Home > News > The U.S. hasn’t signed the world’s foremost women’s rights treaty. Activists have gotten local versions passed instead.
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The U.S. hasn’t signed the world’s foremost women’s rights treaty. Activists have gotten local versions passed instead.

These aren’t just symbolic laws. They affect women’s lives.

- March 7, 2020

On International Women’s Day, how is the United States doing on women’s rights? That question could be answered in many ways, 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 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 (Wyo.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.) questioned why the United States 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 mobilized against CEDAW, seeing it as undermining traditional family roles and implicitly endorsing abortion.

Democratic senators countered with expert testimonies asserting CEDAW is “abortion neutral” and does not obligate governments to regulate gender roles and family structures. They also highlight United Nations and NGO studies demonstrating CEDAW’s efficacy in developing countries. In the 2010 hearing on CEDAW, Ambassador Melanne Verveer said U.S. CEDAW ratification was critical to the legitimacy of U.S. efforts “to promote and defend the rights of women across the globe.”

Local CEDAW ordinances are not just symbolic. They have a real effect.

Into this logjam stepped local activists. Two San Francisco-based women’s rights activists attended the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing — and decided to bring human rights directly to their city. Because of their work, San Francisco adopted the first-ever local CEDAW ordinance in 1998. Los Angeles followed suit in 2003.

These original CEDAW ordinances had two goals: to prevent gender discrimination by mandating thorough analyses of city services and employment practices and to prompt federal ratification of CEDAW. By 2014, this had changed. Federal ratification of CEDAW seemed unlikely. The Cities for CEDAW movement, which advocates for CEDAW ordinances in every U.S. city, dropped U.S. ratification as a goal. Activists no longer considered local CEDAW ordinances a stopgap to federal action; rather, they considered them a long-term alternative.

A local approach to women’s rights is not merely a strategic response to federal inaction. Local governments most closely touch everyday lives. Cities and counties provide critical services like education, policing and public health care; by applying a CEDAW analysis, they can examine whether they are serving women and men with equal effectiveness. They employ thousands of firefighters, teachers and municipal workers; a CEDAW analysis can help expose pay inequities. Cities and counties also have broad regulatory powers, governing everything from plastic bag bans to minimum wage laws — and can use those to correct gender imbalances.

My research on the implementation of the two longest-standing CEDAW ordinances demonstrates CEDAW ordinances have in fact advanced gender equality. In San Francisco, a CEDAW-related analysis of the Department of Public Works led the city to put in curb cuts to accommodate strollers and reconsider streetlight placement so women could feel safer walking at night. A major work-life policy survey, commissioned under the CEDAW ordinance, recommended city government implement flexible schedules and telecommuting, long before these became popular, to accommodate workers with families and other life demands. After reforming policies and expanding services for domestic violence survivors, the city went 44 months without a domestic violence homicide.

The impact of Los Angeles’s CEDAW ordinance has been less straightforward but still substantial. The year after its adoption, 60 percent of its funding was cut due to austerity. Four years later, the 2008 global recession prompted all CEDAW initiatives to be defunded. The CEDAW ordinance was resurrected in 2015, when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — who as a city council member promoted the ordinance — issued an executive directive forming a permanent Gender Equity Coalition within the mayor’s office to implement the ordinance.

The Coalition helped develop programs for girls to become involved in civic leadership and participate at higher rates in sports, and build a pipeline of future firefighters and police officers. It also prompted the expansion of domestic abuse and sexual assault response teams in police units.

The rising influence of local governments

Local ordinances cannot have as comprehensive an effect as federal action. The authority of local government, while substantial, is bounded. So are the borders of cities and counties.

However, neither are such ordinances negligible. Nearly 84 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Cities are driving the world’s economic innovation and growth. The city of Los Angeles has nearly 4 million residents, a population greater than 24 U.S. states. San Francisco’s budget is $12.2 billion, an amount roughly equivalent to the GDP of the entire country of Lithuania.

The momentum toward local, urban action on gender equality is growing. Washington, D.C., Palo Alto and the County of Los Angeles all have proposed CEDAW ordinances. The state of California and nearly 40 U.S. cities and counties have nonbinding CEDAW resolutions — often the first step to binding laws.

Heidi Nichols Haddad is an associate professor of politics at Pomona College and author of The Hidden Hands of Justice: NGOs, Human Rights, and International Courts (Cambridge University Press, 2018).