A few months ago, after more than two decades of inaction and delay, it seemed that the United States was about to join the 169 nations that have ratified the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
The treaty, which bans forced marriage and includes provisions mandating equal access to education, healthcare and property rights for women, has been thwarted by Republicans since President Jimmy Carter first submitted it in 1980. But in February, there was an apparent break: In a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee outlining President George W. Bush's treaty priorities, the State Department placed it in the category of treaties that the "administration believes are generally desirable and should be approved."
Committee chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., said he was "heartened" by the White House support for the treaty and scheduled hearings for May 15. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, says the letter from State was tantamount to an endorsement by the Bush administration. The United States was going to leave the company of Iran, Sudan and Somalia and join every other industrialized nation in the world in adopting the pact.
Then Attorney General John Ashcroft stepped in.
According to a statement from Biden, as the May 15 hearing date approached, the administration asked for a postponement, and then another. "The reason given? The Department of Justice had just begun a new review of the treaty," Biden's statement said, adding, "I fail to understand this development."
The Justice Department did not return several calls for comment and the State Department said it couldn't answer questions about the treaty, but interviews with some of Ashcroft's political allies explain why he intervened and suggest the cause may lie in a conflict between the pragmatism of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Aschroft's religious conservatism.
For the religious right, the anti-discrimination treaty is like the Equal Rights Amendment gone global, says Paul Bonicelli, a Bush delegate to last month's U.N. summit on children and dean of academic affairs at Patrick Henry College, a conservative Virginia school that teaches creationism.
"The White House seeking ratification of CEDAW would be absolutely humongous," he says. "It was unthinkable to social conservatives that after the Clintons were out of office that something like CEDAW would be put forward as a ratifiable document. For social conservatives to find out that this was something that could be ratified was shocking and disappointing. It galvanized every bit of opposition to express in no uncertain terms this is not something social conservatives can accept."
But the administration had already signaled its support, which it reiterated in a June 4 letter to Biden's committee stating once again that the treaty was "generally desirable and should be approved." So if two-thirds of the Senate voted in favor of the treaty and Bush was faced with signing it, he'd be stuck between alienating his right-wing base and disavowing the State Department's actions.
Ashcroft's temporizing offers a way out. "I would not be surprised to know that the White House is using that tactic," says Bonicelli. By stalling the hearings, the Department of Justice could have been trying to make sure that the full Senate wouldn't vote on the treaty before it recessed in August.
Eventually, though, Biden decided to proceed with hearings without administration testimony, saying he would "hear from the executive branch when it is fully prepared to present its position."
Ashcroft can't stop the full Senate from voting on the treaty. According to Woolsey, however, if the required 67 senators vote to ratify, it will be difficult for Bush to refuse to sign it. Ashcroft's ongoing review could give Bush an excuse to turn the treaty down even if it receives bipartisan support.
Woolsey can't fathom the Christian right's objection. "They must prefer women to be barefoot, pregnant and at home," she says. She insists that the treaty would have no effect on U.S. law, since "we already exceed anything that it calls for."
Yet while it won't affect domestic policy, Woolsey believes it's crucial that the U.S. ratifies the treaty. "It would give the United States a greater voice in helping other nations around the globe when they're trying to democratize," she says. "It would give us a voice to speak out on women's issues. We could probably do more in helping Afghan women if our voice was stronger after having ratified CEDAW."
Some Afghan women agree. On June 13, Sima Samar, Afghanistan's minister of women's affairs, sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., requesting that the United States help safeguard women's rights in Afghanistan. "An urgent first step must be your ratification of the International CEDAW Treaty for the Rights of Women," Samar wrote.
"Afghanistan has never ratified this treaty ... [but] I cannot overstate to you how important it will be for me and other Afghan women if you do take this step. We will then be able to tell our countrymen that the United States, where women already have full legal rights, has just seen the need to ratify this treaty. We will be able to refer to its terms and guidelines in public debates over what our laws should say."
Since the United States justified the war in Afghanistan partly by pointing to the Taliban's misogynist abuses, treaty supporters say it's particularly hypocritical that the U.S. now stands with countries like Sudan and Iran in opposing the treaty. "It's awfully cynical to go around saying that these countries are bastions of terrorism and then turn around and agree with them on the oppression of women," says Francoise Girard, senior program officer at the International Women's Health Coalition.
Of course, the Christian right doesn't see it that way. "We are the most powerful nation in the world, we are the most democratic nation in the world," says Janice Crouse, another Bush delegate to the U.N. Children's Summit and a senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, a Washington group that works on Christian women's issues. "We are good neighbors. We are a country that is not self-centered in the way we help others, and I don't think we owe an apology to other countries when we say [the treaty] is not in our best interest and we don't believe it's in your best interest."
The answers to the problems faced by women in the developing world are in the Bible, Crouse says. And while the Bible doesn't apply to life in Muslim societies, she says, "it could." She calls the treaty an agent of a "frivolous and morally corrupt agenda," saying it would "legalize prostitution and open the door for the homosexual agenda." She says it even attacks Mother's Day.
Lee Waldorf, the treaty advisor at the United Nations Development Fund for Women, says she "can't imagine where they got these ideas from." She points out that the pact's only reference to prostitution is in Article 6, which states: "Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women." The treaty doesn't say a thing about homosexuality. It is silent on the issue of Mother's Day.
Yet Crouse isn't entirely wrong. While the treaty says nothing about Mother's Day, the committee that reviews countries' progress in eliminating discrimination did once condemn the occasion. In a 2000 report on Belarus, the committee said it was "concerned by the continuing prevalence of sex-role stereotypes, as also exemplified by the reintroduction of such symbols as a Mothers' Day and a Mothers' Award, which it sees as encouraging women's traditional roles."
As Waldorf points out, there's no enforcement mechanism in the treaty, so such bureaucratic PC sniping wouldn't have had any effect on the ground in Belarus. But conservatives have repeated the line over and over again, in speeches and forums like the Washington Times and the National Review.
They're not to blame for seizing such an opening. But just as signatory nations like Italy, India and Ireland haven't sacrificed their holidays or stopped venerating their mothers, neither would the U.S. While the zeal of supporters has sometimes run to excess, the treaty's real-world effects have been largely positive.
A report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women says that in Tanzania, a court cited the treaty when overturning a law that prohibited women from inheriting clan land from their fathers. Similarly, in Nepal, advocates used it as a framework giving women inheritance rights equal to those held by men. In an Indian legal case stemming from a woman's gang rape by her colleagues, the court found "that by ratifying CEDAW and by making official commitments at the 1995 Beijing world conference on women, India had endorsed the international standard of women's human rights" and thus had to protect women from sexual harassment. In Colombia, the treaty was used to secure protections against domestic violence in the 1991 constitution.
The important thing, says Waldorf, is that countries are able to decide how they use the treaty. "Women activists are embracing it as useful to them in their own domestic work," she says. "National governments around the world are using it as a standard. There's no coercion."
Meanwhile, signatory countries including South Africa, Australia, Sweden, Mexico and Japan are still celebrating Mother's Day.