It’s fitting that Susanne Zwingel, associate professor of politics and international relations, works at Florida International University – she studies international women’s rights and their translation, gender equality advocacy around the world, and global governance and gender.
Zwingel joined FIU in 2014. Previously, she had worked at SUNY Potsdam, a four-year public college. She was drawn to FIU for two reasons. She wanted the opportunity to work with graduate students. “I had great collaborative projects with the undergraduates, but teaching others how to do good research was something I wanted to do,” she says. Additionally, she was drawn to the academics. “To connect the fields of feminism/gender studies and international relations is a rare combination.”
Zwingel can attest to the rarity of that combination personally. She studied political science at several German universities, but had always been interested in gender dynamics as well. Because gender classes were nestled under sociology, she took sociology as a second major. Her master’s project focused on women’s movements in Chile, which sparked an interest in international relations and women’s rights. “Laws and international organizations such as the United Nations are spaces that have often been used to fight against gender discrimination,” she says.
One such example is the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly and commonly described as an international bill of rights for women. It has been ratified by 189 states, although many that have ratified the Convention have done so subject to certain declarations, reservations, and objections. Zwingel wrote a book, Translating International Women’s Rights: The CEDAW Convention in Context, which examined CEDAW and its impact on women worldwide.
Activists can use CEDAW intelligently and strategically to work toward gender equality, Zwingel says. “The increase in advocacy since the 1970s is amazing. Even with very different perspectives, people work together across continents in a very engaged and interconnected way.”
There are certainly many different perspectives to keep in mind. “Many European countries, for example, are more comfortable with the idea of a welfare state, and they believe that helps women as well as society as a whole. In contrast, the United States has more of a non-interference policy, with more value placed on private life and individual choice.” Still, despite the different ideas different societies have about what gender relations should be, most societies agree that women should be able to live in dignity.
Her next project will examine gender norms in the Caribbean, a region with a unique mix of racial and gendered power hierarchies due to its history of colonialism. “More women are educated there than men, but they earn less. Women are crucial and strong figures in society, but they often live in precarious situations and are not well represented in positions of political power.”
The field can be hard to study, Zwingel says. “To study feminism and women’s rights, you have to be both visionary and incredibly patient. There are such a number of steps it takes along the way to producing change.”
That may be true, but Zwingel has already seen changes. “When I first became interested in feminism and international relations, I felt like it was a marginalized aspect of the field, but now it’s seen as a normal part of the discipline.” And although some students still do not answer in the affirmative when she asks whether they’ve heard of feminism in her theory classes, she has seen a noted increased interest in feminist thinking, including among male students.
And of course, the #MeToo movement that swept the country in 2017 created new lines of dialogue about feminism and equality. “I’ve been in feminist academia for decades, but suddenly everyone was discussing these issues. People are becoming sensitized and are being inspired to take these problems more seriously.”
She has hopes for even more positive developments in the future. “Fifty years down the line, I’d love the field to be more aware of developments and research coming from other societies,” she says. “We’re at a point where we understand that much of our knowledge is produced with a Eurocentric view, and we have to open up and learn from other contexts. It’s so important to think about other starting points of thought, a plurality of voices.”
FIU Women in Research is a regular feature of ADVANCE News that examines the impressive work female faculty members are doing at the university.