On november 18, 2010, a surprisingly large and boisterous crowd gathered in a U.S. Senate chamber to witness new hearings on a decades-old United Nations treaty. Guards had to caution the excited attendees to keep their voices down. Senator Richard Durbin, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, requested that another room be opened to accommodate the large gathering of feminist leaders, human-rights activists, lawyers, lobbyists, and journalists. “Women have been waiting for 30 years,” said Durbin in his opening statement. “The United States should ratify this treaty without further delay.”
The treaty in question — the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (cedaw) — commits signatory nations not only to eliminating discrimination but also to ensuring women’s “full development and advancement” in all areas of public and private life. The document was adopted by the General Assembly and submitted to un member states in 1979. Since then, nearly every nation has ratified what many now call the “Women’s Bill of Rights” or the “Women’s Magna Carta.” The only holdouts are three Islamic countries (Iran, Sudan, and Somalia), a few Pacific islands — and the United States. “Look at the company we are keeping in refusing to ratify this treaty,” said a dismayed Senator Durbin. “We can do better.”
In fact, America’s failure to ratify the Women’s Treaty has not been for lack of powerful support. President Jimmy Carter submitted it to the Senate for ratification in 1980, and many influential legislators of both parties have favored it over the years. In 1993, 68 senators, including Republicans Orrin Hatch, John McCain, and Strom Thurmond, urged President Bill Clinton to secure ratification. Nine years later, President George W. Bush’s State Department told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that it was “generally desirable” and “should be ratified.” Its supporters have included not only political leaders and women’s groups but also broad-based organizations such as the aarp, afl-cio, American Bar Association, and League of Women Voters. Even the Audubon Society has endorsed the Women’s Treaty.
Some ascribe the U.S. failure to ratify the treaty to one man: the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. To Helms, cedaw was a terrible treaty “negotiated by radical feminists with the intent of enshrining their radical anti-family agenda into international law.” As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001, Helms refused even to hold hearings on the matter. In 1999, ten women from the House of Representatives marched into his committee room, disrupted a hearing, and demanded that he schedule cedaw hearings. Pounding his gavel, Chairman Helms reprimanded the placard-carrying women for their breach of decorum. “Please be a lady,” he said to the leader, Representative Lynn Woolsey from California. He then instructed the guards to eject the group from the room. (Among the shaken protesters was future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.) Representative Woolsey would later tell the press that Helms “held cedaw hostage so that women across the globe continued to be victimized and brutalized.” But Senator Helms never wavered. At a 2002 Senate hearing, he described the treaty as harmful to women as well as a direct threat to American sovereignty. “It will never see the light of day on my watch.”
Helms’s watch is now long over, and treaty supporters can see daylight. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are strong supporters. So are key Senators John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is an enthusiast, as is Harold Koh, former dean of the Yale Law School and now the State Department’s chief legal adviser. An influential advocate of “transnational jurisprudence,” Koh invokes the sad irony that “more than half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt pioneered the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, her country still has not ratified . . .cedaw.”
The Obama State Department has notified the Senate that ratification of cedaw is its top priority among the many human-rights treaties the United States is considering. The prospects remained good even after the November 2010 elections. It is the Democratic Senate, not the newly Republican House, which provides advice and consent to treaties. In any event, the treaty has enjoyed Republican support in the past and will again.
So U.S. ratification of the treaty, followed by an inspirational address by President Obama in some international forum, may seem inevitable. Except that it is not. For many years, Senator Helms’s adamant opposition to it made support an easy gesture for many senators who may have shared his qualms but not his temerity. Now that ratification has become a live prospect, there will be a real debate. The senators are going to have to confront the treaty itself — what it says and what signing it would mean. It is a complicated and problematic document, and there are many good reasons why the Senate has resisted ratification for more than 30 years.
The question the Senate has to consider is not, as Chairman Durbin suggested at the November hearing, “Should the United States stand with oppressed women of the world?” Of course we should, and we do. No nation on earth gives more to foreign aid or has more philanthropies and religious groups dedicated to women’s causes. Voters across the political divide welcome innovative programs to help women struggling with repressive governments and barbaric traditions such as child marriage, dowry burnings, genital cutting, and honor killings. What the senators have to answer are two more basic questions. One, is cedaw a necessary and worthy addition to an already vibrant national effort to help the world’s women? Two, for better or worse, how will ratification affect American life?
