The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Panel Explores the State of Women’s Rights in the United States and Abroad

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On January 13, 2021, the Rockefeller Center kicked off its Winter 2021 public programs with a panel entitled Standing Alone: Why the U.S. Rejects Global Norms on Women’s Rights. Moderated by Dartmouth Professor of Government and Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies Lisa Baldez, a panel of Professors Jennifer M. Piscopo and Julie Suk explored the history, current state, and consequences of United States “exceptionalism” with regards to women’s rights.

Piscopo, whose research centers around “the adoption and implementation of women’s rights, norms, and laws” worldwide, noted that our modern ideas on women’s rights are often a reflection of how countries have written women’s rights into their laws and constitution, if at all. For many countries, particularly those in Latin America, Piscopo explained, “suffrage” is legally defined as including both the right to elect and be elected; however, under the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution, only the former is included. This significant contrast has resulted in a massive difference in the way countries have addressed women’s rights, especially following the rise of feminist and civil rights movements in the latter half of the 20th century. The broader definition of suffrage, Piscopo argued, “gives some more breadth to the discussion of what political rights are,” as activist groups in countries with these stronger definitions of suffrage were able to argue that individual rights were being explicitly violated from a legal standpoint when women and minorities were left out of elections. While activists in the US, in the face of these 20th century movements, began to implement programs and initiatives encouraging women and minorities to run for office, nations with a stronger definition of suffrage went as far as establishing gender quotas that legally established a minimum number of women candidates required to run for office. Today, Piscopo emphasized, eighty countries worldwide have gender quota laws that have made a real and critical impact on the state of their domestic politics. “When women are present,” explained Piscopo, “voters and citizens are more likely to feel that their political system is just, they’re more likely to feel that it’s legitimate, they’re more likely to believe that it’s democratic, and we have lots of evidence from around the globe about how this affects other laws and policies countries actually make…”

Not only is the US lacking an explicit legal mandate of a woman’s “right to be elected,” but Suk notes that the US Constitution and laws also lack a basic “textual provision guaranteeing the equal rights of women.” The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), Suk explained, which passed through Congress in the early 1970s, was close to meeting the need for this textual provision by explicitly granting equal rights to women; however, as a result of all the procedural red tape and “supermajorities” that prospective amendments require to be included in the Constitution, the ERA remains in limbo today.

Given this seemingly massive discrepancy in how women’s rights are defined and upheld, does the US truly “stand alone”? Well, not quite. Provisions for women’s equality are actually incorporated in the Constitution, Suk explained, albeit not as a textual provision; rather, as with many of our Constitutional rights, litigation and court cases have shaped the language of our current constitution to include women’s equality through legal precedent. In particular, Suk noted the work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who successfully argued that the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment should also protect against discrimination on the basis of sex during her time with the ACLU.

Despite these implicit protections, however, Suk reiterated the importance of Congress also being able to legislate on important issues regarding women, noting that Supreme Court “has taken a very narrow view of what Congress can legislate, particularly around matters that affect the private sphere and women.” As a potential explicit amendment to the Constitution, Suk argued, the ERA can be the way forward, allowing Congress the power to act for women’s rights. “The process of constitutional amendment is actually a check on courts, and particularly the Supreme Court,” said Suk. “We amend the Constitution because they have advanced an interpretation of equality that people have rejected.”

Baldez, whose research centers around the history and effects of gender quotas and the ERA as well as international treaties worldwide, also emphasized the importance of US involvement in global treaties which seek to promote women’s rights. Citing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which the US has yet to ratify, Baldez noted that “ratifying treaties like CEDAW… does commit the United States and all the countries that ratify it to a regular process of reporting on the country’s progress towards complying with that treaty.” This compliance with CEDAW not only seeks to benefit the global state of women’s rights, but also encourages the US to reflect on the state of women’s rights for all women at home. “One thing that the United States does not do is sit down and say ‘okay, where are we, not just on equal rights or on the status of women in legislative office, or on violence against women, but where are we on all women’s rights simultaneously?’” Baldez emphasized. This form of accountability, Baldez believes, is extremely helpful in pushing policy and substantive action to follow discussion and debate.
Now more than ever, Suk and Piscopo agree with the importance of reviving the conversation around more concretely incorporating women’s rights into the US legal system. The fact that many critical roles women assume in today’s society, such as caretakers or essential workers, are “either invisible or belittled or undervalued,” Suk emphasized, “is itself a form of abuse of power and it’s by correcting those power imbalances that we can solve some of these problems having to do with the women’s rights agenda.”

Written by Shawdi Mehrvarzan’22, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs

Rocky Talk Podcast Regarding the U.S. Rejecting Global Norms on Women’s Rights: Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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