Reporter's Notebook

What Does Feminism Mean Today?
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Atlantic staffers and readers debate the meaning of “feminism” and how it’s changed over the decades. To join in, send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

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The Myth of the 'Female' Foreign Policy, Cont'd

Sweden's foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom Claudio Bresciani / Reuters

The Atlantic recently did a special project on women in leadership, for which I contributed a modest reflection on women in foreign policy. There aren’t a lot of female leaders on the global stage, but they’re increasing in number, and I wanted to know how, or whether, they do things differently than the men we’re used to having run things. In researching this question, I was struck especially by the approach of Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who on taking office two years ago articulated a “feminist foreign policy.” (Note that this is not exactly the same as a “woman’s foreign policy”—a man could very well have a feminist foreign policy, and a woman could very well not.) I wrote that beyond promoting gender equality, the implications of such an approach are “not entirely clear.” But the Swedish Foreign Ministry disagrees; here’s a response from Wallstrom:

Sweden’s feminist foreign policy has gained significant international attention, most recently in the renowned publication The Atlantic. For us this proves that Sweden contributes to shaping world politics with smart power and diplomacy. Sadly, it also proves that the simple statement that women’s rights are human rights remains controversial.

Kathy Gilsinan writes that a feminist foreign policy raises questions about female leadership and whether female leaders behave differently. Gilsinan’s framing is problematic, since it suggests leaders should be chosen based on suitability by gendered characteristics assumed to be held by all members of the same sex, not on voter preferences. Men have been in charge of politics for hundreds of years. There have been good leaders and bad leaders. Yet, when women are demanding power, their instrumental value as agents of peace or prosperity, rather than their rights to representation, is put in focus. At a time in history when women are gaining political power, such a discourse is troubling. Political representation is about rights. Not about gendered characteristics or suitability, but about exercising your democratic right to participate in decision-making that affects you and your society. Democracy cannot truly deliver for all of its citizens if half of the population remains underrepresented in the political arena and society denies the full enjoyment of their human rights.

Alexandra of Russia and her son Alexei, photographed between 1910 and 1913. Library of Congress

Today is International Women’s Day. It also happens to be the 100th anniversary of the start of the revolution that brought down the Russian empire. Given the coincidence, I was delighted to find in our archives an article from our January 1928 issue titled “The Fall of the Russian Empire: The Part Played by a Woman”—that is, until I read author Edmund Walsh’s assessment of exactly what that “part” was:

Russia was the last island fortress of absolutism in the rising tide of democracy, the outstanding anachronism of the twentieth century. … It defied the elements for three hundred years—until the deluge came. Whose hand unloosed the flood gates? In my opinion, a woman, all unconsciously, had more to do with the final debacle than any other single cause. … History probably will clear the memory of Alexandra Feodorovna [of treason, but] it can never clear her memory of tendencies, practices, and imprudences that contributed notably to Russia's ruin. The domination which this imperious, proud, aloof, and resolute woman exercised over her irresolute and impressionable husband became such a menace that more than one grand duke, duchess, and general cried out in warning against it. …

Revolutions are made by men and women determining events. Men are swayed by powerful human emotions. Women create them. And the master passion, particularly in neurotic females, can be as elegantly indifferent to the realities of life and war as ever Montesquieu was to the existence of God.

It’s a fascinating historical document, undeniably sexist in its overtones. The gist of Walsh’s argument is that the Tsarina Alexandra, driven by fear for the health of her hemophiliac son, gave the self-proclaimed holy man and healer Grigori Rasputin a level of influence that irrevocably weakened the Russian government. For evidence, Walsh delves into the embarrassing intimacies of Alexandra’s letters to her husband. And he criticizes the empress on two familiar, contradictory fronts: On the one hand, she’s weak and overly emotional, too much guided by motherly worries to see the bigger picture of Russian politics. On the other, she’s aggressive and overly domineering, stepping outside her proper sphere of childrearing to advise her husband on governance. She’s portrayed as a femme fatale, making a “subtle approach to political questions … through the gateway of the Tsar’s affections.” But she’s not granted agency either: Walsh argues she brought about the fall of the empire “all unconsciously.” She is, like female leaders still are, damned for the stereotypes of womanhood she does fulfill and damned for the ones she does not.

But none of this is to dispute the chain of events that Walsh describes. Alexandra and her husband did fail at governance: For any leader, male or female, it’s a heartbreaking reality that even the safety of one’s own family must come second to the national interest. And for all the sexism embedded in Walsh’s narrative, I agree with his central point that “revolutions are made by men and women determining events.” What struck me, reading this article today, was Alexandra’s simple human vulnerability, and my own reaction to it—my inclination to sweep this unflattering story under the rug. When we seek to recognize the women of history, what do we do with the history that reveals individual women as less than admirable? How do we celebrate women—our role models, ourselves—as powerful, vulnerable, fully complex humans, flaws intact?