Women's Rights and Human Rights Print E-mail

Women’s Rights and Human Rights


A paper presented at the

Women in Constitutional History Conference
Seneca Falls, New York

June 20, 2011


Margaret Stimmann Branson, Associate Director

Center for Civic Education

Social change, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, moves forward, but it is only understood backward. That is why in this conference we have been looking backward to understand social change, particularly as it applies not only to the long and painstaking struggle to secure women’s rights and the continuing struggle to secure human rights. That effort calls for a new kind of historical study. Instead of traditional political narrative history in which as someone put it “men acted and women reacted.” We need to look not only at where we have been, how we got to where we are now, and where we need yet to go. To do that, I propose that we first consider briefly some turning points in intellectual history and the roles women played in its writing. We then need to examine the symbiotic relationship between the struggles for human rights and gender issues throughout the world today.

Natural Rights Enters Political Theory

The idea of natural rights or human rights entered the mainstream of political theory and practice in seventeenth century Europe. Over the course of the next three centuries the struggles for human rights have continued. They have led to a gradual expansion of recognized subjects of human rights and toward the ideal of full and equal inclusion of all human beings. In some countries the possession of property, religious beliefs, race, and gender have been formally eliminated as grounds for denying the enjoyment of natural or human rights in almost all realms of public life. In many parts of the world, recognition of human rights are yet to come, particularly for women.

John Locke’s issuance in 1689 of his Two Treatises of Government marks a critical milestone in the effort to enshrine natural and human rights. He asserted that in a state of nature “all men” are naturally in, and that is, “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit.”[1]

Locke went on to add:

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.[2]

Locke’s political theory became the founding doctrine of the natural rights philosophy and constitutes the foundation of liberalism. Locke, however, distinguished between state and family as civic entities. When he wrote that the family constituted a private sphere disconnected from a public or political sphere, women were essentially excluded from participation, because the qualification for participation rested on property ownership and independence of the control of others. Common law then held that married women could not own property, or, if they did under an equity settlement or as a femmesole, the property was under the control of men.

Women intellectuals did not take lightly to the contradictions inherent in Locke’s liberalism. One of the first to make her objections known was Mary Astell, a prolific writer and a contemporary of Locke’s. Although her works are virtually unknown today, she was well known and acted as his major critic then. Astell’s first book, originally published in 1696 had the long and intriguing title of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest By A Lover of Her Sex. In it, Astell argued that women have the same potential for reasoning as men. She proposed the establishment of a women’s college, funded by charitable subscription where women could take up intellectual pursuits.

Rights and Capacity to Reason

Many of Astell’s proposals were advanced by intellectuals during the American and French Revolutions. Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren raised their objections to women’s supposed inferior intellect and their exclusion from the public sphere in private correspondence. In a letter to her sister, Abigail Adams wrote:

I will never consent to have our sex considered an inferior point of light. Let each planet shine in her own orbit. God and nature designed it so—if man is lord, woman is lordess—that is what I contend for.[3]

Writing in Massachusetts Magazine in 1790, Judith Sargent Murray sharply contradicted what then still passed for received wisdom that nature had made women mentally inferior to men. “Are we deficient in reason?” Murray asked. “We can only reason from what we know, and if an opportunity of acquiring knowledge has been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence.”[4]

Benjamin Rush was one of the more enlightened men who agreed that it was the lack of education that hobbled women. If fact, he argued that the success of the new American Republic depended upon the education of its women. Because they were their children’s first and oftentimes then only teachers, he said that women “should be taught the principles of liberty and government; the obligations of patriotism should be inculcated upon them.”[5]

It was French women who were more specific and more vociferous about their denial of access to the public sphere. They objected to their exclusion from rights that were proclaimed for men in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789. Women had been an integral part of the Revolution that had as its goal the changing of a society from one of privilege to one of “egalite.” They were to be citoyennes—feminine citizens. As revolutionaries they had helped to pass laws that gave women civil rights, but not political rights. They were granted equal inheritance and divorce rights, but excluded from voting rights. Talleyrand, one of the revolutionaries selected by the Assembly to write The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, admitted that it was difficult to explain that “half of the human race is excluded by the other from participation in government.”[6] He continued, however, “that nature had endowed women with capabilities suited to home and family…. At the moment they renounced all political rights, they gained the certainty that their civil rights would be consolidated and even expanded.”[7]

The French women were outraged. Olympe de Gouge responded with her own Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Citizen in 1791.[8] The Declaration began by asserting that:

Ignorance, omission, or scorn for the rights of woman are the only cause of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments, [the women] have resolved to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of woman in order that this declaration constantly exposed before all members of society will ceaselessly remind them of their rights and duties.

