Susan Markham on Feminist Foreign Policy - 7 Questions.

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)

Susan Markham on Feminist Foreign Policy

Susan Markham on Feminist Foreign Policy 

Susan Markham is a partner and co-founder of Smash Strategies. Previously, she served as Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), director of Women's Political Participation at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and a senior strategist here at The Campaign Workshop. Susan is a passionate advocate for gender equality and female empowerment, and advocates for the critical role that women play in politics and development. She also just recently released her new book Feminist Foreign Policy in Theory and in Practice. This week, we asked her 7 questions about her work and career path.

Listen to this interview with Susan Markham on the How to Win a Campaign podcast. 

Share a little bit about your journey into becoming such a passionate advocate for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Well, it starts way back. I got excited about this in college. I was a member of a Greek sorority—I don't really know how I ended up there, my mother probably made me. What we figured out was that if all the sororities joined together, we were the largest women's organization on campus, and we wanted to educate other women about gender-based violence.

Oftentimes, a woman is most likely to be a victim of sexual violence on campus in her first semester before her first Thanksgiving. So we were like, “Hey, we have access to thousands of women here, so why don't we work together to help prevent gender-based violence on campus? Let's also try to prevent alcohol abuse on campus, which often leads to gender-based violence”. That's really where I came about. I wasn't studying it. It was just this idea; if a bunch of women worked together, we could improve the lives of other women on campus. Of course, the founding purpose of sororities on campuses was to provide support for women in education that they weren't getting otherwise. And so I continue to believe in the sisterhood model. And then I realized, oh my gosh, I can actually do this as my job. Like, I get to be mad and yell and have a good time every day. So that's how it started way back.

It's weird because my mom, being from the Midwest, never wanted us to discuss politics with people we didn't know! And then it turned into my job, and then I became a fundraiser, so I was talking about money with people I didn't know. It was their worst nightmare, but I like it.

Based on your experience and knowledge, what are some of the most effective strategies for increasing women’s political participation, whether as voters, activists, candidates, officeholders, or other decision-makers?

Well, there are a couple of key steps that you can take. You need hard skills like public speaking and fundraising, but what I've found is that the first thing we need to do is demystify the political process. People think it's some secret thing. Really, in a good democracy, all the rules are out there, and it's a transparent process, whether it's registering how to vote or knowing when to vote. It's not obvious, though, it's really hard to do in some places. So how do you become a voter? What does it mean to be an activist? Of course, running for office, right? Men like to think that they have some special power, but women have a lot of the same skills, and they use them to raise money for their kids' schools or to organize at their churches. Those are the same skills that you would use to run for office, so we try to demystify the process. The second thing is making politics relevant to their everyday lives. If they are going to spend all of this time trying to organize their friends or hopefully run for office, they have to think, “If I go there, I can make a difference. It's not the same old people in the capital city who won't listen to me or don't have any impact on if I'm safe or if my kids have enough to eat”. Right? So, we're taking the mystery out of it, and we are helping convince them that it's a worthwhile use of their time. If they're willing to buy those two things, then we can move to the hard skills.

Congrats on your new book, we’re excited to dig into Feminist Foreign Policy in Theory and in Practice. Can you talk a little bit about the writing process for this one?

I write a lot of short pieces, blog posts, and things like that. Certainly, in government, we wrote longer reports, but with this idea of capturing a book that had never been written before, we weren't sure where to start it. A couple of years ago, my co-author, Stephanie Foster, and I were doing a project where we were interviewing women who were working on the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. What we found is that feminist foreign policy was kind of growing out of that. So in this course of interviews, we put a framework together, but a lot has changed in the last five years around feminist foreign policy. So we started with the interviews, then the academic literature around international relations and the field—there are organizations in civil society who are working on this issue. Then, finally, we went to government reports because feminist foreign policy has been around for about ten years, so now governments are putting out their own official documents about their feminist foreign policy and what they're doing to implement it. So we’re trying to get to all the different sectors there, and, not surprisingly, they are not all the same. No one agrees about what feminist foreign policy is.

One hard part for us was the fact that Stephanie and I are advocates. While writing we had to take a step back and say, “Okay, we're not trying to convince people, we're trying to report what this is.” So now we’re saying, “This is what civil society thinks feminist foreign policy is. This is what different governments think it is.” But there's no right answer. We're just trying to create this overall baseline report about where it stands in 2023 so that as people continue to implement and adopt a feminist foreign policy, they can see where we've been before.

Without giving away too much, can you give a brief overview of the book and what inspired you to co-author it?

