A question in honor of Women's History Month: what does the United States have in common with Brunei, Somalia, Sudan and Oman? The answer: we are among only a handful of nations on earth that have refused to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a mouthful commonly called CEDAW. Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1980, and ever since it has languished in legislative limbo, waiting for the Senate to take action. While country after country, including such feminist strongholds as Iraq and Afghanistan, has at least paid lip service to the idea of an egalitarian society by supporting the treaty, we now stand alone as the sole industrialized nation that has not done so. "We've abdicated a leadership role in the single most important ongoing international women's-rights process," says Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now.
Of course, we can boast that we're right up there with Somalia.
If only this were an aberration. I remember the halcyon days of the early '70s, when the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced. Instead of focusing on the legal need--this was, after all, at a time when husbands could not be charged with raping their wives, and teachers could be dismissed from their jobs if their pregnant state began to show--the attention focused on the lunatic fringe. This resulted in an endless digression about unisex bathrooms, and no amendment. Score one for the protectors of the bad old days, when men were men and women were powerless.
And the same distraction tactics emerged recently as thousands of women leaders gathered at the United Nations to affirm a program for progress first developed a decade ago at a historic meeting in Beijing. Around the world women are being sold into sexual slavery, raped as spoils of war, even murdered in so-called honor killings. But the Bush administration held up the conference for days with a demand, unsupported by any other country, that a broad statement of principle include narrow and irrelevant language against abortion, a demand that was dropped after it garnered enough publicity to score points with the right wing. While considering the great panorama of gender injustices in the world, the United States also managed to register its support for abstinence.
There was no similar support for international family planning. Progress in America in the last three decades can be linked directly to the increased participation of women and the increased participation of women can be linked directly to their ability to control their fertility. (Or perhaps American women have miraculously developed an innate ability to have only two children.) This president likes to talk about fighting for the freedom of women in the world, but he has a cynically selective definition of what freedom means. Burqas, bad. Ballots, good. Birth control? Huh?
It's true that the women's movement has led to opportunities for many Americans that outstrip those elsewhere in the world. (One of the more ironic spectacles is listening as conservative women trash the women's movement, the movement that made their lives as activist lawyers, lobbyists and pundits possible.) Longtime opponents of CEDAW argue that we've come far enough on our own. They also insist incorrectly that the treaty would require the United States to provide paid maternity leave (horrors!) and to allow women in combat. Of course, women have been serving in combat since the gulf war, but it is convenient to pretend otherwise. Some conservatives also argue that if we ratify CEDAW we will have to prohibit Mother's Day. Score one for Hallmark.
Perhaps only Jesse Helms, who for years fought the treaty, was honest about the real impulse behind the obstruction. "I do not intend to be pushed around by discourteous, demanding women," he said on the Senate floor. There's the ubiquitous subtext: women are expected to ask nicely for human rights, and to say "please." A little lipstick doesn't hurt either. Score one for the protectors of the bad old days, when men were men and women were servile.
Like other international treaties, CEDAW amounts to a bill of rights, rights that may too often be honored in the breach, not so very different from "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." We may not need those rights in exactly the same way as women facing honor killings or genital mutilation. But, as we are so quick to note on other fronts, when the United States stands up for a principle it sends a message to the world about how that principle ought to be valued. Yet while America signs off on trade treaties and refugee treaties, it refuses to join the world community in standing up for the rights of women. Today some nations in Africa and Asia far outstrip us in female political representation. Even Iraq, under our tutelage, has written into its Constitution a guarantee that 25 percent of its legislators will be women. By my count, that means someone owes me 11 senators.