Article I went on to proclaim “Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights.” Article II, echoing John Locke, declared “The Purpose of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptable rights of women and man; these rights are liberty, property, security and especially resistance to oppression.”[9]

Linking Women’s Rights to Slavery

Invigorated by the militancy of the Frenchwomen, radical men and women in Britain renewed their attention to women’s rights. Thomas Paine published The Rights of Man in 1791, and it became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. He claimed that citizenship rested on the capacity of individuals to reason, not on their possession of property. The following year, 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft argued in her A Vindication of the Rights of Women that:

Women, I allow may have different duties to fulfill, but they are human duties, and the principles that should regulate the discharge of them, I sturdily maintain must be the same.[10]

Like other reformers of the time, Wollenstonecraft said that she was concerned about “Asserting the rights which women in common with men ought to contend for.” One of those subjects was existence of the slave trade and the denial of liberty to millions of men and women. Support from Quakers and Evangelicals in Britain provided an organizational base for a major public campaign in 1787. It placed the need for radical reform, if not on the outright abolition of slavery on abolition of the slave trade, on the public agenda. Women were exhorted to become involved in the campaign. They were urged to join in the Anti-Slavery Society as a Christian duty and to serve “the sacred cause” of abolition. British women responded by the thousands. They passed out tracts, wrote letters, circulated petitions which were submitted time and again to Parliament. In the course of this campaign, which was regarded as an extension of their domestic duties, they gained political skills and valuable political experience.

In 1840 a World Anti-Slavery Convention was convened in London. Its purpose was to gather together activists from the West who opposed slavery. As the American delegates, including eight women and a large number of men, set sail, the English conference moved to block the women’s participation. A floor fight ensued about whether or not to seat the women delegates. Following heated argument, the decision was made not to allow women to be seated on the main floor. Women were not to be allowed to vote or to participate in any meaningful ways. They could, however, sit silently behind a curtain in the balcony. Ninety percent of the male delegates voted against seating the women.

This indignity was to have a far-reaching effect on the women’s rights movement. It was at this conference that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott first met. The two continued to correspond and eight years were to pass before they acted on an idea that they may have discussed in London to hold a convention in the United States to demand women’s rights.[11]

Reaffirming Constitutional Principles and Human Rights

It was no accident that the women and men gathered at Seneca Falls chose the Declaration of Independence as their model for their Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. They insisted that the emancipation of women was in keeping with the natural rights philosophy and the principles set forth in the United States Declaration of Independence. The emancipation of women also was in accord with the purposes set forth in the Preamble to the United States Constitution—“to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony both insisted that “Women’s political equality with man is the legitimate outgrowth of the fundamental principles of our government, clearly set forth in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, in the United States Constitution…. [and] in the prolonged debates on the origins of human rights in the anti-slavery conflict in the 1840’s.”[12]

In Stanton’s 1848 keynote address at Seneca Falls, she stressed constitutional principles. “We’ve met here today to discuss our rights and wrongs, civil and political.” Stanton then went on to declare:

We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed…. [and] to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as gave man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages she earns, the property she inherits, and in case of separation [her] children; laws which make her the mere dependent on his bounty. It is to protest such unjust laws…. And to have them … forever erased from our statute-books…. The great truth is that no just government can be formed without the consent of the governed, we shall echo and re-echo in the ears of the unjust judge.”[13]

The final paragraph of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments reveals that its signers were realists. They knew that achieving their goals would not be easy. They said “In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object.”[14] They planned to “employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and National legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf.” They also hoped “this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions embracing every part of the country.”

The story of their long and difficult struggles cannot be recounted here. One example, however, gives some indication of just how long and how arduous their struggles were. Women, as half of the population, constituted the largest group of adults excluded from the franchise at the time of the nation’s birth and for well into the twentieth century. When the Ninetieth Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified in 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the leaders in the movement, wrote that the women of the country

… were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage plans in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.[15]

That was just what it took to get one of the rights that women were demanding. Their concerns extended to include other rights and gender issues as well. Wage inequities, the lack of educational and occupational opportunities, the right to serve on juries, and access to birth control were also on the women’s agenda.

