What happened to women's international thought?

Welcome to the first monthly blog post for the Leverhulme Project on Women and the History of International Thought. In this opening post, Patricia Owens presents some of the findings from an article just published in International Studies Quarterly (available for download here).

There can be little doubt that existing histories of international thought and disciplinary International Relations (IR) have marginalized historical women. By historical women, I mean those figures working before the late twentieth-century and the historically constructed rather than biological character of sex difference and gender identity.

What is the magnitude of the problem? In answering that question might be also find resources for remedying historical women’s exclusion and thereby rewrite the history of international thought?

To establish the number, proportion, and identity of historical women in existing histories, I analyzed sixty texts from 1929 until the present, and across four genres: histories of international thought; IR’s disciplinary histories; anthologies of canonical figures; and IR ‘states of the art’.

Across all texts, of 4421 references to historical figures there were 130 to historical women: 2.94%. The 130 references yielded 79 individual historical women with at least partial recognition in IR’s intellectual and disciplinary history.

The genre least likely to highlight the intellectual contributions of historical women is that which establishes a catalog of intellectual ‘greats’ or ‘classic’ thinkers. Across eighteen anthologies of canonical figures, there were only nine occasions when a historical woman was profiled: 1.54%.

Only six historical women are recognized as ‘great thinkers’: Hannah Arendt, Susan Strange, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, Susan Sontag, and Virginia Woolf.

The maximum number of historical women included in any one work that aims to establish, or even expand, the ‘canon’ is two. Even anthologies and readers edited by self-consciously ‘critical’ scholars perform no better than so-called ‘mainstream’ texts.


Results by Genre: Historical Women in Sixty Histories of International Thought

Genre No of Texts Cumulative number of historical figures for each genre Cumulative number of historical women* %
Canonical Thinkers 18 584 9 1.54%
History of Int. Thought 18 1952 47 2.41%
IR ‘state of the art’ 14 698 16 2.29%
Disciplinary History 10 1187 58 4.88%
Overall Total 60 4421 130 2.94%


Across all sixty texts, only twenty-two historical women were mentioned more than once, nearly half of these twenty-two mentioned just twice. The figure most recognized was British IPE scholar, Susan Strange. In second and third place are Prussian-born Hannah Arendtand Polish-born Rosa Luxemburg, both Jewish.

No women working outside the US, UK, or Europe is included among those mentioned more than once.

Only four women of color, all African-Americans, are among the seventy-nine: Merze Tate, Eslanda Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Pauli Murray, and all from one text: Robert Vitalis’s recent,White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations.


Twenty-Two Most Recognized Historical Women in Sixty Histories of International Thought

Name (alphabetical by mention) Mentions Main location and field
1. Susan Strange (1923-1998) 10 British-based international political economist
2. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) 7 Prussian-born US-based political theorist
3. Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) 5 Polish-German based philosopher and socialist revolutionary
4. Margaret Sprout (1903-2004) 4 US-based independent IR scholar
5. F. Melian Stawell (1869-1936) 4 Australian-born British-based classicist
6. Helena Swanwick (1864-1939) 4 German-born British-based political writer and feminist
7. Jessie Bernard (1903-1996) 3 US-based highly prolific sociologist and feminist scholar
8. Adda B. Bozeman (1908-1994) 3 US-based IR scholar
9. Susan Lawrence (1871-1947) 3 British-based Labour politician
10. Margaret Mead (1901-1978) 3 US-based anthropologist
11. Ellen Churchill Semple (1863-1932) 3 US-based geopolitical thinker
12. Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) 3 Austrian-born writer, peace advocate, Nobel Peace Prize winner
13. Jane Addams (1860-1935) 2 US-based social worker and philosopher
14. Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961) 2 US-based sociologist and leading pacifist
15. Kathleen Courtney (1878-1974) 2 British-based political activist, suffragist, internationalist
16. Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) 2 US-based sociologist and organizational theorist
17. Mary Agnes Hamilton (1884-1966) 2 British-based Labour Party politician
18. Agnes Headlam-Morley (1902-1986) 2 British-based IR scholar
19. Lucy Philip Mair (1901-1986) 2 British-based scholar of colonial administration
20. Margery Perham (1895-1982) 2 British-based scholar of colonial administration
21. Ruth Savord (1896-1966) 2 US-based librarian
22. Barbara Ward (1914-1981) 2 British-based development economist


We already know from some earlier studies and preliminary work for this project that women in the past have thought deeply about international relations. But their work has been ignored, marginalized, or appropriated.

The historical women identified through this survey are the tip of the iceberg of those who, in different ways, are part of the history of international thought.That there is little convergence on which historical women were referenced suggests that larger numbers are completely hidden from view.

Historical women’s exclusion from IR's intellectual and disciplinary tells us very little about the quantity and quality of women’s intellectual work in this domain. It tells us much more about how selective histories are produced and maintained and how gendered and racial hierarchies shape intellectual organization.

So, perhaps, the real question is not, to paraphrase then Sussex historian Martin Wight’s famous query: ‘why is there no international theory’by historical women? Rather, it is: what happened to women’s international thought?

Over the course of the next four years we hope to provide a systematic answer to that question.