Supporters such as Durbin, Biden, Boxer, and Koh are emphatic about how the Women’s Treaty would affect American rights and liberties — not at all. “cedaw wouldn’t change U.S. law in any way,” said Durbin at the hearing. In a 2002 op-ed, Biden and Boxer reminded readers of the horrors of honor killings in Pakistan, bride burnings in India, and female genital mutilation in sub-Saharan Africa. By signing the treaty, they said, the United States would demonstrate its commitment to helping women secure basic rights and increase its leverage with oppressive nations. And, contrary to critics’ fears, “ratification . . . would not impose a single new requirement in our laws — because our Constitution and gender discrimination laws already comply with the treaty requirements.” On this view, cedaw is a foreign-policy initiative — in Senator Boxer’s words, “a diplomatic tool for human rights.” cedaw opponents see the treaty’s consequences in exactly opposite terms. They say American ratification would do little to help women in oppressive societies. Signatories like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and North Korea have done almost nothing to reform their laws, policies, and practices, even when admonished by the un’s cedaw-monitoring committee. By contrast, the United States takes its international treaty obligations seriously: If we ratified cedaw, we would consider ourselves morally committed to abide by its rules. But many of those rules are antithetical to American values, and any good-faith effort to incorporate them into American law would conflict with our traditions of individual freedom.
A case in point is the central cedaw provision that requires “all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct” of citizens in order to eliminate all practices based on “stereotyped roles for men and women.” Under cedaw, private behavior such as how couples divide household and childcare chores is subject to government regulation under the tutelage of the un oversight committee. In written testimony for the November 2010 hearing, John Fonte, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, described how cedaw could subvert our democracy “by taking political issues out of the hands of elected officials and transforming them into ‘universal human rights’ to be determined by judges on the basis of ‘evolving norms of international law.’”
The pro-treaty side has heard complaints like this many times and has drawn up detailed refutations. The American Bar Association and Amnesty International, for example, insist that critics are wrong to suggest that cedaw would supersede American law or traditions. On the contrary, they say the United States could ratify it subject to caveats. If some provision in the treaty conflicts with our laws, we can simply exempt ourselves from it. Furthermore, the treaty would not be “self-executing” — once ratified, it would not become the law of the land until our legislators took action to make it law.
The aba and Amnesty International are correct that a nation can ratify a treaty with caveats called reservations, understandings, and declarations, or ruds. The Clinton administration proposed nine such ruds, including one that the United States “does not accept any obligation under the Convention to regulate private conduct except as mandated by the Constitution and U.S. law” and another that we do not accept an obligation “to put women in all combat positions.” To protect American autonomy still further, the administration added, “No new laws would be created as a result of cedaw.” As the Amnesty International fact sheet says, “Such language upholds U.S. sovereignty and grants no enforcement authority to the United Nations.” So, it seems, the critics are wrong: With the help of ruds, we can show our support for women’s rights abroad while protecting American sovereignty and liberties at home.
But here is the problem. Legal experts disagree about the power of ruds to insulate a nation from provisions of a treaty it has committed itself to honor. The legitimacy and role of reservations to international human-rights treaties is one of the most contested areas of international law. cedaw itself states, “A reservation incompatible with the object and purpose of the present Convention shall not be permitted.”
It is not even clear that the aba, Amnesty, and other pro-treaty activists believe that ruds offer genuine protection — at least not when they are talking among themselves. When the National Organization for Women met with several human-rights groups in 2009 to plan the current campaign to get the treaty passed, it expressed concern that ruds would make it difficult to enforce treaty provisions in the United States. But as now somewhat indiscreetly reported on its website on August 31, 2009, “Representatives from groups who have advocated for ratification over the years suggest that ruds have little meaning and could potentially be removed from the treaty at some point.”
Even more telling, the un Division on the Advancement of Women, the agency that monitors the treaty’s implementation, is emphatic that the document is obligatory, not hortatory: “Countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice.” Moreover, many American legislators — and judges — will sincerely feel we are obligated to bring our laws in line with a treaty we have agreed to honor.
But, according to the aba and Amnesty, as well as Durbin, Biden, Boxer, and Koh, these arcane questions of international law are irrelevant. Because American laws are already in full or near-full compliance with the treaty, it will have few if any domestic consequences. This argument brings us to the most striking feature of the discussion: the treaty’s most engaged and knowledgeable proponents — activist women’s groups — disagree with the for-export-only argument emphasized by public officials and human-rights groups like Amnesty. now, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and their sister organizations actually agree with conservative critics that cedaw would have a dramatic impact on American laws and practices.
