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Audio Guide: The Next Page - Transcripts

Welcome to the UN Library and Archives Geneva's Audio Research Guide! Here you'll find episodes from our own podcast, The Next Page, as well as podcasts and audio from or on the UN system and multilateralism.

Episode 49: Conversation – Dr. Katharina Rietzler on recovering Women’s Thought in International Relations

by Katrine Knudsen on 2021-04-16T09:00:00+02:00 in Gender | Comments


Natalie Alexander: Hi everyone, I’m Natalie. Welcome back to The Next Page, the podcast of the UN Library and Achieves Geneva. On today’s episode our director, Francesco Pisano, speaks to historian, author and researcher Katharina Rietzler about her new book, co-edited with Patricia Owens and published in January this year, called Women's International Thought: A new history. Dr. Rietzler speaks about why she wrote this book, after realising numerous women in history have researched and published in the field of International public affairs but only a few were present in the documented history of International relations as a discipline but also in International thought.  

And although the book pays tribute to otherwise marginalised female thinkers, she also stresses the importance of not predetermining, romanticising and generalising women’s intersectional contributions to international relations purely on their gender. You’ll hear why and much more in the conversation, here we go. 


- JINGLE -  

Francesco Pisano: Hello everyone and welcome back to The Next Page, the podcast designed to advance the conversation on multilateralism. Today, I'm joined, I must say again by a friend of our library, Katerina Richler. She's a researcher. She just published together with Patricia Owens, another book and she's back in the lab. The first time she was here in person before the pandemic, of course, for a discussion that we had in our library. Now she's here as the co-author of a book by the title Women's International Thought - A New History. This is so compelling and so interesting to me and to our audience, I’m pretty sure. Katerina, welcome back! 

Katharina Rietzler: Thank you very much for having me on again. It's a real pleasure and it's a shame I cannot be in Geneva in person, but it's wonderful to do this online. 

Francesco Pisano: Thank you so much for taking the time now. Not everyone listening to The Next Page may know you, so tell us a little bit about yourself and also how you came to researching women in international relations. 

Katharina Rietzler: Very happily! So, I am a lecturer in American history at the University of Sussex in England, and I teach mostly international and American history. I was trained as an international historian in London and then I completed a postdoc at Cambridge University where I became more interested in intellectual history and the history of international thoughts more specifically.  

So, my route into this project was actually quite circuitous, as I didn't start out looking at women. I started out as a historian of American philanthropy of the discipline of international relations, and then also the wider academic field of international relations because the discipline itself sort of underwent a process of formation in the mid 20th century. I researched this both with reference to the United States and Europe. So, after working on this topic so good decade and always having taken a rather wide lens to this history of international relations to this disciplinary history, I always included things such as activism but also education, civic internationalism and having done this research over many years, it was very clear to me that there were many women who actually thought, researched and published in international affairs, but that few of these women were present in the historical record in the history of international relations as a discipline and also the history of international thought, which is a wider field that has become really very wide, vibrant in the last 10 years or so. So, women were systematically marginalised, of course, but they were also really present at these key locations whether of these locations were international organisations, conferences - often international conferences or interdisciplinary conferences - academia, think tanks, philanthropic foundations, certain professions, etc. etc.. Women were there, but they weren't there in the literature, so to me it was really the empirical evidence that I uncovered while working on another project that convinced me that we needed more scholarly analysis.  
The question to me was what would happen if you systematically gathered that evidence and then asked the question, what does it mean for international thinking that these women were present? So, I thought it would be interesting to use this question as a project of looking for women as a kind of heuristic device without the predetermined assumption that what you wouldn’t discover would be a genealogy of feminist international relations, because quite possibly you wouldn't find that. So, this was route into the project.  

Back in 2015 I co-organised together with two other historians a small workshop and this is where I met a professor, Patricia Owens whom you’ve already introduced who is my co-author and also my co-editor for this book, Women's International Thought, A New History.  

Patricia came from a background as an IR (International relations) scholar and as an international theorist. She had written a book on Hannah Arendt's International thought and together with Kimberly Hutchings, who's a feminist theorist, we embarked on a cross disciplinary project. Because it felt important to really do this across the disciplines of history, intellectual history, and IR. And we embarked on a project that is funded by the UK based leadership trust and this edited volume that I’m introducing today is the first book-length outcome of this project. 

