Gender - Gender and the historiography of american foreign policy

Historians who study gender will find all of the above themes familiar, but scholars who have not yet tangled with gender analysis in their studies of foreign policy might find the approaches dubious and the conclusions unconvincing. Indeed, since gender topics first appeared in the pages of diplomatic history journals, historians have debated the merits of gender analysis at conferences, in on-line forums, in journals, and in their own monographs. One of the reasons for this debate is that some of the gender-themed studies of American foreign relations gained momentum in fields outside of diplomatic history and, indeed, outside of the history discipline itself, in the more literary-focused arena of cultural studies. Skeptics of the gender approach have wondered aloud what diplomatic historians can learn from stories about sexual metaphors, "tough Jews," feminized Indians, and the gender tropes of imperial expansion and war. They have accused gender historians of paying too much attention to issues of representation at the cost of asking hard questions about causation. Some have argued that gender scholars have borrowed too heavily from other disciplines and have introduced questionable theories, methodologies, and insights into the field.

These criticisms are important and worth some elaboration. In fact, a great deal of the work on gender is indebted to postmodernist and cultural studies approaches, which cross disciplinary boundaries, take language seriously, and insist that historians interrogate not only the construction of reality in primary documents but the social construction of their own historical narratives. Cultural studies approaches differ, of course, but all involve close scrutiny of the unarticulated assumptions that underlay the legitimation, expression, and resistance of power. As Costigliola observes in "The Nuclear Family" (1997), "gender norms acted as silent organizers" of power in the diplomatic and political realms. Perhaps, then, what has made gender analysis controversial in diplomatic history is the fact that those who recognized these silences in their documents have also exposed some of the methodological silences of their discipline as well. Turning their critical eye from primary to secondary sources, gender scholars have provocatively suggested that gender norms might have also tacitly shaped the historiography of American foreign relations, thus calling into question some of the disciplinary "truths" of diplomatic history. Drawing on the insights of postmodernism, these scholars have argued that the historiography itself is a social construction, and that narratives about foreign policy (or any historical phenomena) are human creations, subject to the inherited biases and assumptions of time and place.

Such challenges to the discipline and its historiography have evoked spirited criticism of postmodernism, gender analysis, and critical theory in general. Some historians claim that post-modernist gender approaches are jargon-filled intellectual exercises that have done little to enlighten the key debates in the field. More than a few have said that investigations of language and representation have taken diplomatic history too far afield from its traditional units of study (the nation-state, for example) and its tried and true methodology of document analysis and synthesis. In particular, critics have challenged the post-modernist claim that historical evidence does not benignly reveal a "real" world or a central "truth," and that the evidence itself is a selective representation that can suppress multiple truths and heterogeneous realities. They maintain that such critical approaches, of which gender analysis is an elemental part, have spilled too much ink probing language and ideology rather than apprehending the real reasons for foreign policy decisions and outcomes.

While critics have argued that the new work on gender has better explained the connections between gender, culture, and diplomacy, rather than causation, those whose scholarship has been integral to this historiographical turn maintain that clear causation is hard to identify for any scholar, working on any problem, in any era. In fact, most gender scholars would agree that gender analysis does not explain reductively a single cause for a particular action, and that sometimes, gender meanings are not the most salient or significant aspects of a historical puzzle. Rather, they would argue, gender analysis abets the historian's effort to get closer to a reasonable and reliable set of explanations about a particular historical problem. Historians who seriously engage gender do not shy away from questions about causation, but they tend to approach overarching causal explanations with caution. The precise effect of George Kennan's "long telegram" on policymaking, for example, is impossible to discern, but it seems clear that his writings simplified what should have been a complex debate about Soviet intentions, and that his highly gendered, emotional musings naturalized—and thus rationalized—a set of diplomatic maneuvers that positioned the Soviets as unreliable allies and credible threats. In the case of the Spanish-American War, the societal panic about masculinity in decline reveals how gender "pushed" and "provoked" warfare as an antidote to the changes in nineteenth-century family and gender relations. And in the case of President Kennedy's foreign policy programs, the gender experiences of Kennedy and his elite policy cohort, along with the gender ideologies and anxieties of the postwar era, motivated the president to respond to his Cold War environment as an Ivy League tough guy who could martial the resources to assure American hegemony.

These debates about gender and causation will, no doubt, continue, but in some ways they may miss the point. No historian has endowed gender with monocausal superpowers; in fact, many scholars of gender point out that the causal relationship between gender and foreign policy needs to be teased out even further. And although asking the "how" and "why" questions continues to be a staple of the discipline, perhaps historians need to reexamine this preoccupation with causation. The studies of Kennan and Kennedy are instructive here. As Costigliola's "'Unceasing Pressure for Penetration'" has made clear, the questions about gender's causal effects in foreign policy formulation "arise from the premise that there must be single, clear, unequivocal causes for policies and actions," a premise that historians have repeatedly tested and found wanting. Even vocal critics of the gender approach have acknowledged that no single theory or explanatory framework can possibly explain the complexities of American foreign policymaking. As Dean has aptly stated, "gender must be understood not as an independent cause of policy decisions, but as part of the very fabric of reasoning employed by officeholders." And so, too, it should be for historians—that gender become one part of the fabric of our historical analysis, not a separate, unrelated path of inquiry.

Together, women's history and gender studies have enabled historians to conceive of foreign policy more broadly, inviting more actors, methods, and theories into the endeavor. A gender analysis offers one way to recast and expand the debates about the history of diplomacy. Its newness, relative to other approaches, has generated both excitement and skepticism, and as new work is published, historians will have new opportunities to debates its impact and merits.

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