“U.S. women have endured denials of their basic human rights long enough — please do not make them wait any longer,” wrote now President Terry O’Neil in a March 11, 2010, letter to President Obama urging immediate ratification. Feminist activists see the treaty as an opportunity for American women to secure rights the Constitution has not delivered. The Feminist Majority Foundation has released a video explaining how American women can use cedaw to bring about a “sea change” in our laws. It shows Congress debating the 2009 “stimulus bill” and explains how cedaw can lead to “gender-fair budgets.” State-mandated quotas, the narrator explains, have led to gender-balanced legislatures in South Africa, Iraq, and Rwanda. Images of beaming women in the Rwandan parliament are juxtaposed with the sorry picture of the U.S. Senate, with only 16 women members out of 100. The video also juxtaposes images of young Afghan women hideously disfigured from acid attacks with those of corpses of American women brutally murdered by intimate partners. “Clearly we need cedaw,” says the narrator. Janet Benshoof, president of the Global Justice Center, speaks for many in the feminist establishment when she says, “If cedaw were fully implemented in the United States it would revolutionize our rights . . . American women need legal tools to fight patriarchy.”
The most detailed assessment of its potential effects on American law appears in a 50-page booklet, Human Rights for All: CEDAW, first published in 2001 by a consortium of more than 100 legal and philanthropic associations who support it. The publication includes seventeen pages that spell out how the treaty would transform the American legal system. For example, current American law promises equality of opportunity — but not equality of outcome. “How cedaw would help?” ask the authors of Human Rights for All. Their answer is in bold, capitalized, red letters: “cedaw Calls Upon State Parties to Adopt Temporary Special Measures Aimed at Accelerating De Facto Equality Between Men and Women.” Without using the words “quotas” or “comparable worth,” the authors make it clear that cedaw could give new life to these policies. “U.S. laws,” they explain, “do not create rights for women that are specific to their day-to-day reality.” The new treaty would correct that. If this guide is to be trusted, treaty ratification will mean that women’s groups can litigate all areas of American life that fail to evince statistical parity between the sexes.
What is certain is that, after 67 consensus-seeking senators vote to ratify the treaty and turn to other legislative business, the feminist groups and lawyers who have forthrightly declared their ambitions would be in possession of a powerful new tool. “cedaw . . . sea change” is the refrain in a pro-ratification rap song put out by the Feminist Majority Foundation. To understand just what this sea change might entail, let us turn to the treaty’s little-known intellectual provenance.
Back to the future
The circumstances of cedaw’s creation are submerged in the current ratification debates but essential to making sense of those debates. The Women’s Treaty is a product of a unique and unsettled moment in the American women’s movement — a moment when a radical version of feminism was briefly ascendant but was soon to be eclipsed by its very success.
In the early 1970s, the un General Assembly declared 1975 “International Women’s Year” and authorized the first World Conference on Women. Thousands converged in Mexico City for both the official un conference and a parallel conference, called the Tribune, held a few miles away. The un conference was formal, orderly, and decorous. The Tribune, by contrast, was a raucous affair, attracting some 4,000 feminist activists, writers, and intellectuals. The 1,500 American participants included such feminist luminaries of that era as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, Jane Fonda, and Bella Abzug.
Foreign Affairs gave a detailed account of some of the many quarrels that broke out between Western feminists and women’s activists from the developing world.1 The Westerners believed that “all women are subject to colonization” and spoke of themselves as members of an inferior “caste.” The Third World women were taken aback by facile comparisons between the sometimes-uncomfortable circumstances of privileged middle-class Americans and those of the impoverished, often essentially enslaved women in their own countries. And they were alarmed by the bitter gender politics.
When members of the official U.S. delegation from the un conference came across town to visit the Tribune, the male delegates were harangued, shouted down, and driven out. One hapless fellow who identified himself as a population expert was unable to complete his remarks because the American feminists demanded to know whether he had had a vasectomy. When he said, “Yes,” there was thunderous applause. At a later Tribune event, all men were banished from the room so the women could engage in an impromptu “consciousness-raising” session. “The Third World women were outraged,” said Foreign Affairs. “Female chauvinism is the last thing we want,” complained an Indian journalist. The women from the developing countries also accused the Westerners of “denigrating woman’s maternal role” and weakening marriage. Soon women from the Soviet Union joined the fray and made it clear that they did not share the Western feminist goal of eliminating gender roles. In fact, they sought the “liberation of their femininity.” Most of them had been forced into the workplace by the Communist system — yet they continued to do all the work at home. “They now want pleasure and beauty; they want to dress up and be courted, perhaps to emphasize motherhood and domestic life.”
