In 1945 the UN Charter became the first international document to inscribe the rights of men and women as part of fundamental human rights. This is the reason why the UN today has a clear legal mandate to actively promote the rights of women, a mandate that UN Women was established to realize and protect. Who are we to honor for the specific references to women’s rights in the Charter? Ask even specialists how gender equality came about, and the answer is generally: “Was it Eleanor Roosevelt?”
The San Francisco conference in 1945 where the Charter was signed, was dominated by men. Out of 850 delegates, only four women signed the Charter. And of the 50 countries represented, women only had voting rights in 30 of them. Ensuring women’s rights was a hard fought battle.
Agency from outside the Great Powers was critical as women from non-western countries played a pivotal role in ensuring that women were explicitly mentioned in the United Nations charter. Female delegates from Brazil, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and female participants from Mexico, Venezuela and Australia promoted feminist views that demanded an explicit reference to women’s rights in the Charter. Research reveals that it was one person in particular that would not stand back, that continued to claim the need to reference women, it was the Brazilian delegate Dr Bertha Lutz. In her memoirs she assert that other female delegates from the United States and the United Kingdom told her “not to ask for anything for women in the Charter since that would be a very vulgar thing to do”. Luckily for the world, Bertha Lutz was not willing to back down on her demands on the reference to women.
The presence of women in major policy-making roles present at San Francisco is itself a significant chapter in the history of women at the United Nations, but a closer look at the debates and details of this reveals complexities and nuances that might not be immediately obvious. The experience of women in the early United Nations raises important and often difficult questions about gender, feminism, and the focus on women’s concerns in early United Nations politics that continue to inform academic and policy-making debate today.
While some of the female participants strongly identified as ‘militant feminists’ – seeing women’s equality and discrimination against women as a distinct issue that needed to be addressed. Others preferred a more general egalitarian approach that de-emphasized gender in favor of a stronger ‘meritocracy’ approach, arguing that ‘we are not “women delegates”’ – that is, that they were regular delegates who just happened to be women. Some supported the creation of a separate Commission on the Status of Women, while others shied away from it, seeing it as a risk of ‘segregating’ them from other human rights concerns.
The fact that these tensions were keenly felt at the very creation of the modern United Nations – and that Southern women delegates played a significant role in establishing the institution as it is today – deserves recognition, and greater attention.
By having defended women’s rights in a context of intimidation and dissuasion, those delegates are role models, not only for Southern women, but for all women and girls around the world.