By Heidi Nichols Haddad
08 March 2020
On International Women’s Day, how is the U.S. doing on women’s rights? That question could be answered in many ways, of course, pointing to anything from Harvey Weinstein’s recent conviction for sexual assault to how a diverse Democratic field of presidential candidates narrowed to a race between two white men. But here let’s look at a different, less celebrated arena: local governments. In the past several years, Honolulu, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Berkeley and the counties of Miami-Dade and Santa Clara have put binding gender equality laws on the books.
Turning to local government to get past national gridlock
These local laws are a direct answer to federal inaction on women’s rights. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would constitutionally enshrine equal rights regardless of sex, failed to win the necessary 38 state ratifications by the legislation’s 1982 expiration date.
Further, the United States is one of only six United Nations member states — and the only industrialized democracy — that hasn’t joined the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The other non-signatory countries are Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Palau and Tonga.
Dubbed the “international women’s bill of rights,” CEDAW represents the most comprehensive global consensus on promoting and protecting women’s rights and the associated obligations of both governments and private actors. President Jimmy Carter signed CEDAW in 1980. The Senate held hearings on CEDAW in 1988, 1990, 1994, 2002 and 2010, and twice reported favorably on it, but the treaty never reached the Senate floor for a vote.
U.S. policymakers have generally agreed with CEDAW’s goal of eliminating gender discrimination. But they clash, mostly along party lines, over its likely effect on the private lives of Americans. During the 2002 hearing on CEDAW, Republican Sens. Mike Enzi and Sam Brownback questioned why the U.S. would join a treaty that did not reduce women’s oppression in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. The activist groups Concerned Women for America and the National Right to Life Committee have strongly mobilized against CEDAW; they see it as undermining traditional family roles and implicitly endorsing abortion.
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