The efforts of American women prompted attention abroad and as the twentieth century dawned there was an intensification of rights claims not only on the part of women but on behalf of the whole human species. It is to the effort to develop human rights norms, strategies, and institutions that we now turn.

Towards the Interdependence of Rights

The last years of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century were marked by what Paul Gordon Lauren has called “the single-cause struggles.”[16] The list of non-governmental organizations [NGO’s] set up in the nineteenth century was impressive even by today’s standards. When the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance was formed in 1826, a number of “single-cause” NGO’s had been established for spiritual and moral well-being. Among them were these:

·      The American Home Missionary Society

·      The American Tract Society

·      The American Peace Society

·      The Society to Improve the Condition of Sailors

The abolitionists in both Britain and the United States saw their movements not through the prism of human rights or equality, but as a single issue. In his study of British abolitionists, Adam Hochschild found that:

The abolitionist attitude towards blacks was perhaps summed up best by Wedgewood’s design. The African may have been ‘a man and a brother,’ but he was definitely a younger and grateful brother, a kneeling one, not a rebellious one. At a time when members of the British upper class did not kneel even for prayer in church, the image of a pleading slave victim reflected a crusade whose leaders saw themselves as uplifting the downtrodden, not fighting for equal rights for all …. But the committee’s campaign was ultimately aimed at one target: Parliament. The upper class Britons comprising that body might be moved by pity, but certainly not by a passion for equality.[17]

Although William Lloyd Garrison epitomized the moral impulses that propelled the anti-slavery movement in the United States, he, too, was a “single, struggle” reformer. He has been called “a uniquely principled iconoclast,” “the nation’s most conspicuous, advocate of radical equality” and “America’s Gandhi of the nineteenth century.” In his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, Garrison announced his intention to defend “the great cause of human rights.”[18] He demanded that “freedom of thought and speech and writing—freedom of choice—freedom of action—be not only the inalienable right but the positive exercise of every rational creature.”[19] Garrison rejected the rationales for the colonization proposals urged by reformers in both Britain and the United States. He insisted that blacks, once freed from slavery’s shackles would become responsible citizens alongside whites.

Some scholars argue that the process of successfully breaking the chains of slavery in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds increasingly helped to encourage and enable those who challenged what they saw as other injustices. At times, they perceived the interconnectedness of rights and mutually reinforced one another. They had a vision of the interrelatedness of rights or what today are called human rights. Other scholars disagree. They contend that it was not until the very last years of the nineteenth century and the 1930’s at the earliest, that the struggle for human rights really began. The single-cause struggles had created a significant culture of public engagement with clear political norms and organizational expressions. Each struggle had focused on a particular injustice, but each had also tried to present its claims from an international perspective. During the period between World Wars I & II, they began to converge and the language of human rights became more widespread.

Why Human Rights Became a Great Concern During the Twentieth Century

The twentieth century saw increased concern about rights and was marked by popularization of the term “human rights.” That century, possibly the bloodiest in human history, witnessed horrific examples of the denial of rights to human beings. Early in the twentieth century the majority of the population of Armenia was killed in massacres carried out by Turks and Kurds.[20] In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Ukrainian resistance to collectivization by the Soviet Union resulted in the death of six million people. In the Holocaust of 1933–1945 some six million Jews were victims of mass extermination in gas chambers.[21] Estimates of the number of deaths for which the Khmer Rouge was responsible vary from two to four million or one in seven to one in four Cambodians.[22]

The record of rights violations in the twentieth century unfortunately could go on and on. As one scholar has noted “The fact remains that [the twentieth] century has outdone its predecessors in its bloodthirstiness.[23] A quick glance at the past leads to one damning conclusion: [it was] a century of human catastrophes.”[24] Those catastrophes, however, did trigger a growing concern about human rights and led to the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That Declaration was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly on December 8, 1948. There were some abstentions, however. Six states of the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa refused to sign.

What Rights Are Proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Rights?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes political and civil rights common to democratic constitutions such as the rights to life, liberty, and equality before the law. It also includes the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and to a public hearing before an impartial jury. Freedom of conscience, religion, assembly, and association are included as well.

