Driven by curiosity: political science professor explores women foreign policy leaders

June 7, 2019 by Alexa Zulak - A&S News

If you open a newspaper, turn on the evening news or log on to any social media platform, you’ll be hard pressed to find a news organization that doesn’t have something to say about a woman in a position of political power.

Between the U.K.’s ongoing Brexit battle, the Democratic leadership race in the U.S. and Canada’s seat at the recent North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations, women foreign policy leaders are making waves at the frontlines of political decision-making.

But they haven’t always been recognized for their contributions by the public, journalists or scholars — something that piqued the curiosity of one U of T professor.

“The U.S. produced four really interesting women leaders since the 1980s and no one had done any research about them,” said Sylvia Bashevkin, a professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Political Science. “So I thought: let’s see how we can till this untilled field.”

Cited by the CPSA prize jury as “theoretically rich and engagingly written,” Sylvia Bashevkin’s prize-winning book, “breaks new ground in IR scholarship by challenging deep-seated assumptions about female leadership and gender relations in high-level diplomacy.”

Tilling the field led to Bashevkin’s 2019 Canadian Political Science Association Prize in International Relations winning Women as Foreign Policy Leaders, the first book of its kind to take a comparative look at women’s leadership in American foreign policy.

Focusing on four U.S. trailblazers — two appointed by Democratic and two by Republican presidents — Bashevkin examines the impact of women foreign policy leaders through the lens of Jeane Kirkpatrick — the U.S.’s first woman ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright — UN ambassador and secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice — national security advisor and secretary of state, and Hillary Clinton — secretary of state.

“What drew me was curiosity about what they had accomplished and what limitations they confronted,” said Bashevkin, highlighting the gaps in existing coverage of these women’s careers and lives. “I think a lot of the research we undertake that really compels us is driven by curiosity.”

And while comparing four leaders who seem to be vastly different might seem daunting, Bashevkin was ready to take on the challenge.

“Because I had done a lot of comparative work before I did this study, I had a sense that there were some continuities and important parallels,” said Bashevkin. “It wasn’t as unmanageable as it appeared.”

Bashevkin, who recently won the International Studies Association’s 2019 Bertha Lutz Prize for conducting the highest quality public writing and research on women in diplomacy for Women as Foreign Policy Leaders, explores the ways in which these leaders shaped U.S. foreign policy, while also debunking key assumptions about what it means to be a woman in a position of power.

This includes the myths that women foreign policy leaders are likely to be less aggressive when it comes to international relations and are guided by feminist ideals above all else.

“I’m still fascinated by all four of the women I studied and am still full of curiosity about the ones who have come after them — both in the U.S. and elsewhere,” said Bashevkin.

And these days, exploring the role of women in politics seems more pressing than ever before — particularly to those outside the academic realm.

“There isn’t a week in my year that goes by without my working with community groups, the media or universities outside U of T,” said Bashevkin.

Whether it’s speaking at an International Women’s Day event at the British Consulate in Toronto, moderating panel discussions with esteemed women leaders, being interviewed for podcasts, or talking to young leaders at events organized by groups like Equal Voice and Samara Canada — Bashevkin has seen an increase in public interest surrounding women in politics.

“I started working in this field as a graduate student in the 1970s when there was almost no interest in it whatsoever, or it was really episodic,” said Bashevkin. “But there’s a lot of public interest now. It isn’t just in the classroom; lots of people are curious about what’s going on.”

And with increased public interest come new audiences — ones that can range from people who recently became interested in politics to retired MPs.

“You never know who you’re going to meet. I think as scholars we always try to offer some insight that’s relevant to each part of the audience,” said Bashevkin. “Particularly as political scientists we’re often dealing with very mixed audiences. You have to be nimble on your feet.”

“I think that’s part of the excitement.”