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In Behalf of Equal Rights Treaty

February 7, 1928 — Unofficial Plenary Session, 6th Pan American Conference, Havana, Cuba


Honorable Delegates: —

We are met together on a great historic occasion. This is the first time in the history of the world that women are come before an international body to plead for treaty action on their rights.

We are met in this beautiful hall already consecrated to new ideals of Panamericanism. I ask you to look well at the moving tapestries which hang on these walls. Twenty-one medallions represent the 21 Republics assembled here today. What is the artist’s conception of each republic? It is a very simple concept. The splendid figures of two human beings: Man and Woman. The artist is right. That, in the last analysis, is all there is to a State: Man and Woman!

Behind us is another moving concept of the artist. Where a crown once symbolized autocratic authority, you now have substituted a golden Western Hemisphere ablaze with light. The torch of Freedom lights the golden replica of this hemisphere.

We could not, if we had searched far and wide, have found more beautiful beautiful and appropriate symbols to the subject matter on which we address you today. These are the symbols of a new world, of a new hemisphere — with new ideals as to that most important of all human relationships; the relationship between man and woman. Humanly stated, our thesis today is Man and Woman; the ultimate power in the world.

You have it in your power to make these symbols come alive. You can, here and now, if you will, take decisive action toward making men and women equal before the law in this hemisphere. We are in the hands of a friendly body. You have already declared unanimously your belief that men and women should be equal before and law. Today we propose a method of obtaining that equality.

Great laws are born of deep convictions. They are not made by technicians.

It is our deep convictions that we bring you today. But that is not all we bring you. We stand ready to work with you, as eminent jurists, through your appointed commission, to hasten the procedure of our proposal. For we do not come before you unprepared. We have studied carefully the merits of our proposal. And since with rare exception men cannot feel as we do, the sting of belonging to a group which is classed as inferior, we ask to be allowed authoritative power — not as auxiliaries but as colleagues — to consult between this Conference and the next with the sub-commission assigned to study the abolition of the present discriminations against women or until that legal subjection of women is abolished in the Americas. We shall not fold our standards until this subjection is removed. You might better act wisely and justly immediately on what you will only have eventually to do.

Since the beginning of time, men with the best of intentions, no doubt, have been writing laws for our good. Since the beginning of time, brave and valiant women have been abolishing these same laws written for our good.

There is no limit to what man wishes to do for our good. Last week press despatches [sic] from the United States carried the news that a husband and father had killed his wife, the mother of his children, and the children. When questioned as to his motives, he replied that he did it for their good:

The Associated Press despatch [sic] reported from a seaport in Algeria last week also, another example of man’s desire to protect woman for her good. For the Mahommedan Women’s good, custom does not permit them to bathe at the same time as men. Five women were drowned with the bath-house collapsed, while men were getting up their courage to break the man-made custom and enter the building reserved that day for women-bathers.

This, in the realm of custom, is the logical if absurd outcome of the iniquity of one code of conduct for women and another for men.

It is any wonder that enlightened women are in revolt today against acts done for their good? We want no more laws written for our good? We want no more laws written for our good and without our consent. We must have the right to direct our own destiny jointly with you.

For, you see, no man, no group of men, no government, no nation, no group of nations — ever had the right to withhold from us the rights we ask today. We ask to have restored, rights which have been usurped. These are our human rights.

From the year 1846, when the code of Estevan de Ferrater of Barcelona was proposed, to the year 1928 — eminent men from all corners of the earth have drafted and proposed codes of international law embracing among many subjects, articles relating to the status of women. They have however been preeminently codes for men. A study of these codes shows at first a few articles concerning the status of women appearing. Each proposed article on the status of women reflects the then existing backward social position she held. More and more points on the status of women, it is true, have been included in these codes through the intervening years, although no code has been proposed giving women equality with men. Are we to permit to grow this vast network of one code for men with special articles inserted for women? IF there were no free choice, it is conceivable that in two hundred years we might see our book-shelves staggering under the weight of a double stock of law books, heavy with special codes for women and special codes for men. It is even conceivable that in two hundred years a point would be reached where the codes for men and the codes for women might become identical. But we are not condemned to take risk. We can exercise free choice. We can stop this method of codification and begin to write now international aw for all human beings irrespective of sex.

Another danger which attends waiting upon evolution, lies in the fact that there is no marked tendency to take the most advanced law regarding women on each point. Though eminent jurists advocate and propose what they call “progressive codification”, it is not found to be so for women. The most distinguished jurists agree that codification should be a rehabilitation of law, and even a creation of new laws when public opinion demands it.

Furthermore, when public opinion demands it, newer and speedier methods are taken to reach a goal.

We have chosen the road we propose to travel. That right at least cannot be denied us today.

It is fitting that the American Continent should be the first union of republics to be asked for an equal rights treaty. The demand for women’s rights was born on this continent. Abigail Adams was, so far as we know, the first woman in modern history to write to her husband, John Adams, when the United States constitution was being formed after our war of independence: “While you are writing this new constitution, I pray you, do not forget the ladies. If you do, we shall foment a hot rebellion”. Again, it was in 1848 in the United States of America that our great pioneers called a congress and wrote a stirring declaration of our rights. This agitation continued until our civil war in 1861. Again, the women demanded their rights at the same time that they demanded freedom for the black saves. The slaves were freed. The women were not. It was not until 1919 that the political rights of women were written into our constitution.