The Declaration proclaims social, cultural, and economic rights not normally considered fundamental rights in the democratic tradition. Among these are the right to work and to education and the right to an adequate standard of living.

Three features of the Universal Declaration deserve special mention. First, all of the rights are those of individuals not of states or groups. The lone exception is the right of peoples to self-determination. Enumeration of the rights typically begin “Every human being … or Everyone has the right” or “No one shall be” or “Everyone is entitled.” Second, internationally recognized human rights are treated as an interdependent and indivisible whole. They are not intended to be a menu from which rights may be chosen or rejected. Third, although these are rights held equally by human beings everywhere, states have the responsibility to implement them for their own nationals.[25]

The Declaration does not have the force of international law. It places no obligation or restrictions on the states which sign it. That does not mean, however, that it is just so many words. It lays the moral and intellectual foundation for the many covenants and conventions which have subsequently been adopted by the United Nations. When covenants or conventions are signed by individual nations they take on the force of law, just as treaties do.

Article VI of the United States Constitution provides that “All Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” This provision has been interpreted to mean that federal statues and the treaties which the United States has ratified have the same normative rank under the Constitution.[26] The place treaties have in United States law and the consequences flowing from it have in the past played a major role in determining the willingness of the United States Senate to approve the ratification of human rights treaties.

Until 1988, the United States had not ratified any major international human rights treaty. That year the Senate ratified the Genocide Convention which was first submitted by President Harry Truman in 1949 and resubmitted by President Richard Nixon more than two decades later. The Senate’s action on the Genocide Convention marked a turning point in United States policy towards human rights treaties. Although the United States has become a party to additional human rights treaties, it has followed a practice of attaching reservations (RUDs). This practice began in the Carter administration and has continued through every administration since then.[27]

How Do Covenants and Conventions Extend Human Rights?

A convention is an agreement to abide by certain generally accepted rules or traditions. A covenant is a solemn, binding agreement based on voluntary consent. It provides for joint action to achieve some defined purpose such as promoting or protecting human rights. The United Nations has adopted more that 100 conventions and covenants since its founding.

The two most important conventions were adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1966: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. President Jimmy Carter explained the major thrust of those two documents in this way:

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights concerns what governments must not do to their people and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concerns what governments must do for their people.[28]

To date more than 140 states have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the United States.[29] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has been ratified by138 states. The United States is not a signatory. Like others who have refused to approve this Covenant, Americans have argued that socioeconomic “rights” are really goals of sound policy rather than true human rights. Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics makes a similar argument.

Political rights, including freedom of expression and discussion, are not only pivotal in inducing social responses to economic needs, they are also central to the conceptualization of economic needs themselves …. Political and civil rights give people the opportunity to draw attention forcefully to general needs and to demand appropriate public action. Governmental response to the acute suffering of people often depends on the pressure that is put on government and this is where the exercise of political rights (voting, criticizing, protesting and so on) can make a real difference.[30]

Declaring the Equal Rights of Men and Women

The United Nations Charter, signed June 26, 1945, entered into force on October 24, 1945. It opened with these words:

We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women.[31]

When the United Nations General Assembly adopted and proclaimed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, the equal rights of men and women were reasserted in the Preamble. It read in part:

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.[32]

When the Charter was signed in 1945, about half of the nations that signed it still had some restrictions on a woman’s right to vote or hold public office. In the colonial dependencies, the discriminations regarding gender were often worse. At that time, however, there were priorities that were regarded as more pressing. Among them were reconstructing industries and infrastructure, kick-starting economies, and building welfare states. While it is true that the latter two efforts would aid the condition of women, there was nothing gender-specific about them. The campaign to promote and improve women’s rights proved more controversial and gained ground more slowly. As one scholar put it, “women’s rights was until recently something of a stepchild in the field of human rights.[33]

In the mid-1950’s, scholars came together at the Brookings Institute to produce a large study[34] to determine what had been accomplished during the first ten years of the United Nations existence and what had still to be done or had not been done well. Prominent on the list of rights still to be addressed were women’s rights. It was true that some conferences had been held and that various solemn declarations were issued at their conclusions. It was not until the UN Genreal Assembly adopted The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on December 18, 1979, that any real action was taken. The treaty did not enter into force until September 3, 1981.