Well, my business partner and I get along very well. We have a lot of fun together. We're kind of different, two sides of the same coin. She's from the diplomatic side and I'm from the development side. She always starts everything by thanking everyone. It's like “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” I just dive right in. When it comes to feminist foreign policy, I am much more blue skies: tear down the system, end patriarchy, address colonialism, and we need to start again. And she's more “How does this work in practice? What can people do on a day-to-day basis?” Because we had both worked in the US government, we thought of taking this blue-sky vision of tearing down institutions and making them workable.

The US government has the largest foreign affairs department in the world, so what could we do here to improve the work of our government? It also was this idea where the ball started moving quickly. Sweden announced a feminist foreign policy in 2014, and since then there are now 15 countries that have announced some sort of feminist foreign policy. We thought that this was a good time, if the ball is starting to get rolling and the movements are starting, to create a baseline for these 10 to 15 countries. Then as it continues to move, there would be something that people could refer back to.

How would you define feminist foreign policy based on your research?

I mean, gender equality is obviously a key aspect of feminist foreign policy, but it's important to think of gender equality as both a goal of feminist foreign policy and a strategy. There has been research done by Valerie Hudson out of Texas A&M which shows that the greater gender equality is in a country, the less likely they are to be at war. They are more likely to abide by international treaties, as well. If you have massive gender inequality in a country, they are much more likely to be either in intrastate conflict or interstate conflict. Gender equality is great on its own, but as you work towards gender equality, you're also improving economic systems, you're improving social systems, you're improving the education system. It’s both a strategy and a goal.

The second thing is that feminist foreign policy advocates have a broad definition of what security means. Oftentimes when people do joke about peace processes or foreign policy, it's men and guns talking to other men about guns, and that's what it is. But for most people around the world, especially women, security is a very personal issue. Am I in control of my own body? Am I worried about violence against myself or my children? Do I have enough to eat? Am I going to have to move because of climate change? Is the electricity going to be on at night? So this broadened definition of what security means is important because everyone is impacted by the foreign policy of one country or another, often US foreign policy, but they don't have a voice in what that means to them.

So with everything that happened in Ukraine, people were like, “Oh my gosh, the first war since World War II!” But we’re like, “We've had two decades-long wars that the US was involved in. Like, I'm sorry, you don't know anyone, but we've been at war.” Many countries have never been at peace since the end of World War II. If you think of the regional conflicts that have gone on in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, you realize this World War II order is not working for them, and it hasn't worked for them for a long time. So when discussing what security means with people in the security sector now, they're like, “Whatever you’re doing is all fluffy duffy, but my job is to keep Americans safe.” And what I say is, “Well, you know what, if they didn't hate us so much, we wouldn't have to spend so much on bullets and bombs.” Why don't we work with them just to avoid the whole war thing instead of trying to win them over through invasion? It's a long-term process, but I think this broadened idea of security helps people think outside of the budget system and how we're spending all that money on the military in the US. We're trying to rebalance some power imbalances that have existed. Within our government, our Defense budget is a hundred times the Diplomacy and Development budget. What we spend on the Peace Corps is like couch cushions for the Defense Department. So how do we rebalance that? How do we also rebalance the governments that have strong foreign policy and those impacted by it? When our diplomats are out there in our embassies, or when other US government folks are out around the world, are they listening to the people who are going to be impacted by our foreign policy so that some of that input can get back to the decision makers here?

Besides militarily, how do we engage with other countries, and how do we set the benchmark for how other countries should engage with each other?

For a long time in the work that I did, we were in democracy promotion where we were helping people become democracies, but now they are not listening to us anymore because they’ve seen some kinks in our system. So I think by going out with humility and saying, “We aren't the best, right? We just try new things all the time. We're an experiment and we keep changing and moving things about. And so we're just here to share what we've learned, but we'd like to learn from you, too”. Doing this we can build much more of an equal relationship with other countries and other leaders around the world.

Involving women in politics and development is obviously central to your work and it sounds like you have quite the passion for it. Can you share some success stories or examples of initiatives either you've been involved with or you've seen that have made a significant impact?

Well, I have to tell you my favorite story of all time. I was doing work in the country of Yemen and, between wars, they were doing what we would call a constitutional convention. Representatives were coming from all over the country to rewrite their constitution, and thankfully the UN had forced them to do a 30% quota for women in the delegates. Our job was to make sure that the women who wanted to serve or who were nominated by their political parties to serve would be ready to go. We did a set of trainings because we didn't want the women to be on the Women Youth in Sports or whatever crazy committee they would've created. We wanted women to be on every committee in every meeting across the convention.