Francesco Pisano: This is super interesting. Before we delve into the book and how you recovered the histories of the storeys of 18 leading women thinkers that basically are basically resurrected in the book -- before we go there. Let's stay a little bit here on general terms, I have you here, you are a woman researcher, and I would like to hear from you what do you see from a researcher point of view also, being a woman researcher, in terms of what is the state of play today, regarding women influence on international relations. Now what we know is that in international relations, women with very present at the beginning of the last century. Then they were somehow erased by men from the history. And then, what we see from the 90s, this progressive opening and inclusivity of international relations, still a lot to work to be done there, but you know things like social summits and Agenda 2030 itself, are clear signs that international thinking and multilateralism, for that matter, are opening up. And there, there is something to be acknowledged and celebrated, which is the power of women's thought and action in international cooperation. This is absolutely evident, at least for people like me who work in the UN. So, for you as a researcher, what is the state of play? What is that it that you see from your standpoint in terms of the impact that women influence is having on international relations and international thinking? 

Katharina Rietzler: I mean, it is really interesting for me always to listen to practitioners because that is obviously a different perspective. I'm a historian. I'm mostly interested in the past and how it has or often has not shaped our present. So, to assess the present state of play is more difficult for me. I mean, I have some more abstract questions about the concept of influence. What do we mean by influence that we mean representation? Do we mean decision making? Real political power? Do we mean women as foreign policy intellectuals? Undoubtedly over the last 40 years or so that there has been real change and here have been many gains for women. If I think only of the United States, for example, we see the emergence of some really influential foreign policy intellectuals and fairly much across the political spectrum, both liberal and conservative thinkers. So, there is a sense that there are powerful women with real intellectual heft. But does this mean that women as a group globally can defend their interests? And who says what these interests are? I think there's actually quite a lot of debate and maybe even conflict regarding these questions. I think what we are also seeing is bigger accentuation of divisions among women across various axes: races, often mentioned, class, caste, nationality. So, I mean from my perspective as a researcher, obviously, we have also come a long way there in terms of the representation of women in the academe, and it was important to us to capture these changes. As part of this larger Leverhulme project, we have actually recorded a series of oral histories with women scholars, with senior women scholars who work in the field of international relations who reflect on their career paths and that is another resource that we have created because I think the question is important. More personally, as a researcher, I think what the project has given me is a new appreciation for women's writing, its complexity, its richness, its diversity. It is a fantastic heuristic device. And working with students who have worked on women thinkers, I think it is also genuinely empowering for women students and that is a payoff of this wider project within the academe. 

Francesco Pisano: Let’s go back to the book now. For the people, who haven’t had the chance to read the book. This part of our podcast wants to be a little bit like a flyover so they can have a sense or what they can find in the book when they finally acquire and read it. So first, my first question to you would be to tell us a little bit about why this is a new history? I gathered that this book has a revisionist part to it, so there is not only recovering these 18 personalities, but it's really crafting a new narrative while doing so. So why did you call this book A New History? 

Katharina Rietzler: It is a new history, but it obviously builds on significant prior research. That's why it was important to us to put together a fairly large, edited volume and to really bring in experts in their fields of writing about women thinkers. So, the first reason why this is a new history is because it brings together separate, and sometimes quite disparate forays, into this history of women's international thought. People have been working on this for a while, but we felt there was a real need to bring people together into conversations and to really do this across disciplines. Because there is a lot of research going on, but sometimes people don't necessarily talk to each other, so that's one reason. The other way in which this is a new history is, I think, the sustained attention and pace to the history of black woman's international thought. Black woman's international history has always been internationalist, and it's usually considered separately owing to the racialized and gendered history of international relations. So that was another concern that we had. And finally, we thought that the title “new history” would be ample because, as you already alluded to, we really wanted to push for a rethinking of the gendered history of IR because it is not just about recovering contribution to existing paradigms or existing conversations, it is also about really challenging those paradigms. And I can provide a couple of examples for that. I suppose we also wanted a fuller consideration of the mechanisms which turned international relations into a field. And I was hugely diverse in the early 20th century. We even had scholar from the natural sciences thinking they were doing international studies, and then it became a much more narrow and very Anglo-American discipline in the mid-20th century. So, we thought that recovering women’s contributions would also shed a light on these mechanisms.  

Francesco Pisano: And I would be very interested in these examples you want to bring to the audience from the book. Once we read the book, what would you say are the most salient findings of this research? How does the book expand these locations, genre and practises of international thinking? 

