December 18, 1979 – U.N. Adopts the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

On this day in history, the U.N. adopted The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Described as an international bill of rights for women, it came into force on September 3, 1981.


The Convention defines discrimination against women, establishes an agenda of action for putting an end to sex-based discrimination, requires signatories to repeal all discriminatory provisions in their laws, and to enact new provisions to guard against discrimination against women. (Special protection for maternity is not regarded as gender discrimination.) Equal opportunity in education for female students is required, and coeducation is encouraged.

Although the Convention was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, it has never come up for a vote in the Senate. The late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001, refused even to hold hearings on the matter. According to Helms, CEDAW was a terrible treaty “negotiated by radical feminists with the intent of enshrining their radical anti-family agenda into international law.” At a 2002 Senate hearing, he described the treaty as harmful to women as well as a direct threat to American sovereignty. “It will never see the light of day on my watch.”

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Senator Helms may not be alive, but the Tea Party is, and today, right-wing conservatives fear CEDAW could impose pro-abortion measures, among other envisioned horrors. Focus on the Family has a particularly fanciful list detailing the ways in which CEDAW should not be ratified, including:

  • The foundational principle of CEDAW is erroneous
  • CEDAW violates the U.N. Charter
  • Ratifying CEDAW is un-American, violates our constitutional 
  • CEDAW would be illegally used to pressure the U.S. to implement 
quota systems for elections and government offices
  • CEDAW would be more harmful than beneficial to women
  • CEDAW would harm children
  • CEDAW would attack and destroy healthy roles of men and women
  • CEDAW would harm marriage, families and their religious faith
  • CEDAW would be illegally used to promote abortion
  • CEDAW may be used to pressure the U.S. to legalize prostitution

As The New Republic Staff writes: “The United States finds itself in questionable company on CEDAW: Iran and Sudan are among the few UN countries that haven’t adopted it.”

You can read the text of the Convention here. You can read about success stories thanks to the Convention here.



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