History Of Women’s Rights


Rebecca Adami. Women and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Routledge, 2019

Review by Shanisha Pillay (52656162)

Women and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emphasize gender equality by illustrating why it is important for women to be specifically included in the Declaration of Human Rights. “This book aims to introduce neglected voices and open new avenues for future research on human rights” (6). The book’s mission is to illuminate the significance of how long it took women to have equal rights to men in the ‘rights of man’ texts. Adami begins with the aftermath of defeating the Nazi’s, the nations of state had to rebuild the respect for principles through international deliberations and politics based on human rights. Adami highlights the milestones contributed by female delegates from non-Western female representatives of new member states of the UN.

Adami’s main argument is the lack of inclusive wording in the Declaration, in Article 1 and the preamble, where it should mention “equality of women and men”. While women had gained the right to vote and run for political positions in most European countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, women were not allowed a place in politics. Hansa Mehta points out that in Article 1, where it states that ‘all men have the right to vote’. Adami argues that “…Member States can use this to restrict women’s rights rather than expand them since women are not necessarily regarded as included by that wording” (67).

Reading the Declaration through a non-Western perspective pointed out a human right argument in 1948 by female delegates from India, Pakistan, and the Dominican Republic, stating that the Declaration was not inclusive for women. There is a critique of white privilege that feminist research often overlooks because it creates struggles from women from other classes. Adami emphasizes the point of providing equal opportunity by understanding woman’s needs in regard to hazardous work conditions for women in the industry such as shorter working days, “…daycare is a privilege unaffordable for working women who must leave their children home with siblings” (54).

Since 1920, the hardships on women were limited under colonial rule, in certain states of India, women could only vote if they were married, owned property, and were educated. And when the U.K. took over the educational system in India, only two percent of women were literate. The high illiteracy rate was due to child marriages that unless removed, will only worsen. However, the AIWC passed the “Hindu Child Marriage Bill” that “…connects women’s right to education with the question of child marriage” (69). The biggest struggle in including women in the Charter was where women had the greatest voice such as the United States and Great Britain. Virginia Gildersleeve points out the flaws of the U.S.A. and the U.K. which was their low interest on the importance of women’s rights. Consequently, husbands of women in politics felt threatened because, “…no party wanted women candidates, particularly in a seat they had the slightest chance of winning” (33).

The book is structured all the way through on why women do not have equal representation in the United Nations and how the Commission on Human Rights focuses on the ‘Rights of Man’. The first section discusses the Barnard College Board of Trustees who, “do not find it appropriate for young female students to demonstrate politically in the streets” (15). This discrimination only encourages the low representation of women in politics, for the reason that they do not feel welcome, because they are told that it is not ‘ladylike’. Similar to how French women who helped with the resistance movement against the Nazis did not receive the same recognition as men. The book further discusses the gendered human rights text from the San Francisco Conference in 1945 to the vote of the UDHR in the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948.

Adami supports these arguments by providing another lens on the Declaration through the point of view of Easter countries such as India, Pakistan, China, etc. The proposal of a Commission on the Status of Women was opposed by Gildersleeve and Wu Yi-fang on behalf of China. Because they believed the wording of ‘everyone’ was enough instead of explicitly mentioning “women”. In their view, this will segregate women and men and create extra tasks for the Commission on Human Rights. However, the wording change in Article 8 of the Declaration included ‘men and women’ which was supported by Bertha Lutz, Latin America feminist. The argument of women’s rights being overbearing was opposed by Gildersleeve. She mentions to Lutz to respond back to the argument with a well-prepared speech at the debate because this will demonstrate why women should not have to ask for anything. Her speech included the following, “…. down to the Declaration of Rights, the preamble to the American Constitution, etc., you would find that men have never found it necessary to make a statement of their rights” (30).

The importance of women’s rights in India was supported by the Women’s India Association (WIA) which was founded in 1917 to represent all women of all class, caste or ethnicity. “Indian nationalists, including Gandhi, see it as women’s duty to support the Independence movement” (68). In addition, the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), founded in 1927 best represented the diversity of India women. “As illiteracy amongst women in India was as high as 98 percent in the thirties during colonial rule…” (68). Political participation has decreased because the population is illiterate and unaware of current state politics. For instance, the Dean of Barnard, Virginia Gildersleeve questioned why male employees at Columbia University were able to take a full year off with pay for sick leave, yet female employees who get pregnant are expected to drop their academics or be financially supported by their spouse. She enacted a maternity policy, “that provides one term off at full pay, or a year off at half-pay, for all female faculty” (16).  Hansa Mehta writes in Indian Woman that she wants women rights in India regarded by the state as individuals, not having their rights dependent on a husband or family.

Overall, the limitations of the book include solely writing about what is shown in the media in larger countries, such as the United States, United Kingdom, India, etc. The arguments in the book are weaved through powerful women leaders such as Virginia Gildersleeve and Hansa Mehta. Moreover, further research should include interviewing delegates from smaller countries to see their perspectives on women in politics, and how they pushed for a more inclusive language in human rights documents in their states. The writing style of the book is factual and included many examples of how women gained their rights through different countries. Women and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be of interest to those who are curious about the history of women’s rights.