Susan Strange held the Montague Burton Chair in International Relations 1978-88 and was a world renowned leader of the field, writes Professor Patricia Owens of the University of Sussex. Susan Strange had studied at LSE and become a journalist before returning to academia. As a professor at LSE, she published her most influential books and founded the British International Studies Association. Later, she became the third woman and first Briton to hold the Presidency of the International Studies Association in the United States.
I never meant to be an academic. If I had had the talent, I would rather have been an actress, preferably a comedian, or a painter.
Susan Strange (Strange, 1989: 429)
Susan Strange (1923-1998) became easily the most influential figure in the academic field International Relations (IR) in late twentieth-century Britain. A world-leading thinker on international political economy, she achieved this standing while raising six children and only publishing her first book at the age of 48.
Born on 9 June 1923 in Dorset, Susan Strange won a scholarship to the London School of Economics and achieved a first-class degree in Economics. By the final year of her degree, she was pregnant with her first child by her first husband, Denis Merritt. To make ends meet, rather than train for an academic career she began her professional career as a rather serious journalist. Indeed, had she not entered academe, taken up acting, comedy or painting “- and had no children” – she later claimed, “I would also have dearly liked to be an independent newspaper columnist” (Strange, 1989: 429). It is easy to imagine. She was an editorial assistant at The Economist, where she worked with foreign editor Barbara Ward, and then White House correspondent for The Observer, at the time one of the most exciting and radical of British newspapers.
Returning to London, Susan Strange took her first post teaching in International Relations at University College London in 1949, which she combined with scholarship, continued journalism and the birth of four more children, with her second husband, Clifford Selly. In an autobiographical essay, Susan Strange reflected on how her pregnancies made her vulnerable to the “bullying ways” of the senior IR professor, Georg Schwarzenberger. “But the feminist case in the professions still had to be made, and with four young children at home I didn’t relish the fight”. Susan Strange was effectively forced out of UCL for having children. The upside, she later reflected, was not having to deal with the arrival of another senior colleague, John Burton, “more interested in recruiting disciples than teaching students to think for themselves” (1989: 433). Already during the evacuation of LSE to Cambridge during World War II, Susan Strange had developed a strong distaste for male Professors compelled to cultivate cliques and surround themselves with devotees.
Leaving UCL, she became a full-time researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House between 1965-76. There she developed her powerful analyses of global political economy, critique of formal modelling and pretensions of contemporary international theory, publishing Sterling and British Policy: a Political Study of an International Currency in Decline (1971). UCL’s loss was also LSE’s gain. Having occasionally taught on the IR programme since 1965, Susan Strange took the Montague Burton Chair in International Relations at LSE in 1978. According to IR disciplinary historian Brian Porter, Susan Strange “was well aware of the heritage she was entering, and had scant respect for it. Not only did she have something like contempt for [Charles] Manning’s ingenious word-play and subtle philosophising, but was not much impressed with the subject as it had hitherto been taught in the Department… [S]he remained dismissive of its intellectual heritage” (Porter, 2003: 36-37). But conventional IR’s vice could also be turned into a virtue. “International relations”, Susan Strange observed, “stands as the one social science with barriers to entry so low that anyone can jump them. It has been and will remain the richer for keeping those barriers low” (1989: 435).
At LSE, Susan Strange established Britain’s first graduate programme in International Political Economy (IPE). IPE, she believed, was “the key to the perennial political question, who gets what?”. Interstate relations were a sub-field of the organisation of global economy (1989: 434-5). At LSE, she published her most influential books, including Casino Capitalism (1986) and States and Markets: the Diffusion of Power in the World Economy (1988), then later The Retreat of the State (1996) and Mad Money (1998). As an antidote to conferences organised by the male “barons” who had dominated British academic International Relations – “the dreadfully constipated and hierarchical Bailey conferences that Charles Manning used to run at the LSE” (Strange, 1989: 435) – Susan Strange founded the British International Studies Association in 1975.
She retired from the Montague Burton Chair in 1988, taking a Professorship at the European University Institute in Florence where she remained until 1993. In 1995, she became the third woman and first Briton to hold the Presidency of the International Studies Association in the United States. Her final academic appointment was Professor of International Political Economy at Warwick University which remains today one of the leading centres for the study of IPE in Europe. Susan Strange died on October 25, 1998, two weeks after the publication of her final book Mad Money: When Markets Outgrow Governments.
Contributed by Patricia Owens (Professor and Head of International Relations at the University of Sussex and Director of the Leverhulme Project on Women and the History of International Thought. In 2016, she was awarded BISA’s Susan Strange Prize for the Best Book in International Studies.)
Porter, Brian (2003) ‘A Brief History Continued, 1972-2002’ in Harry Bauer and Elisabetta Brighi (eds.) International Relations at LSE: A History of 75 Years (London: Millennium Publishing Group, 2003), pp.36-44
Strange, Susan (1989), ‘I never meant to be an academic’ in Joseph Kruzel and James N. Rosenau (eds.) Journeys through World Politics: Autobiographical Reflections of Thirty-four Academic Travelers (New York: Lexington Books), pp.429-43
Strange, Susan (1995) ‘1995 Presidential Address ISA as a Microcosm’, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sept.), pp. 289-295
Interested in women’s history? See Women at LSE
Academic life at LSE