Feminist legal theory came to international law and discourse later than it came to many other legal fields. It primarily emerged in international human rights where, in a surprisingly short amount of time, it went from being extremely marginal to relatively mainstream. Not unrelatedly, it has primarily grown, and also developed significant influence, in the doctrinal areas of international humanitarian and criminal law. This piece, written as a chapter in a book on governance feminism, chronicles the trajectory of feminist engagement with international law, paying special attention to how both feminisms and feminists have played governing roles in its development and operation.
The chapter provides an account of three distinctive feminist approaches to women’s human rights that developed from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. Each of the three approaches is identified according to its distinctive concern: liberal inclusion, structural bias, and the Third World, respectively. During the early period of feminist engagement, these approaches variously competed, complemented, and exchanged with each other in the push for a feminist foothold in human rights law. But the end of the Cold War, a compromise around “culturally sensitive universalism,” the emergence of a preoccupation with sexual violence in conflict, and the pursuit of criminal law as the primary response to it all ultimately functioned to favor a strand of structural bias feminism focused on female sexual subordination and to suppress and sideline the other feminist critiques, especially their material dimensions.
Tracing this genealogy, the chapter calls into question a dangerous common sense about sexual violence in conflict, a common sense that bears upon culture, sex, economic distribution, and criminalization, and that still dominates human rights law and discourse today. It seeks to motivate a return to, and reevaluation of, other possibilities of feminist critique that were left by the wayside when the structural bias critique prevailed, and when sexual violence and carceral responses became central to feminist approaches to human rights law.