Major Provisions of CEDAW

The CEDAW’s major purpose is to do away with discrimination against women, which it defines as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the bases of sex” that impairs the enjoyment by women of “human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”[35] Article two requires State Parties to “embody the principle of the equality of men and women in their national constitutions” and “to establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men and to ensure through competent tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination.”[36]

An interesting provision is in Article 6 which mandates that “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.” Although many—if not most—Americans think that slavery is a thing of the past and trafficking in women and children is a minor problem, new research demonstrates that is not the case. A recent study by a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana found “that there are more slaves today than at any other point in history. There currently are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world trapped in a variety of servitudes, including domestic labor, sex work, agriculture, and industry.” [37]

Other issues related to women are addressed such as their rights to education, health care including “those related to family planning” and “to freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent.”[38]

The Convention also requires the States Parties to take a series of measures in the political, social, economic, and cultural realms to advance the enjoyment of equal rights by women in all walks of life. It provides that States Parties shall take all appropriate measures:

To 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 the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.[39]

The pressure for women’s rights has continued. Conferences have continued to be held, but owing to conservative political pressures at home, the United States has refused to ratify the Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It has yet to sign The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which asserts many women’s rights.

Why Empowering Women Is A Good Idea

Over the last several decades, it has become accepted wisdom that improving the status of women is a good idea. It is one of the most critical levers of international development. When women are educated and can earn and control income, good things happen. Infant mortality declines, child health and nutrition improve, agricultural productivity rises, population growth slows, economies expand, and cycles of poverty are broken. Those are the findings of a recent study conducted by the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.[40]

Unfortunately, large and persistent gender gaps exist particularly in the Middle East, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Entrenched gender discrimination continues to be a defining characteristic of life for the majority of the world’s bottom two billion people. To date, human rights organizations and foreign aid from industrialized nations have done most of the heavy lifting in developing countries when it comes to efforts to empower women and secure their equal rights. They have pushed for education for girls, funded schools and provided microfinancing for women entrepreneurs. The involvement of private corporations, however, is now needed more than ever. Some corporations are currently involved as part of their so-called “corporate social-responsibilities programs” or their efforts to burnish their images. Much more is needed, however.

The majority of population growth will come in those countries where gender discrimination is now the greatest. It is in those countries that religious traditions and tribal customs work against gender equality. The disempowerment of women results in deep losses in productivity and a failure to utilize all the available human capital. Just as many corporations are finding that adopting environmentally sound practices is not only good for public relations, so, too is empowering women good business. Those that embrace female empowerment will see their labor forces become more productive and their customer bases expand.

One example can provide some insight into how cultural beliefs regarding women and their rights can affect business in developing countries. In 2006, General Electric encountered a serious problem with its profitable Indian ultrasound business. In India as in many other countries, parents prefer male children. The spread of GE’s portable sonogram machines to clinics across rural India brought low-cost fetal sex-screening to millions. That enabled parents to easily abort unwanted females. In some parts of the country as many as 140 boys were born for every 100 girls. Human rights groups and gender activists began to accuse GE of being complicit in feticide. A burgeoning public relations issue threatened GE’s profitable ultrasound business. The company saw the connection between the low status of women and the preference for male children. It launched a poster campaign to change attitudes toward women’s rights and it began to fund schools for girls.[41] Unfortunately, the practice of female feticide still exists and is worsened by a lack of awareness of women’s rights and the indifferent attitude of government and medial professionals.

The World Bank is one example of an institution that is interested in women’s economic empowerment. Robert Zoellick, long-term president of the World Bank, is fond of saying “Gender equality is smart business.”[42] The World Bank’s Gender Action Plan invests in infrastructure in the developing world, in areas such as energy, transportation, agriculture, water, and sanitation in ways that are specifically focused on promoting women’s economic empowerment. Unfortunately, the plan suffers from insufficient funding. The World Bank is now looking for other sources of revenue. In April 2008, it launched The Global Private Sector Leaders Forum to engage corporate executives in developing countries. To date that project has committed to spending three billion dollars on goods and services from women-owned businesses over the next three years. Meanwhile governments in emerging-market countries are beginning to understand that to be competitive they will have to respond to demands for women’s empowerment. One example is Morocco’s retraction of its reservations about the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It did so because it wanted to become more attractive to foreign countries. Another example is Saudi Arabia, a country that has consistently rejected any international standards on women’s rights. In 2009 in an effort to upgrade its educational system, it opened a new ten billion dollar university for science and technology and, for the first time in the country’s history enrolled women alongside men.

