the election before, I know that’s not what you asked me, but when it was she and Obama who were in the Democratic primary, I actually predicted that it would be easier for the United States to accept an African-American man than a woman, and I was right. He won the primary and he did win the election. She didn’t really lose but it was obviously… It was the Electoral College, but it was a very narrow thing. And I think that’s a problem. And now we’re back to a white male. I don’t know whether he’ll do any better because I don’t trust what Trump is going to do in this election. But Joe Biden is… He’s a very different kind of person. He connects in ways, being a caring person. I don’t know how that will play out versus Trump being the sort of macho person. Biden has this wants to take care of everybody as this kind of… Not exactly from in characteristics, but he’s further along that spectrum, and I’m just not sure.

Jed: And when you said you’re not sure what Trump will do with the election, are you referring to ways that he could go against the democratic system of voting?

Ann: Yes. He’s already done it. With the post office, with throwing people off the rolls. All this talk about he doesn’t trust mail-in ballots, it’s all so that he can say it was corrupted because… It’s terrible. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I’m very worried about it.

Jed: Well, we should interview you again after the election and to see how it all plays out. But at this moment in time, you are kind of concerned about the United States democracy, and the future does not look too bright compared to our past.

Is that how you’re feeling right now?

Ann: Well, I think we go in phases, I don’t see… I’ve lately I’ve been actually revisiting my roots in history. And I’ve been writing a lot of history about people who were forgotten. Hidden figures of history as I call it, borrowing shamelessly from the movie. And I think we go in cycles in some sense, you can find cycles in American history that were just as corrupt and… The 19th century people actually got up and shot other people in Congress at some point. [laughter] I don’t see it necessarily as going backwards. I think it’s more kind of reaction to what was before. I think Trump is part of reaction to Obama. I think this is a very racist country still, and I think he represents a white minority, which is really dying out. By 2040 we’re not going to be majority white, and I think that white America is nervous about that and trying to hold on.

29:05Sign off

Jed: Well, thank you so much, Professor Tickner, for your insight and time that you spent with us. We really appreciate it, it’s so nice of you.

Ann: Well, I enjoyed it. Thank you.

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