Katharina Rietzler: So maybe to give prospective readers, if I may do that, a bit of an overview, we decided to group the book into three sections. We did that very deliberately because this is where we wanted to stake out the debate. So, we have one section on canonical thinkers which presents women who are already appreciated and their respective disciplines but were sometimes or often not read as international thinkers. So those are the Canonical. 

Then we had a section of outsiders which was in many ways so very left field as intellectuals. You wouldn't necessarily recognise them as thinkers or as intellectuals, but still they made important contributions and we wanted to bring them in.  

Then, the final section of the book is the academe because yes, obviously there were many important women scholars who made significant contributions and sometimes they were marginalised. But they still have their place in the academe, so the different debates were about scholarly recognition and how it is readable. And also, the impact of certain ideological and political commitments that then ensured marginalisation. In terms of the examples in which this is maybe a revisionist history, and so to provide one example is, I mean the best-known tradition in IR is surely realism. It's it is still something that scholars reflect on all the time, and the kind of history of realism has also been written many times. The way in which realism constructed this very distinguished all-male canon, and as indeed our authors show in this book, women were actually present at the creation of realism. They were actually there, and they made distinct contributions and really questioned some of these tendencies we commonly see in realism - the kind of geopolitical thinking and the anti-Democratic tendencies of the realists. So, if you read somebody like Merze Tate, who is an African American scholar who is receiving a lot of recognition right now. But for a long time, she was fairly unknown in mainstream IR. Obviously, she was always recognised even when she was alive as a fantastic scholarship - she had the recognition in her lifetime. If you read her work, she's certainly a small IR realist, but she very much challenges these blinkers, especially when it came to race, especially when it came to empire, but also when it came to issues such as public opinion. So, if you read her work which is realist in its own way, it makes you really rethink realism as a part of the Canon. And I think that is one very important outcome of this wider project. I think some of the other results from this research that were that we found significant was the prompting of some of this work to rethink moments of crisis. If you think about IR as a discipline, the chronology is always structured around crisis or great debates. But actually, once you try to find women at these moments, it makes you reassess how these crises or debates played out slightly differently. Another third interesting finding that we saw when we put the chapters together was the centrality of empire and of globalities. I mean that is obviously, always present or often present in black women's international thought. But we also saw this theme in other contributions in the work of some of these other thinkers. So, another example, maybe is Emily Balch, who is already quite well known as a thinker. But the global scope of her thinking was really striking, ranging from immigrants from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire to America, and issues of Americanisation to her interest in American intervention in Haiti and how she actually connected these different strands in her thought. 

Francesco Pisano: Before we go to, maybe you have other examples, and I'm sure that our audience would be super interested that, but I would like to go back to something you said about international thinking and how it shapes around moments of crisis. I think it's very interesting if you could just elaborate a little bit more on your findings there. For one thing, the cause we are in a moment of crisis due to the response to the pandemic and we are observing at the level of the international community and at the level of practice of multilateralism, maybe not philosophical crafting of IR thinking, but at least in practice we are witnessing how with the presence of women in decision-making makes a difference in terms of crisis. So, I'm very curious, what did you find in your historical research that could contribute to people understanding what the role of women thinkers in crafting IR around moments of crisis is. 

Katharina Rietzler: So, I think, and I'm not sure how helpful this is, but one important crisis in the 1930s is the is the rise of fascism on the threat coming from Nazi Germany, and the question of appeasement. And in a chapter by Lucian Ashworth, we have a group of women thinkers who come to very, very different conclusions when it when it comes to the question of appeasement. They all argue from a certain positionality. They all make sort of maternalistic and feminist arguments, but they actually come to different answers. So, I think the lesson from that particular episode is to not predetermine women’s contributions - their intersectional contributions – to see that there are multiple answers, and not to romanticise it. So, another example from the book is a working class American intellectual called Mittie Maude Lena Gordon who was arguing for an alliance of African Americans with Imperial Japan in the era of World War II. She paid dearly for this, so she ended up in prison. So, I think that are two important caveats, when we look at women's international thought and I think there has to be a recognition that not all of this thought is maybe admirable, or we might not share some of these conclusions, but there is a certain positionality introduced into international thinking, if we look at these women thinkers. In the case of Gordon, clearly, she is speaking from a position of an of an African American, who is oppressed also as a working-class black woman. 

Francesco Pisano: I wonder if there is one of these 18 personalities that appear throughout the book that you would like to highlight for the benefit of our audience. Maybe not, not necessarily the one you prefer, but the one that really struck as a case of is why you've been doing this research? Is there such a figure? 

