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UN Feminist Threat By: Christina Hoff Sommers
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, July 22, 2002


For more than two decades, the United States Senate has wisely resisted signing on to the United Nations' Treaty for the Rights of Women. But every few years, feminist groups pressure politicians to reconsider it. Now, once again, the treaty is back. Senators Joseph Biden and Barbara Boxer, with the help of Clinton administration holdovers in the State Department, are pushing for ratification of "The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women" (CEDAW). The Bush administration and the Senate Republicans oppose CEDAW and seem to be prepared to fight it; but fears of offending female voters are running high. Unless there is a concerted and sustained effort to stop it, ratification is likely. That would do serious harm to the United States and to women around the world, who need effective policies, not the bitter gender politics of this misguided treaty.

First, a bit of background. American women have been the beneficiaries of two major waves of feminism. In the First Wave, initiated by the great foremothers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, women won basic political and legal rights, including the right to vote. The Second Wave, which came in the sixties and early seventies, advanced women economically and socially. Employers could no longer legally restrict a job to one sex. A company could no longer refuse to hire a woman because she had children. Such laws have been critical to the well-being and success of American women and most of the reforms of the First and Second Waves are appropriate and necessary for women everywhere.

With this historical progress, American women have achieved virtual equality with men. There are still some unresolved equity issues, but overall, we are now among the freest and most liberated women in the world. In some ways, we are not merely doing as well as men — we are doing better. We live longer, we are better educated, we have more choices on how to lead our lives. By any reasonable measure, equity feminism is the great American success story.

When I lecture about the history of the women's movement on college campuses, students often ask what's next for the Third Wave. My answer is always the same; we have to help women in other parts of the world secure the freedoms we take for granted here. There are countries, especially in Africa and Asia, where women have not yet had their Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; as for second wave reforms, they are light-years away from them.

American women have much to tell the women of the world. We can and should help women everywhere to achieve the kind of equity we have here. But joining the CEDAW convention is the wrong way to do that. There are many reasons for opposing ratification of this treaty. I will focus here on two or three that I regard as decisive.

The CEDAW convention was formulated in the 1970s and it promotes several reforms that we now know to be harmful. These programs looked promising, exciting and progressive in 1975, but since then we have come to realize that they undermine economic prosperity. Article 11, for example, calls for governments to set wages so that jobs of "equal value" (e.g. firemen and kindergarten teachers) are granted "equal remuneration." This is the policy we call "comparable worth." Americans have rightly rejected comparable worth as an unjust and unworkable socialist policy. Why should we be advocating it for women elsewhere?

Article 11 also demands that governments guarantee "maternity leave with pay" and to provide a "network of childcare facilities." All very salutary, except that experience shows that such programs tend to burden a country's economy to everyone's detriment. American women have benefited from a free, open and economically dynamic society: shouldn't we be promoting policies that bring these advantages to needy women everywhere? In any case, advocating paid maternity leave, government subsidized day care, and comparable worth has little effect on the condition of women living in countries that practice genital mutilation, honor killings, or socially sanctioned rape and domestic violence.

The treaty shows the influence of feminist ideology. It opposes "discrimination," which is fine. But then we read Article 1 which defines discrimination as "any distinction...on the basis of sex" in "any... field." Article 5 calls on all governments to "modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women with a view to achieving the elimination of...all...practices which are based on...stereotyped roles for men and women." What exactly do these provisions entail? Of course, some gender stereotypes are destructive and prejudicial and we must call disparaging attention to them. But, many male/female stereotypes (what the French call la difference) are descriptively true.

In the 1970s, when the treaty was formulated, many feminists believed that truly liberated men and women would become more and more alike — that a gender-just society would eventually become androgynous. Gender was supposedly an artificial social construction that gave men the advantage. Well, today only the small, isolated cadres of campus ideologues in Women's Studies and postmodernism believe that.

Research in neuroscience, endocrinology, and psychology over the past 40 years provides evidence of a biological basis for many sex differences in aptitudes and preferences. Males have better spatial reasoning skills, females better verbal skills. Males are greater risk-takers, females are more nurturing. (There are exceptions, but these are the rules.) As the Rutgers University anthropologist Lionel Tiger has said, "Biology is not destiny, but it is good statistical probability." Unfortunately, CEDAW provisions are premised on the false assumption that all gender differences are socially constructed and should be targeted for elimination.

Of course, in recognizing the obvious differences between men and women, I am not suggesting that women should be prevented from pursuing their goals in any field they choose; what I am suggesting is that we should not expect or aim for parity in all fields. More women than men will continue to want to stay at home with small children and pursue careers in fields like early childhood education or psychology; men will continue to be heavily represented in what Camille Paglia aptly calls the "people-free zones" — helicopter maintenance, air conditioner repair, hydraulic engineering.

A few years ago I took part in a television debate with celebrity lawyer, Gloria Allred. Ms. Allred was representing a 14-year-old girl who was suing the Boy Scouts of America for excluding girls. Allred characterized same-sex scout troops as a form of "gender apartheid." She spoke of the need to "socialize" boys to play with dolls so they could be more nurturing and less fractious. CEDAW will give all the Ms. Allreds in this country a treaty of their own to create mischief.

