Skip to main content

U.S. drops the ball on women's rights

By Lisa Baldez, Special to CNN
March 9, 2013 -- Updated 0434 GMT (1234 HKT)
Since Geena Davis and Sen. Dick Durbin made this presentation, Nauru ratified and South Sudan joined those that haven't.
Since Geena Davis and Sen. Dick Durbin made this presentation, Nauru ratified and South Sudan joined those that haven't.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lisa Baldez: It's easy to assume the United States is at the forefront of women's rights
  • Year after year, she says, the U.S. refuses to ratify a U.N. pact supporting women's equality
  • Baldez: 187 nations signed; 7 nations including Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga haven't
  • Treaty reflects U.S. values; Republicans once backed women's rights more, she says

Editor's note: Lisa Baldez is associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. Her next book, "Defying Convention: The United States, the United Nations, and the Treaty on Women's Rights," will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. She is a Public Voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project.

(CNN) -- From the 50th anniversary this year of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique'' to the recent PBS documentary "Makers: Women Who Make America'' that featured Gloria Steinem and scores more women, it's easy to assume that the United States is at the forefront of women's rights.

But we're not. Even as the rest of the world celebrates International Women's Day on Friday — not much of a holiday here — the United States will also stand out as one of the few countries yet to ratify a major United Nations treaty designed to bring equality to women everywhere.

Critics of the U.N.'s Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW, say it doesn't reflect American values enough. Here's what they are missing: The treaty takes American values of equality and women's rights and makes them global norms.

Lisa Baldez
Lisa Baldez

Of the 194 U.N. member nations, 187 countries have ratified CEDAW. The United States is among seven countries that have not -- along with the Pacific island nations of Tonga and Palua; Iran, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan -- not the first countries that come to mind when discussing women's rights.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



President Carter sent CEDAW to the U.S. Senate for advice and consent in 1980. It remains in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The Senate has held hearings on CEDAW five times in the past 25 years but failed each time to bring the treaty to a vote on the floor. Why?

Conservative organizations, such as the Home School Legal Defense Association and Concerned Women for America, vehemently oppose the ratification of all human rights treaties. They insist that human rights treaties violate American sovereignty. Thirty-eight Republican senators demonstrated this last December, when they refused to join their more moderate colleagues in ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

CEDAW establishes the moral, civic and political equality of women and protects women's right to be free from discrimination and violence. Thanks to CEDAW, these values have diffused around the world.

Clinton, Obama honor remarkable women

Conservative critics are wrong when they claim that CEDAW reflects radical feminist views. In fact, a Republican woman, Nixon appointee Patricia Hutar, persuaded the United Nations to draft CEDAW. On January 30, 1974, President Nixon called for the U.S. government to commemorate International Women's Year at all levels.

Nixon's announcement won international accolades and prompted government officials from around the world to follow suit. In 1976, President Ford sent a bipartisan delegation comprising many accomplished American women to Geneva to draft the initial text of CEDAW. Hutar's skill as a negotiator proved critical in persuading Communist countries to approve the text of the treaty.

The efforts of those American women paid off. CEDAW works. It has empowered civil society organizations to demand that governments respect women's human rights and to adopt policies to limit sex trafficking, domestic violence, child marriage and discrimination in the workplace.

Opponents have a point when they note that ratifying this document has not prevented some countries from being the most egregious violators of women's rights. When the most powerful country in the world does not support women's rights, it gives permission for other countries to dismiss their commitment to improving the status of women. With the United States behind it, CEDAW would have even more clout than it does.

The United States once led the world in rights for women. In the 1970s, the Democratic and Republican parties supported a wide array of women's rights policies, including an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, publicly funded child care and equal pay for women.

These efforts weakened once the Republican Party stopped supporting women's rights. I still believe the United States is one of the best places in the world to be a woman. I would like to see my country once again assert global leadership on women's rights. Ratification of CEDAW is an essential first step.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa Baldez.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT