History and Background

On December 18, 1979, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The call for a Treaty for the Rights of Women emerged from the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975. Until 1979, when the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Treaty, there was no document that comprehensively addressed women’s basic human rights within political, cultural, economic, social, and family life.

Often called an international “Bill of Rights” for women, the Treaty for the Rights of Women is the culmination of more than 30 years of work by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and its member countries and country states. As of May 2004, 177 countries have ratified the Treaty. The creation of this Treaty was the first critical step in developing a standard for basic human rights for women. These standards address abuses (physical, sexual, economic, and political) of women and promote women’s equality of rights and well-being.

In order for the United States to ratify an international treaty, two-thirds of the Senate must consent—that is 67 “yes” votes. No action by the House of Representatives is required for ratification of international treaties.

Chronology: The Road to Ratification  

  • 1975: The First UN World Conference on Women in Mexico City calls for a Women’s Convention to promote equal rights for women worldwide.
  • December 18, 1979: United Nations approves the Treaty for the Rights of Women (formally known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—or CEDAW).
  • July 17, 1980: President Jimmy Carter signs the Treaty as he is leaving office. The Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations decline to seek ratification.
  • 1990: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on the Treaty.
  • 1993: Sixty-eight senators write to President Bill Clinton requesting treaty ratification.
  • 1993: The United States commits itself at the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria, to ratification of the Treaty for the Rights of Women, among others.
  • 1994: The Clinton administration recommends ratification with four reservations, three understandings, and two declarations on issues including private conduct, combat assignments, comparable worth, paid maternity leave, federal-state implementation, freedom of speech, and health care financing.1
  • September 1994: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes 13-5 with one abstention to recommend treaty passage by the full Senate. But several senators put a “hold” on it for the duration of the 103rd Congress.
  • August 1995: At the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, the United States makes treaty ratification a primary commitment to be achieved before 2000.
  • 1998: San Francisco, Calif. approves a local ordinance implementing treaty principles. Similar actions occur in Iowa.
  • March 16, 1999: The CEDAW Committee approves an Optional Protocol that provides a process for complaints of treaty violations that lets women appeal directly to the United Nations.
  • 1999: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and nine other senators call for a new hearing and treaty ratification but are rebuffed by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
  • May 2000: The House International Relations Committee holds an informational hearing on the Treaty: A total of 168 nations have ratified it, and 62 have ratified the Optional Protocol.
  • May 2002: Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has announced his intention of scheduling a hearing on the Treaty for the Rights of Women (CEDAW) in summer 2002.
  • June 13, 2002: Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, holds a hearing on the Treaty for the Rights of Women (CEDAW).
  • July 30, 2002: The treaty was voted favorably out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 12 to 7.
  • Fall 2002: The Senate adjourned in 2002 without time for a vote on ratification. The treaty reverted back to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the leadership of new chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN).
  • June 2004: A total of 177 nations have ratified the treaty.

1. The reservations state that the United States is not obligated to any of the following: “Assigning” women to all units of military service (although women are free to participate in any); mandating paid maternity leave (article 11-2-b); legislating equality in the private sector (articles 2, 3, 5); and ensuring comparable worth (equal pay for work of equal value). The understandings say that state and federal implementations will be made according to the appropriate jurisdiction; that no restrictions will be made to the freedom of speech, expression, or association under the Convention (articles 5, 7, 8, 13); and that any free health services to benefit women will be determined by states and not automatically mandated by U.S. ratification (article 12). Declarations made are that the convention is “non self-executing” and that disputes about interpretation of the Convention will be handled case by case (articles 29-2, 29-1).