Cross-posted from ACS Blog

Much like the Nineteenth Amendment itself these days, Women’s Equality Day — the anniversary of the amendment’s ratification — keeps a fairly low profile, sneaking in at the end of August, when much of the country is enjoying the last few days of summer vacation. But this August 26, the ninetieth anniversary of the constitutional guarantee of women’s right to vote, it is worth stopping to reflect on the many years of labor that culminated in ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and that work’s relevance to women’s progress going forward. One important way of honoring that history and continuing that progress would be ratification of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a landmark international agreement that affirms principles of fundamental equality for women and girls.

In one of the few law review articles addressing the Nineteenth Amendment, Yale Law professor Reva Siegel describes it as “a constitutional amendment so rarely cited that reference to it prompts many, if not most, constitutional law scholars to ask: ‘Which one is that?'” In retrospect, its passage seems inevitable and the ground it broke has been largely forgotten. But ratification came in 1920 only after fifty years of fierce campaigning for a constitutional guarantee of full citizenship for women.

As Siegel explains, opponents of women’s right to vote saw suffragists’ demands as deeply threatening. “The demand is for the abolition of all distinctions between men and women, proceeding upon the hypothesis that men and women are the same,” one opponent asserted. “[This] attacks the integrity of the family; … it denies and repudiates the obligations of motherhood.” Anti-suffragists asserted that a federal guarantee of women’s right to vote represented a power grab for the federal government, which would “draw a line of political demarcation through a man’s household, through his fireside, and to open to the intrusion of politics and politicians that sacred circle of the family.” Given this history, it is ironic that last week a Washington Times op-ed invoked the anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment to urge opposition to CEDAW, the women’s rights treaty, in terms remarkably similar to those once used to oppose women’s suffrage.

The CEDAW treaty has been adopted by every country in the world but seven; the United States is one of the holdouts, in the unlikely company of Iran, Sudan, Somalia, and three small Pacific Islands. Ratifying countries affirm that women’s rights are human rights and commit themselves to ending discrimination against women and girls. CEDAW provides a practical blueprint for these efforts; guided by CEDAW, policymakers and advocates in other countries have taken important steps toward stopping sex trafficking and domestic violence, expanding girls’ educational opportunities, providing access to maternal health care, and yes, ensuring women’s right to vote. By ratifying CEDAW, the United States would strengthen its role as a global leader in standing up for the rights of women and girls and continue a long, bipartisan tradition of promoting and protecting human rights.

CEDAW’s opponents, however, assert that CEDAW’s promise of nondiscrimination “denies the nature of women, the need for families, and the proper role of government.” These scare tactics and false claims grossly misrepresent CEDAW and its mechanisms, given that a central purpose of CEDAW is to ensure that women are not disparaged or devalued based on their status as mothers. CEDAW instead seeks to provide parents the support they need to provide for and care for their children. Moreover, through its opposition to practices like polygamy, forced marriage, and domestic violence, CEDAW promotes women’s safety and health within families. A committee of women’s rights experts makes nonbinding recommendations to ratifying countries regarding best practices for ending discrimination, but it is always up to policymakers and advocates within each country to determine how best to meet CEDAW’s goals in that country. In short, CEDAW no more threatens the integrity of the family than did the Nineteenth Amendment before it.

Yet the similarities between the language used to oppose the Nineteenth Amendment a century ago and CEDAW today are striking. Both the Nineteenth Amendment and CEDAW have been described as an attack on motherhood. While anti-suffragists warned of the Nineteenth Amendment’s “abolition of all distinctions between men and women,” CEDAW opponents assert that CEDAW “forbids recognizing the wonderful differences between men and women.” While anti-suffragists warned of the federal government’s invasion of the “sacred circle of the family,” CEDAW opponents claim that CEDAW would somehow turn family decisions over to the U.N. The echoes are revealing, demonstrating the remarkable persistence of the fear that recognizing women’s equality will somehow mean the end of families, even in the face of decades of evidence to the contrary.

In the case of the Nineteenth Amendment, overcoming this fear required:

56 referendum campaigns directed at male voters, plus “480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party campaigns to include woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.”

The Senate should celebrate the 90th anniversary of the great and hard-fought achievement that was the Nineteenth Amendment by ratifying CEDAW. By doing so, the United States would again reject the argument that ending discrimination against women somehow harms families. By affirming women’s fundamental human rights, the ratification of CEDAW would instead promote women’s health, safety, economic security, and dignity, helping not only women themselves, but their families and communities. The Senate should ratify CEDAW now.

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