The disputes over femininity, family, and motherhood that erupted at the 1975 conferences were nothing new to the women’s movement. Since the movement’s beginning in the early 18th century, reformers have held radically different views on gender roles. “Egalitarian feminists” stressed the essential sameness of the sexes and sought to liberate women from conventional social roles. By contrast, “social feminists” were not opposed to gender distinctions. Indeed, they embraced them, looking for ways to give wives and mothers greater power, respect, and influence in the public sphere, as well as more protection from abuse and exploitation in their domestic roles.
Social feminism has always enjoyed a distinct advantage over its more egalitarian sister: great majorities of women like it. It clearly had a strong following among some of the non-Western and Soviet women at the Mexico conference in 1975. Indeed, an updated version of it informs the lives of most American women today. They want the same rights and opportunities as men — but few make the same choices as men. To give one example, according to a 2009 Pew survey, “A strong majority of all working mothers (62%) say they would prefer to work part time . . . An overwhelming majority [of working fathers] (79%) say they prefer full-time work. Only one-in-five say they would choose part-time work.”
The rowdy egalitarian feminists at the 1975 Tribune included the leaders of the then-raging feminist revolution in the United States — the “Second Wave of Feminism” as it is now called, which had begun in 1963 with the publication of Betty Friedan’s canonical The Feminine Mystique. Feminists like Friedan and Gloria Steinem urged American women to live “not at the mercy of the world, but as builder and designer of that world.” Women listened, and by the 1980s, they were entering the workplace in record numbers; filling the colleges, law schools, and medical schools; starting businesses; joining sports teams; and generally enjoying freedoms and opportunities far beyond those of any women in history.
But then the women’s movement suffered a serious setback. After scoring a series of landmark legal victories in the 1960s and early 1970s, they failed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1975 the era seemed to be on a fast track to ratification. But as the political scientist Jane Mansbridge explains in her meticulous study, Why We Lost the ERA, Americans became disenchanted when they began to understand the worldview of its feminist sponsors: radical sexual egalitarianism.
The egalitarian feminists who dreamed of a fully androgynous society are found today in university women’s studies programs, law schools, and not least in a network of activist organizations that sprang into being in those heady days. They are relatively small in number, but they wield disproportionate influence. But without question, the defeat of the era was a serious setback from which they never really recovered. What these activists now see in cedaw is a second chance in another venue. It is not for nothing that the Women’s Treaty is sometimes called a “global era.”
So, then, what does the treaty actually say? It requires signatory countries to remove all barriers that prevent women from achieving full equality with men in all spheres of life — law, politics, education, employment, marriage, and “family planning.” It defines discrimination against women to be “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex.” Some of its more specific provisions are highly laudable, such as its requirement that signatories “suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution.” Others are, from an American standpoint, unexceptional, such as the requirement that signatories “accord to women equality with men before the law.” But its central provision, Article 5(a), is pure 1970s egalitarian feminism, and is the key to understanding what the Women’s Treaty envisages. It reads, in part: “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures . . . [t]o modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women” (emphasis added).
The philosophy of Article 5(a) pervades the entire document. Throughout it, the drafters are determined to use its provisions to eradicate gender stereotypes, especially those that associate women with caregiving and motherhood. The treaty instructs signatories “to ensure that family education includes a proper understanding of maternity as a social function and the recognition of the common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children.” It also calls for the “elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education . . . in particular, by the revision of textbooks and school programmes.” States are advised to provide paid maternity leave as well as “the necessary supporting social services to enable parents to combine family obligations with work responsibilities . . . in particular through promoting the establishment and development of a network of child-care facilities.”
And the battle against stereotypes requires special efforts to guarantee equal results in the workplace and in government. “Temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women,” reads Article 4, “shall not be considered discrimination.” The un’s cedaw Committee interprets this as mandating “positive action, preferential treatment or quota systems to advance women’s integration into education, the economy, politics and employment.”
Signatory governments are also required to “take all appropriate measures” to ensure women’s “right to equal remuneration . . . in respect of work of equal value.” This means “comparable worth” policies, according to the cedaw Committee, which effectively require the establishment of government agencies to determine the proper level of salary for differing kinds of work. “Comparable worth” was a concept much bandied-about in United States in the 1980s until its backers found it impossible to deny they were advocating a radical governmental intrusion into the workings of the private marketplace of an unprecedented kind. The treaty brings it back. And it would not just be American intermediaries that would be charged with figuring out how the U.S. is handling these matters.