Enforcing Human Rights

Declarations, covenants, and conventions have identified and codified human rights that belong equally to men and women everywhere. Assuring that those rights are universally respected too often remains a goal rather than a reality, however. As one scholar puts it:

One of the main issues … to grapple with is the apparent disparity between the often-celebrated normative global achievements in codifying human rights values among the UN member states and the often-lamented failures to enforce them …. I argue that the link should not be seen as mechanical or procedural. Weaknesses so obviously apparent in the enforcement process signify the lack of vigor in the normative consensus; the vim and vigor by which the face was adorned by high-flying colors might in fact have marked a frail body.[43]

A principal reason for violations of human rights is that while treaties establish rights for individuals, the obligations they create are only incumbent on States. Human rights, although held equally by all human beings are held with respect to and exercised against sovereign, territorial states. The modern state has emerged as both the principal threat to the enjoyment of human rights and the essential institution for their effective implementation and enforcement.

How can states which fail to protect the human rights of their citizens be persuaded—or compelled—to do so? There is no single answer to that question. Some observers advocate using a “carrot.” Other contend that “a stick” is essential. Still others urge a combination of “soft” and “hard” methods are essential.

One of the softer strategies is monitoring and publicizing each country’s ranking on its observance of human rights. Freedom House, a non-governmental organization is one well-known monitor. It has provided ratings and narratives on 193 countries every year since 1972.

Another important source of information is the CIRI Human Rights Data Project.[44] It provides information about government respect for a broad array of human rights in nearly every country in the world. Covering twenty-six years, fifteen separate human rights practices, and 195 countries, it is one of the largest human rights data sets in the world. The CIRI uses much of the broad range of human rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Specifically CIRI provides measure of four types of rights:

1.     Physical Integrity Rights: the rights not to be tortured, extrajudicially killed, disapproved or imprisoned for political beliefs.

2.     Civil Rights and Liberties: the rights to free speech, freedom of association, freedom of domestic movement, freedom of international movement, freedom of religion, and freedom to participate in free and fair elections for the selection of government leaders.

3.     Workers Rights: the rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining, a minimum wage for the employment of children, acceptable conditions of work, and protection from forced labor.

4.     Women’s Rights: the rights to legal protection and equal treatment politically, economically, and socially.

The authors of the CIRI Index argue that most human rights international non-governmental organizations (INGO’s), including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have focused their reports and activities almost exclusively on identifying and remedying government violations of the physical integrity of the person. Greater attention needs to be given to “the complementary, universality and indivisibility of all rights.”[45] Even so, they spell out in an appendix the specific internationally recognized rights they include as important to be measured.”

·      Women’s Political Rights: the rights to work, run for political office, hold elected and appointed government positions, join political parties and petition government officials.

·      Women’s Economic Rights: the rights to equal pay for equal work, free choice of profession or employment without the need to obtain a husband’s or male relative’s consent, to gainful employment without the need to obtain a husband’s or male relative’s consent, equality in hiring and promotion practices, job security (maternity leave, unemployment benefits, no arbitrary firing or layoffs, etc.), non-discrimination by employers, the right to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace, the right to work at night, in occupations classified as dangerous, and to work in the military and the police force.

·      Women’s Social Rights: the rights to equal inheritance, to enter marriage on a bases of equality with men, to travel abroad, to obtain a passport, to confer citizenship on children or a husband, to initiate divorce, to own, acquire, manage and retain property brought into marriage, to participate in social, cultural, and community activities, to education; the freedom to choose a residence/domicile; freedom from female genital mutilation of children and of adults without their consent; and freedom from forced sterilization.[46]


Since the dawn of history, women have had an inferior social, political, and economic position in virtually every society. Even today, men still dominate most areas of economic and public life. Over time, however, the trend toward gender equality has become a part of a broader humanistic shift. Ideas about democracy and the equal rights of all individuals were proclaimed before they were realized in practice. Democracy existed in a limited version that accepted slavery, property requirements for men to vote, and the exclusion of women from political participation. Democracy, however, is not a static concept. Social change continues to come about. In this paper we have attempted to discuss how and why some changes have come about and to point toward how much remains to be achieved. When someone asked a human rights scholar recently how much he thought had been done to secure the rights of women and men, he responded “more than a whimper, less than a roar.” We have a long way yet to go.

