“Behind every successful man there is a woman” is a well-known expression which forces some critical thinkers of us to ask: “Who’s behind the woman then?”. One day after this year’s International Women’s Day, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney represented Nobel Peace Prize nominee Nadia Murad as well as other Yazidi victims of Daesh at the United Nations in New York. In her speech, Amal Clooney called for an investigation into the crimes committed by Daesh in Iraq: “Don’t let ISIS get away with genocide.” Yet, numerous media headlines and articles focused on her marriage to actor and sexiest men alive George Clooney, her outfit and/or her pregnancy. For illustration, “Amal Clooney is a vision in yellow as she shows off hint of baby bump in chic dress” (Mirror), “Amal Clooney Stuns in Yellow While Delivering Passionate Speech at the United Nations” (Entertainment Tonight), or “Amal Clooney Puts Her Growing Baby Bump on Display in Chic Yellow Dress for U.N. Speech” (Hollywood Life).

This incident inspired me to devote this article to Feminism and my upcoming blog article to the case of the Yazidis. Herein, I will recourse Cynthia Enloe and Virginia Woolf on the intertwining of marriage, militarism, and power in politics. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘Marriage’ is the “legally or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship (historically and in some jurisdictions specifically a union between a man and a woman)”. According to Psychology Today, it is “the process by which two people make their relationship public, official, and permanent.” Nowadays, debate around the notion of ‘marriage’ centers mostly around same-sex marriage. By putting the status of a “wife” up front, my point is neither to raise empathy for the case of accomplished yet insufficiently recognized females in the field of politics, like Amal Clooney, nor to continue to normalize heterosexual marriage. Rather, what follows represents an urgent call to understand why both men and women perpetuate a patriarchal status quo in politics.

Marriage and Patriarchy

In her 2016 journal article, ‘Flick of the Skirt: A Feminist Challenge to IR’s Coherent Narrative’, renowned Clark University Professor Cynthia Enloe lifts the institutionalized relationship and practice of ‘marriage’ to the level of International Relations (IR).[1] She reviews that Feminist writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), Josephine Butler (1828-1906), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Huda al Sha’arawi (1879-1947), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) already outlined that the relationships created within marriage and households sometimes more and sometimes less consciously uphold patriarchal structures of states, nations, cultural institutions, economies, and international systems. The linkage of the structures of domestic marginalization of women to the masculinized causes of war, is brilliantly described in Virginia Woolf’s book-length essay “Three Guineas”, on which I will elaborate in the following.[2] First, however, allow me to emphasize that since Amal (Alamuddin) and George Clooney started dating in 2013, we can hardly identify any of the two being “behind” the success of the other prior to the beginning of their relationship.

Per Virginia Woolf (1938), ‘marriage’ is one of the forms by which women prostitute(d) their body and mind to the men in their lives. While the clouds gathered for the storm of the Second World War, Virginia Woolf warned women in the decisive prewar year against complicity and cooption to the war machine (Enloe 2016, 325). That is to say, to critically assess whether and to which extent they should support the processions of the men in their lives, e.g. fathers, brothers, and husbands. Without access to own education and profession, British women of the interwar period were socialized by their families to use charm and beauty as tools to “flatter and cajole the busy men, the soldiers, the lawyers, the ambassadors, the cabinet ministers who wanted recreation after their day’s work” (ibid., 39) – just as in the fashion of the introductory saying “Behind every successful man there is a woman”. On the one side, we note that the educational and professional status of the man equaled the status of the wife herself, as well as her possibilities to influence societal developments, like war and other decisions of political importance. On the other side, we see that tools once well-demanded for pleasing men, are now or rather still used for reducing females, like Amal Clooney, to her physical appearance and status as a ‘wife’.

Whilst George Clooney (*1961) is mostly known as an American actor and filmmaker, he is also a political activist taking stances regarding the Syrian conflict, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and the genocide in Darfur. Yet, Amal Clooney (*1978) made her passion her profession. She is a well-accomplished British-Lebanese lawyer and scholar, holding a BA/LLB from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University, and a Master of Law (LLM) from New York University. Professionally, her successes include defending prominent persons like former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, as well as legally advising the head of the U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission on the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and the Joint Special Envoy of the UN and the Arab League on the case of Syria. Academically, she published a book chapter in Contemporary Challenges for the International Criminal Court, co-edited the book The Special Tribunal for Lebanon: Law and Practice, and co-authored an article in the Journal of International Criminal Justice. In an interview with BBC News, Amal Alamuddin admits that she does not mind being referred to as the wife of George Clooney, if it helps in getting publicity for her cause regarding the plight of the Yazidis.

Everyday Acts of Feminism

Let us take “the Clooney’s” as an example for some of the obstacles faced when it comes to modifying the gender status quo in society. In 1938, Virginia Woolf outlined that religious and familial structures are hindering the modification of the power-gender -relations in society and identified education (colleges) as the engine for the professional and societal influence of males and females. Whilst one third of women in interwar Britain worked outside the home, only one tenth of married women did due to the Marriage Bar, a customary practice restricting and terminating employment of married women and terminating their labor upon marriage. In the 21st century, Amal Clooney gathered educational, academic, and professional success. Yet, popular media coverage is reducing her to her marriage, look, and role as soon-to-be mother of George Clooney’s children. Surprisingly enough, such media is mostly written, read, and circulated by other females. Woolf (1938) argued that the Second World War could be prevented, if women were generally allowed to access education and to engage in professional work, for that they were not dependent on supporting their husbands’ activities. Arguably, renown IR feminist Cynthia Enloe develops this thought and its consequences further in her 2016 article, namely that war professions and industries are only possible when the wives of the military engaged men agree to it. But when speaking about and analyzing feminism in politics, we also shall not forget the contribution of fellow women and such everyday acts of anti-/feminism.

Image: gtglanz/art

[1] Cynthia Enloe, 2016, “Flick of the Skirt: A Feminist Challenge to IR’s Coherent Narrative”, International Political Sociology 10: 320-331. 

[2] Virginia Woolf,Three Guineas (New York, Harbinger: 1966 [1938]).