Indeed, if the United States were to ratify cedaw, we would immediately be subject to an evaluation of how well we comply with the treaty’s provisions. Such an evaluation is to be carried out by the cedaw Committee — 23 experts of “high moral standing and competence in the field covered by the Convention.” They are elected by signatory nations including Cuba, Burma, and Nigeria. Countries under review submit detailed reports outlining their progress toward fulfilling the treaty’s requirements. Their representatives then meet with the Committee every three years, when they are questioned, challenged, sometimes rebuked, and provided with official recommendations for improvement.
Today any country, no matter how free and democratic, is out of compliance with the treaty as long as significant gender roles are still discernible in its customs or institutions — both public and private. If, for example, more women than men routinely take care of children, the Committee recommends ways to turn things around, usually with government-imposed quotas and “awareness raising” campaigns. The un publishes detailed accounts of exchanges between the Committee and countries under review. It is hard to read them and not conclude that the United States would be in for a rough time.
Consider what happened during Iceland’s formal cedaw review in July 2008. Iceland has one of the most extensive gender-equity bureaucracies in the world; there are equity ministers, equity councils, equity advisors, and a Complaints Committee on Gender Equality whose rulings are binding. More than 80 percent of Icelandic women are in the labor force, and parents enjoy paid maternity and paternity leave, including one month of pre-birth leave. Iceland is ranked first in the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Global Gender Gap Report. It would appear to be a paradigm of egalitarianism. Yet it falls short of the cedaw Committee standards.
The Committee praised Iceland for its “strides” toward gender parity, but several members found it remiss in its efforts to stamp out sexism. Hanna Beate Schopp-Schilling, an expert from Germany, was concerned that for all the government’s gender and equity committees, the Parliament itself had not formed a committee on gender equity. The expert from Algeria wanted to know why so few women were full professors at the University of Iceland. Magalys Arocha Dominguez, a gender authority from Cuba, was unhappy to find that many Icelandic women held part-time jobs and spent much more time than men taking care of children. She was also displeased by survey findings that Iceland’s women were allowing family commitments to shape their career choices. She demanded to know, “What government measures have been put in place to change these patterns of behavior?”
Treaty proponents such as Senator Durbin, Vice President Biden, Senator Boxer, and Harold Koh praise its work with women in the developing world. But in practice the cedaw Committee devotes disproportionate energies to monitoring democracies and urging them to realize egalitarian ideals in all spheres of life. It recently advised Spain to organize a national awareness-raising campaign against gender roles in the family. Finland was urged “to promote equal sharing of domestic and family tasks between women and men.” Slovakia was instructed to “fully sensitize men to their equal participation in family tasks and responsibilities.” Liechtenstein was closely questioned about a “Father’s Day project” and reminded of the need to “dismantle gender stereotypes.”
The Committee sounds far more reasonable when reviewing countries where women are truly oppressed, like Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania, or Yemen. Such nations often send delegates who present their homelands as models of gender equity. “Mauritanian women and men were equal before the law in all spheres,” reported one. The Yemeni delegation spoke of legal reforms, new programs, and strategies for women’s empowerment. To its credit, the Committee respectfully but firmly pressed these delegates on matters such as child marriage, polygamy, legal wife beating, stoning, female genital mutilation, and high maternal mortality rates. Members often give the delegations concrete ideas on how to improve women’s lives. In its 2007 review, Niger was advised to offer families micro-credits for each daughter enrolled in school and to try to limit female genital mutilation by finding alternative employment for the older women who perform the procedure for a living. The same Committee that sounded so absurd when it rebuked Liechtenstein for recognizing Father’s Day was impressive in its exchanges with Yemen about how to address female illiteracy.
The efficacy of these reviews of repressive countries is a matter of dispute. Most experts believe they do some good. They point out that these countries are getting a strong sense of where they stand in relation to a set of universal standards. Furthermore, the Committee issues a final report after each review, which it believes helps local women’s advocacy groups foment change. But critics note that many of the world’s most repressive nations show little or no intention of abiding by the treaty. Yemen ratified cedaw in 1984 without reservations. It has undergone six Committee reviews. Yet in 2010, for the fifth year in a row, it came in last in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report. Fifty-seven percent of females are illiterate, compared to 21 percent of males. Girls as young as eight years old can be legally married, and its penal code specifies that any man who kills a female relative suspected of adultery should not be prosecuted for murder. In the 2008 review, exasperated Committee members repeatedly asked the Yemeni delegation if its government understood the treaty or took any of its provisions seriously.