[1] John Locke. The Second Treatise of Government. Originally published in 1689–90. Reprinted in Women and Men Political Theorists. Kristin Waters, ed. (Oxford: U.K., 2000).

[2] Ibid. 21. 

[3] Abigail Adams to Eliza Peabody, July 19, 1779 in The Quotable Founding Fathers. Buckner F. Melton, Jr., ed. (Washington, D.C: Potomac Books, 2004) 326.

[4] Judith Sargent Murray. “On the Equality of the Sexes” in Massachusetts Magazine, March and April 1790.

[5] Benjamin Rush quoted in Jane Rendall The Origins of Modern Feminism. (Chicago: Lyceum Books, 1985) 39.

[6] Tallerand quoted in Elizabeth G. Sledziewski, “The French Revolution as The Turning Point,” in Emerging Feminism From Revolution to World War. Vol 4, of A History of Women in the West. Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot, eds. (Cambridge” Harvard University Press, 1993) 39.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Olympe de Gouge. The Declaration of the Rights of Woman 1790. Reprinted in Michelene R. Ishay’s the History of Human Rights. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) 112.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects 1792. Reprinted in Women and Men Political Theorists. op.cit. 94–130.

[11] For a discussion of the London Anti-Slavery Convention and its impact on the women in the United States, see Sally M. Millen. Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) 71–77.

[12] See Susan F. Van Burkied. Belonging to the World. Women’s Rights and American Constitutional Culture. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 111.

[13] Ibid. 112.

[14] Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions by the Women’s Rights Convention. July, 1848.

[15] Carrie Chapman Catt quoted in Keyser, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. (New York: Basic Books, 2000) 172.

[16] Paul Gordon Lauren. The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2nd ed., 2003).

[17] Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains: Property and Rebels In the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005) 133–134.

[18] The Liberator 1. January 1831.

[19] The Liberator 7. January, 2832.

[20] Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) 32.

[21] Stephane Courtois et.al. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror and Repression. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999) 9.

[22] Oxford Dictionary of World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 282. See also Philip Short. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).

[23] See Oxford Dictionary of World History op cit and The Black Book Communism. op cit. 577–589.

[24] The Black Book Communism op cit. 590.

[25] Jack Donnelly. Universal Human Rights In Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003) 23.

[26] Thomas Buergenthal et al. International Human Rights 3rd ed. (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 2002. 352.

[27] Ibid. 366–367.

[28] The International Bill of Rights Paul Williams, ed. With foreword by Jimmy Carter (Glen Ellen, California: Entwhistle Books, 1981) x.

[29] When the U.S. ratified this Covenant, it attached a reservation (RUD) with regard to Article 20, which deals with war propaganda and advocacy of national, racial, and religious hatred. The RUD provides “that Article 20 does not authorize or require legislation or any action by the U.S. that would restrict the right of free speech and association protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

[30] Amartya Sen. Development as Freedom (New York: Random House, 1999) 154.

[31] United Nations Charter. Preamble.

[32] Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly, December 10, 1948.

[33] Jack Donnelly. Universal Human Rights in Theory and in Practice. 2nd ed. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003) 148.

[34] See Paul Kennedy. The Parliament of Men: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations. (New York: Random House, 2006) 151.

[35] Convention on The Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Article 1.

[36] Ibid. Article 2c.

[37] E. Benjamin Skinner. A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face With Modern Day Slavery. (New York: Free Press, 2008) 1–2.

[38] See Articles 10, 12, and 16.

[39] See Article 5.

[40] See Isobel Coleman. “The Global Glass Ceiling” Foreign Affairs May/June 2010, 13–16.

[41] In 1994, the Indian government passed a law prohibiting sex-selection abortion, but the problem persisted. In 2002 the Indian government amended the law to make manufacturers and distributors of sonogram equipment responsible for preventing female feticide.

[42] Zoellick quoted in Foreign Affairs op cit. 18

[43] Reza Afshari. “On Historiography of Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly. February 2007. 1.

[44] See David Cingranelli and David Richards. “The Cingranelli and Richards (CIRI) Human Rights Data Project.” Human Rights Quarterly, May 2010. 401–424.

[45] Ibid. 422.

[46] Ibid. 423–424.

Click  here to download a copy of this paper.