We talked to them about all those different sessions.  If you have a localized government, how do you vote? What would the judiciary look like? We discussed every aspect you would think would be discussed in a constitutional convention, and then we gave them the hard skills once again: how to speak in public, compile your research, and so on. We worked for months on this. Then I went away, and I came back and they were in the middle of it, and I asked how it was going. They're like, “It's awesome! We are totally engaged. We know what's going on.” Every once in a while the whole convention would get together in this huge ballroom in Sanaa. There's a big stage up front, and then there's just rows and rows of chairs, and about 300 people are going in there.

The women were there on time. They sat in the front row with their pens and papers ready to go, and they were ready to comment. Being on time in Yemen is kind of unheard of. Showing up an hour late is no big deal for them, but these women were not late. A couple of weeks in, some warlords who pretty much run the country came in, walked right to the front of the room, and looked at them as if to say, “You're in our seats,” even though there's no assigned seating. The women said, “No, these are our seats. We were here, we're prepared. We're part of this discussion. So I'm sorry, but these are not your seats.” Despite everything that's happened since then, this constitution is in shreds somewhere, it changed their mind. They were active and qualified citizens of their country, and they were no longer going to be put in the back row or have to step aside for these men who, through violence, had run the country for decades. That really, really spoke to me about the power of this. As much as we want to change systems and we want to have the right candidates win, I think working with individual citizens to see their part in the way their country works to help them and their families is incredible.

So looking ahead, what do you believe are some of the most pressing issues currently in the field of gender equality and female empowerment, how do you see yourself playing a role, and how can others potentially play a role in addressing these challenges?

Well, I do think there are two fundamental issues that we have to deal with: sexual and reproductive health injustice, both in the United States and abroad. Once again, if women cannot control their own bodies, then they cannot control their own lives in any way, so we have to address that. I think the Biden White House is thinking creatively about how they can do that. They're working with lots of partners out in the states to make sure that we can work on that. I think we need to have a long-term solution, though. We need to think outside the box and not just keep doing the same things we're doing because obviously, the more conservative parts of our society have been planning this for decades. We need to also think long-term and think about how to do that. The same with our foreign policy—the swinging back and forth about what we're funding in other countries when it comes to women's healthcare is ridiculous. Our partner countries are sick of us changing the budget every four to eight years. In many places around the world, most recently in Latin America, people are putting abortion rights into their constitution. So we need to be moving more in that direction. In the US we have an opportunity because we have so many elections, right? We're never more than 200 days away from an election. In many countries, they have one election every five years, from the president down to local councils. There are no elections in between. So we have a great opportunity here to continue to learn from what's going on, expand voting rights for everyone, and help citizens understand that this isn't something that you just tune into every two or four years. Every day their lives are impacted by their elected officials. There are ways to get involved: through your local official, by going down the street to your Planned Parenthood, and your local political parties who are working on these up to the national level.

There's unfortunately a need for it at every level, and I urge people to just get involved where they feel comfortable because the most important thing is that they get involved. Certainly, when I was in the US government, one of the worst things was that I couldn't do a lot around US politics because of the Hatch Act. But now I'm out, and you can do so much online now, so I started doing voter protection hotlines. I'm an early riser, so I would do it from six to nine in the morning and answer hotlines from people all over the country. My home state, Ohio, needs all the help that they can get. So I do whatever I can in targeted ways to continue to move those specific issues.

So one quick last question. We ask this to everybody, just as our listeners are continuing to think of new ways to get themselves educated. Any favorite podcasts, movies, or TV shows you're digging into at the moment?

Yeah, I've been watching The Diplomat on Netflix. I love that show! The lead character is feisty like I am. And I thought it was realistic. Like when I travel, I only wear black suits and, I don't know, I don't want to ruin an episode! Anyway, someone brings her a gray suit that she has to wear and of course, within a half hour she's spilled food on it and is upset. That’s why I only wear black and gray when I travel, so I only have to bring black shoes. While watching I would point to my husband all the time saying, “That's why I am crazy because this is the way it's supposed to work in the real world”. So I liked that show. I thought it was funny and irreverent and kind of pulled the curtain back a little bit on how the US government and the development diplomacy worlds work.

How can folks connect with you and the work that you're doing? Where can they find the book?

So the book is available on the Rutledge page or I am on X as Ms. Markham. Also, I'm on LinkedIn and I check that fairly regularly because I'm trying to wean myself off other social media. So I can't believe LinkedIn is the growth after all these years, but it seems to be.

Listen to this interview with Susan Markham on the How to Win a Campaign podcast. 

Thanks, Susan, for all that you do. Have any questions? Drop us a note!