Is the treaty likely to improve the circumstances of women in places like Yemen (and for that matter Cuba)? Would U.S. ratification make it more effective? Are there better ways for America to advance women’s rights than through a un treaty? There is lots of room for argument on these points, and there are many disagreements among feminists and human-rights advocates. As for its effects on American life, however, there is no doubt: They would be momentous.
If the united states ratifies cedaw there will be a three-ring circus each time we come up for review. American laws, customs, and private behavior will be evaluated by 23 un gender ministers to see whether they comply with a feminist ideal that is 30 years out of date. The Committee will pounce on all facets of American life that fail to achieve full gender integration. That many American mothers stay home with children or work part-time will be at the top of their list of “discriminatory practices.” Committee members like Cuba’s Magalys Arocha Dominguez will want to know what our government has done to change our patterns of behavior. The American delegation will then enter a “consultative dialogue” with the Committee to develop appropriate remedies.
They will get plenty of help from organizations like now, the Feminist Majority, and the American Association of University Women. Groups of which Americans know little or nothing will take cedaw as a legal mandate to implement their worldview. If ratified, the treaty would give these organizations a license to sue, reeducate, and resocialize their fellow citizens. Gender quotas, comparable-worth pay policies, state-subsidized daycare, and other initiatives that have failed again and again to win democratic support would instantly be transformed into universal human rights. And the women’s groups would have new allies: un officials and international ngos would join them in cultivating American pastures under the legal and moral authority of the Women’s Treaty.
At the November 2010 Senate hearing, one pro-cedaw expert witness openly praised the Treaty for its impact at home. According to Marcia Greenberger, copresident of the National Women’s Law Center, “No one would disagree that there is still progress to be made in the Unites States. . . . We like every other country in the world have our own challenges to confront.” She is right, of course, but what she needs to explain is why an international treaty and a body of foreign experts is better at meeting the moral challenges of equity than our own democratic institutions.
For groups like now, the Feminist Majority, and the National Women’s Law Center, life under cedaw would be exhilarating and gratifying. For the majority of Americans who do not share their egalitarian agenda, it could be oppressive.
But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the Obama administration and the U.S. Senate do ratify the Women’s Treaty subject to various “understandings” that effectively protect our institutions from the ministrations of the Committee and deny the feminist network its “tool” to dismantle the American patriarchy. Should the United States be lending its authority to a human-rights instrument that treats the conventions of femininity as demeaning to women?
Few women anywhere want to see gender roles obliterated. The late Elizabeth Warnock Fernea was an expert on feminist movements in the contemporary Muslim world. In her travels through Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, and Iraq, she met great numbers of advocates working to improve the status of women — and who were proud of their roles as mother, wife, and caregiver. Fernea called it “family feminism,” but it was classic social feminism — the style of women’s liberation that hard-line egalitarians disdain but that great majorities of women find ennobling and empowering. The women of America are no exception.
Harold Koh suggests that by abjuring “the Women’s Rights Treaty” Americans are betraying the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt — the leader of the group that created the celebrated Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. But Koh is confused about Roosevelt’s legacy. She was a lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool social feminist, energetically committed to women’s rights as well as to the protection of their social roles and callings. She saw men and women as equal, but decidedly different. No woman, she said, should feel “humiliated” if she gives priority to home and family. “This was our first field of activity,” she said, “and it will always remain our most important one.”
Gender experts at now or the nwlc will say that Roosevelt was captive to the prejudices of her time. Maybe so. But it is more likely that this deeply humane and large-souled woman, whose vision helped create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also had a clear vision of where women’s emancipation might lead. Social feminism appears to be the universal feminism of women. By endorsing the treaty, the United States Senate would be canonizing a school of egalitarian feminism most women reject, one that is as likely to impede as to advance women’s progress in societies where their current circumstances are most degraded.
cedaw contains many worthy and indeed noble declarations, but its key provisions are 1970s feminism preserved in diplomatic amber. Releasing those aged provisions in 21st-century America would be strange at best, and at worst they could seriously compromise the privacy, well-being, and basic freedoms of Americans. At the November hearing, Senator Durbin called on his colleagues to “ratify this treaty without further delay.” For the past 31 years, our legislators have wisely delayed ratification. Today’s Senate should continue to follow that example.
1 Jennifer Whitaker, “Women of the World: Report from Mexico City,” Foreign Affairs 54:1 (October 1975).