Katharina Rietzler: I mean, they're there obviously but it's hard to pick. I think all the chapters are really, really interesting. We have some figures that you probably wouldn't expect, so I would like to encourage readers to read all of the chapters. But personally, as a specialist really on the inter-war years, I sometimes like being pushed a little bit earlier. One figure that I thought it is really worth reading, is Anna Julia Cooper. She's another African American intellectual. She's already recognised. She's one of those Canonical figures, but it's really only thanks to Vivian May, who wrote the essay on her that her international thought is now readable. I think she is remarkable because she's often regarded as an important, specifically African American woman thinker. She's a club woman, she's a very famous educationalist and she is also an amazing writer, her prose is just so rich, appealing and just beautiful. It's worth reading her, and she's also a well-published writer. So, somebody who, even in the 1890s, manages to gain intellectual recognition. She publishes a book called A Voice From The South that indeed makes her famous. But there's this other side to her, she has to earn a living, so she is a teacher for most of her life. She manages to go to France. She studies at the Sorbonne. She gains a PhD, and her thesis is on international relations. It is on the history of the French Empire and it is again on Haiti and she develops a methodology for making voices that are usually not heard, on accounts of the French Empire, for making these voices heard. So she is one of those women who were present at the creation of international relations as a field. Her doctoral supervisor is somebody called Celestin Bougle, who's very much involved in all of these efforts to create a new science of international relations. And she is there; she's not included, but she's there as a kind of a thorn in the side of Bougle. She challenges him. She contradicts him. She is, as a result of that, excluded from these networks. But she is there and so history is really important if we want to understand where international thinking comes from. Also, in its more established recognised form. A final word on her, what she also does is to bring back the history of education into international thinking. Obviously, that has always been a field that has been dominated by women whether that be at the school systems or at the international level. There are numerous women who are important there, Fannie Fern Andrews is another woman that could be mentioned here. But when you actually read Cooper’s writing, it’s really striking to what extent, she analyses the importance of women's education in world order terms. So, for her, this isn't just about including women in citizenship. She sees this as something that could potentially change the course of international relations; that could change things in civilizational terms even; that could prevent war and conflict in the future. So, you see this already back in the 1890s, and we are still making similar points today. I think there is a longstanding discussion about the role of women as educators, educators for peace, ET Cetera. But these arguments are really very old, and it's worth going back to them. 

Francesco Pisano: This is super interesting, and indeed it is both encouraging and discouraging at the same time. These things were raised already in the 1800s, and we're still debating them. This perfect segway into what I wanted to discuss with you next. When one hears you talk about the research that had to go into this to resurrect these 18 characters that were there at the beginning of international thought and they were participating and there were excluded or deleted from the recorded history, so much so that you had to recover them like in exercise of the intellectual or research archaeology. Then one wonders what constitutes international thought today. What is the matter; the body of knowledge we’re looking at? Is it distorted because of this action of erasing and excluding and also resurrecting? What is the body of knowledge objectively in front of us that we call international thought today? 

Katharina Rietzler: I think in some ways there are obviously continuities. International thought is in some ways where it has already been in the 20th century. So, in academia, in think tanks, international organisations and diplomacy and all of these locations are much more open to women now. If we take the example of think tanks, for example, the Council formulations, which is the most established think tank in the United States. It decided, the date escapes me, but it was one of the trailblazers for establishing a dedicated programme on women in international relations. So, we also have a lot more institutional buy-in today. So, powerful institutions specifically promoting women's international thinking, I think that's a key difference. But I think if we look at the historical record which shows us that sometimes international thinking gets women into trouble, it gets them fired from university posts, it gets them arrested or it gets them sort of put into a certain box and we have one essay in the volume written by Tamson Pietsch; another really great piece on a woman thinker who was a Christian scientist and she had her own rather eccentric millenarian view on international relations. She was also a techno-optimist and for our perspectives today she is just too strange, too eccentric to really include as a sort of Canonical thinker of international relations. But nonetheless, her thought on Empire, in particular, is very interesting. So, I think if we think about international thought today, yes, we should look in the usual places which have become much more open. But we might also think about dissident thinking; thinking that seems to be beyond the pale and that is maybe conducted by women who are having trouble finding a platform or a publisher and are therefore writing blog posts and posting anonymous comments on social media. So there must be a body of thought that remains on the margin, even though the process of marginalisation probably looks different due to changes in technology. I think there's another interesting phenomenon that we see today, of writers who are creating a female voice who are impersonating women, I'm thinking of the 2011 hoax; the gay girl in Damascus blog. So that was a blog written by an American who was living in Edinburgh who was pretending to be a Muslim lesbian woman living in Damascus at the time of the revolt against the regime, sort of caught up in this disintegrating country. So, a narrator created a voice, supposedly authentic voice, and it did that because of that reason, and it turned out to actually be an impersonation of a hoax. So, I think that's a really interesting phenomenon today that that tells us something about identity and women's identity and how it is deployed strategically by writers for whatever reason. I don't want to go into the ins and outs of this story, but I think it seems interesting and remarkable today. 