Consider, for example, how hard-liners could deploy Article 10 of the Treaty: It calls for the "elimination of any stereotyped concepts 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 programs." Our textbooks and school materials cannot endure any more political corrections. The New York Times recently ran a story about how the politics of textbook revisions is now out of control: great works of literature have been routinely scanned for insensitivity and altered by censors. Now after some intense lobbying, this practice is being eliminated. The CEDAW Treaty demands this kind of textual revision, a demand that is inconsistent with American civil liberties.

Can there be anyone in the United States, apart from a small coterie of orthodox feminists, who would favor empowering a committee of foreign bureaucrats to oversee American social mores to eliminate "gender stereotypes" — or to intrude into public education by distorting the textbooks our children read?

The Treaty could do us harm by promoting male/female resentments and divisions at a time when the country badly needs social unity. Most American women feel blessed to live in a country where, for the most part, the men are fair-minded, decent and supportive of women in their quest for equality. We are proud and grateful to be part of a society that has afforded us unprecedented freedoms and opportunities. But this very favorable view of American men and of American society is not shared by the hard-line feminists in our universities. These activist/scholars tend to take a dim view of American society, routinely referring to it as a "patriarchy," a "male hegemony," a culture that keeps women "socially subordinate." One leading textbook in women's studies refers to an epidemic of "gender terrorism" carried out by American men. Another designates the United States a "Rape Culture." Now, Bosnia, for a time, truly was a rape culture. Afghanistan, under the Taliban, routinely practiced gender terrorism. To apply such terms to the United States is ludicrous.

Those who call America a sexist society sincerely believe we are in a gender war. In all wars, the first casualty is truth. Too much of what we hear from contemporary women's organizations is outrageously false. Too much of what passes as gender scholarship is ideology and factually wrong: American men are depicted as violent predators and American women their hapless victims. If I were to reduce the the philosophy of academic feminism to a single maxim, it be this one: Women are from Venus, Men are from Hell.

For the past decade, moderate feminist academics like myself, and a growing number of dissidents scholars such as Camille Paglia (University of the Arts), Daphne Patai (University Of Massachusetts), Betsy Fox-Genovese (Emory), Noretta Koertge (University of Indiana), Judith Kleinfeld (University of Alaska), Jennifer Braceras (Harvard Law) — to name only a few — have been hard at work correcting the ms./information, challenging the naive hostility to the free market system, and calling for an end to the male bashing-rhetoric that is standard fare at most of our colleges and universities. We have made slow but steady progress in opening up the national discussion on gender to diverse perspectives; but thinking on these matters on campus and in the major feminist organizations remains dismayingly rigid and intolerant. For the time being, the organized women's movement in this country is dominated by ideological gender theorists and by well-intentioned, but misinformed, and badly advised women's groups that take what these theorists say seriously.

Now what does this have to do with CEDAW? If the United States signs the Treaty, it would dramatically increase the power of the misguided gender scholars. The treaty calls for the elimination of sexism. Reasonable people believe that American society has already achieved this goal in most of the ways that count. If you compare the United States with the rest of the world, it is a shining example of gender equity. Unfortunately, many campus feminists do not agree with that. They believe that American women live in a male supremacist society; and they can cite twenty years of feminist "scholarship" to persuade themselves and us that they are right. What they actually cite is a body of statistically challenged gender ideology.

So far, 169 countries have ratified CEDAW, including such bastions of liberty as China, Iraq, The Congo, Cuba, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. Countries like Iraq and the Congo have no problem signing on to a document they have no intention of following. When the Senate last considered ratification in 1994, four senators, including Nancy Kassebaum, Republican of Kansas, warned of the risk of "cheapening the coin" of human rights.

The United Nations has a sorry history of using its human rights doctrines and commissions for scoring points against Western democracies — all the while carefully refraining from censuring countries that notoriously abuse the rights of their citizens. Last year, in a fit of anger, the U.N expelled the U.S., the world's most powerful democracy, from its Commission on Human Rights. The UN's 2001 Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa turned into a shameful anti-Semitic condemnation of Israel. There is every reason to expect CEDAW would be used in a political way as well.

This treaty in conjunction with the counterfeit feminist "research" would be a most toxic combination. If CEDAW is ratified, expect more rancor, more lawsuits, and more divisiveness. Gender bureaucrats from the United Nations will join the feminist ideologues and the United States will be subject to a relentless legal assault for alleged violations of the treaty.

At a July hearing on CEDAW, Senator Biden read solemnly (and at great length) from the Declaration of Independence. He suggested CEDAW is its moral equivalent. It is not. As Christopher DeMuth of the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out, the signers of the Declaration of Independence "took responsibly for realizing its aspirations...CEDAW, in contrast, is, like the old Soviet constitution, a long list of policy promises drafted by people who, for the most part, have no intention to take responsibility for achieving those promises."

Oppressed women everywhere need our help. But we are morally bound to assist them in ways that reflect ideals of fairness and common sense that have lifted American women to an unprecedented level of freedom. CEDAW is not the way.


Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC . Her books include Who Stole Feminism and The War Against Boys. She is a frequent lecturer at prep schools and on college campuses.


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