July 21, 2017 | By Richard C. Eichenberg

Who Supports a Feminist Foreign Policy for the United States?

(Cross-posted with Ike's World of Polls at Tufts University)

In August 1995, President Bill Clinton established the President’s Interagency Council on Women and declared: “We are putting our efforts to protect and advance women’s rights where they belong–in the mainstream of American foreign policy.” Elsewhere, I have described the subsequent growth of policy activity on behalf of global women’s rights and traced which political actors have been most active in its implementation.

In this post I ask a different set of questions: how strong is popular support for a “feminist foreign policy” that makes women’s rights a central priority? What segments of the population are most supportive?  Is support for global women’s rights correlated with other policy attitudes?

Some answers to these questions can be found in the annual Chicago Council Survey of Americans on foreign policy issues conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In the 2016 survey, the Council asked respondents to rate the importance of a number possible foreign policy goals for the United States, including (among others), combating terrorism, maintaining military superiority, limiting global warming, and combating world hunger. Included among these foreign policy goals was promoting the rights of women and girls around the world. (In the analysis to follow I combine this question with a second that has very similar wording and yields almost identical results).

One feature of the results of the survey is that Americans consider most of these goals either very important or somewhat important. For example, 97 percent of respondents consider combating terrorism a very or somewhat important goal, versus 91 percent for maintaining military superiority, 90 percent for combating global hunger, and 83 percent for limiting global warming. A substantial majority –87 percent—considers promoting the rights of women and girls an important or somewhat important foreign goal.

Clearly, most foreign policy goals are considered important to some extent. The more interesting question is which segments of the population say the policy is very important. This seems all the more relevant given news reports that President Trump’s budget proposes to eliminate the office that administers global women’s issues. As Congress deliberates on that budget, it is important to know both the overall level of popular support for advancing global gender rights and who is more skeptical.

The graphic below shows the breakout of those who believe that promoting the rights of women and girls is a very important policy goal. There are few surprises. Women, Democrats, and those who intended to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are far more likely to identify global gender issues as “very important.” Black Americans are also very supportive.

Who supports a feminist foreign policy?

I also examined what other foreign policy attitudes were related to support for global gender rights. Those who believe that strengthening the United Nations would be an effective way for the US to achieve its goals also support the pursuit of global gender rights. The finding is not surprising because the United Nations has been a crucial forum for advocacy on global gender issues. In addition, scholars have found that opinions of the UN and opinions favoring global justice tend to cluster among citizens who favor a cooperative approach to global affairs or a redistribution of global resources (Gravelle, Reifler, and Scotto 2017).

A second correlation may be a bit more surprising to some readers: support for the pursuit of global women’s rights is also strongest among respondents who are very worried about being the target of gun violence. At first glance, a relationship between worries about gun violence and global gender rights may not seem obvious. Several factors likely explain it. First, fear of gun violence is highly gendered –women are more likely to worry about being a victim of gun violence. Second, women are no doubt aware that women are often the victim of violent crime and violent global conflicts. Securing the rights of women is not just a question of justice –it is a question of personal safety. As Valerie Hudson and her colleagues have put it, the security of women and the reduction of global violence are integrally related (Hudson et al 2012). What may be surprising is that a simple question about gun violence elicits responses that are cosmopolitan in their overtones.

References

Gravelle, Timothy B., Jason Reifler, and Thomas J. Scotto. 2017. “The Structure of Foreign Policy Attitudes in Transatlantic Perspective: Comparing the   United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany.” European Journal of Political Research, March. doi:10.1111/1475-6765.12197.

Hudson, Valerie M., et. al. (2012). Sex and world peace. New York: Columbia University Press.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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