Francesco Pisano: A lot of matter for reflection there, and thank you for bringing this. I didn't know about this and I'm sure that a lot of people listening to this podcast will look into this story and reflect more on it. I would like to go back to the role of women. After all, the book you co-author with Patricia Owens is women's international thought. So back to women now. I would like to ask you how this act of research and publishing, but it's the act of research interests me, combine with and support gender studies. 

Katharina Rietzler: I mean gender studies is obviously a vast and expanding field and it's concerned yes, of course, with women, but also with gender and in broader sense, with masculinities. Men are the sort of plethora of the identities and sexualities we see today. So that is a much broader field that also has a strong theoretical bent, political commitment, here are many arguments about of feminism here is a theory, but also as practice and about the plurality of feminism, different feminisms. In that sense, I think we make a contribution because we do show diversity of international thinking; of women's thinking, that is not always feminist. So, I think that this may be an interesting result for gender studies scholars. The project is in an older tradition; it's a project of recovery. Recovery is sometimes seen as an old-fashioned pursuit, but if anything, we want to encourage scholars who are from a more theoretical persuasion to revisit recovery and to rediscover the past and regard these thinkers as potential resources and as resources that challenge the sometimes slightly teleological thinking of the trajectory of the sort of old-fashioned feminism of the past of “now we are in a different place, we have sort of seen the light” but maybe things are not always as linear as this. I think, especially when you look at thinkers of the past, somebody like Anna Julia Cooper for example, and the arguments they made. It's interesting to see the overlaps, but also the divergences with today. So, it is a recovery project. I do think recovery remains important also for gender studies and it's an invitation, not everybody wants to do it. That's fine, but it might be interesting for people to revisit.  

Francesco Pisano: I think the message was heard. Katharina Rietzler, as we wrap up today’s podcast final thoughts you wish our audience to remember on this subject of women in international relations. 

Katharina Rietzler: I suppose the only other message I'd like to bring across it that women thinkers are surprisingly easy to find. When we started out with this project, there were some sceptical voices who said “well, you're not going to find anything” and indeed, that has not been the case. We found too much really, and we had to make some very hard choices and about what to include. So, for anybody who is interested to hear more about our research and please visit our website. It's hosted by the University of Oxford in which the project is located. Just search for History of Womens’ International Thought and the Leverhulme Trust. We have a number of articles that are published or in the pipeline. So please do look out for my colleagues’ writings and that's Patricia Owens, Kimberly Hutchings, Sarah Dunstan and Joanna Wood; that's our team.  
And another final announcement, we have another forthcoming publication which is an anthology of women's international thinking, which is much broader and contains over 100 selections of women’s international thinking, and that's forthcoming with Cambridge University Press later this year. 

Francesco Pisano: This is very exciting! As the head of the library here I look forward to acquiring the anthology as well. Katharina Rietzler, thank you for taking the time to speak on The Next Page, our podcast to advance the conversation on multilateralism and I think this podcast, in particular, advances that a lot. We hope to see you back in person, in our library one day soon and we wish you all the best your research. Thank you. 

Katharina Rietzler: Thank you very much indeed. 

- JINGLE -  

Natalie Alexander: So, that was historian and researcher Katharina Rietzler talking to our director Francesco Pisano. I hope you enjoyed this episode! If you’d like to know more about Dr Rietzler, the book or anything else covered in this episode, you can find all the relevant links in our show notes.  

Also, if you liked this episode of The Next Page Podcast, please don’t hesitate to leave us a review or comment on this episode, we love hearing from you!  If you want to keep up with us here at the UN Library and Archives Geneva, you can follow us on our Twitter on @UNOGLibrary or on Facebook, just search for United Nations Library&Archives Geneva! 

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