It is not in our traditions to be content with what we have gained. It is not in our traditions to be laggards of liberty. The impulse to gather together our power and push on more rapidly, is strong in us.

We have chosen the treaty method because it is the most dignified. It is the easiest. It is the most permanent. It will not only abolish existing national and international inequalities. It will prevent new ones from being written. And lastly it obviates a cruel waste of energy. For we ought never be compelled to appeal for our rights to the most backward opinion in any State. Our appeal to the most select, the most cultivated, the most imaginative men in the world, should be welcomed, approved and answered in this most dignified method.

Some will tell us that rights of women lie exclusively in the domain of domestic law. This is purely a matter of opinion.

The extension of what was formerly considered purely domestic law into the domain of international law has been the most distinct feature of legal history in the last quarter of a century. There is every reason to believe that international action will expand to embrace more and more all the acts of humankind. Global action may come in the future. Our proposal lies in the current of our time.

You may delay it. You cannot stop it. We want to accelerate it.

Timid souls may say this has never been done. That answer does not move us. All compelling history of the world has been made by those who dared to establish great precedents, who adventured in unknown paths, who led the way. The men who follow are never remembered — it is those who lead, who direct the current of civilization.

There will be those who say: “Women’s rights are not a fit subject for treaty action”. To this we answer: “Discriminations against women have already been made the subject of action by convention by certain of the Americas and amongst European nations through the League of Nations. If discriminations against us as women on the sold ground of sex can be made the subject of international conventions, so can our rights.

Let us examine the treaty-making power of my own country. The treaty-making power of the United States is granted in the constitution without any express limitation as to the subject matter of the treaty. Limitations on the subject matter are only implied. They are undefined and not judicially determined. Since no treaty has ever been held unconstitutional by any court in the United States — federal or state — it cannot be given as more than a matter of opinion (not law) that the subject matter of our treaty would be so held. Everything written on the point of what is and what is not fit subject for treaty action — and there has been a mass of of opinion — is purely academic. It is obiter dicta. The best thought is that restraints on the treaty-making power ought to exist only in the concrete — not in the abstract.

Charles Henry Butler goes so far as to say that “It is still an undecided question whether the judicial department of the court has the power either to declare void a treaty made and ratified according to constitutional method or to declare that the executive and legislative departments of the government exceeded the power vested in them by the people”. (See Charles henry Butler “The Treaty-Making Power of the United States”. Vol. II, pp. 351-263. Also Woolsey “International Law” item 103, p. 160, 6 ed; also Ware V. Hylton — U.S. Sup. Court 1796 — 3 Dall. 199.)

Regarding the supremacy of a treaty over a conflicting state law, eminent jurists disagree. Time permitting, we could cite you opinions on each side of this controversy with the balance of modern opinion, perhaps, on the side of the supremacy of the national government. “The very words of our constitution imply that some treaties will be made in contravention of the law of the State, whether the legislative authority under which they are passed is concurrent with that of Congress, or exclusive of that of Congress”, says that eminent jurist Elihu Root (address made by Elihu Root at first annual meeting of the American Society of International Law …. American Journal International Law, Vol. I, pp. 278-283, April 1907.

Finally, your distinguished member, His Excellency Orestes Ferrara, said in his report on “Treaties” to the Commission on Public International Law last week — in reference to the code of Public International Law, drawn up by the Conference of Jurists at Rio de Janeiro, April 1927:

“In not a single clause has limitation as to the content of treaties been defined …. The will of contracting parties (to a treaty) has been left in complete and absolute liberty”.

We therefore offer you a treaty which we believe the United States Government and other governments  of Panamerica are fully empowered to enter into. Legal interpretations may offer barriers. The U. S. constitution states none.

Men may differ as to their willingness to accept the rights of women as proper subject matter for treaty action. To persuade them to our point of view is the task we have undertaken.

We can only touch upon these points here.

We shall hope to discuss them exhaustively with the commission appointed to study equal rights for women.

Our proposed method of establishing equal rights is not as revolutionary as you might think — revolutionary in thought perhaps, but not in international procedure.

At the first conference of the International Labor Office of the League of Nations, (Washington 1919) three out of seven conventions were written for women-workers on the ground of sex. The second conference (Genoa 1920) wrote conventions applying to both sexes (adults and children). At the Third Conference (Geneva 1921) more conventions were written for both sexes among adults and children. In 1927 (Geneva) the same office wrote conventions on sickness insurance for workers of both sexes.

These are but a few of many examples which prove two things. Jurists have written conventions making women unequal before international law. Jurists have written conventions making men and women equal before international law. There is no fixed policy — except as there is the general evasion of accepting the idea of laws for human beings. Some of the conventions are for women and children of one sex. Some are for women and children of both sexes. Some are for men and women. The result is not only an appalling hodge-podge. It is manifestly stupid and unfair to both adults and children.

How much simpler it would be to take our clear and decisive method! The result would be one body of conventions for adult men and women, and another for children of both sexes. There could then be a housecleaning of all the useless conventions based on the arbitrary factor of sex.

Conventions have been proposed and ratified regulating the hours of work of women, regulating the time of day when women shall work — as was done by the convention of the International Conference at Berne in 1906 — as was done by the Convention for the Unification of Protective Laws for Workmen and Laborers, signed February 7th, 1923 by Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica. For example, Article I of this convention signed by the five central American countries, stipulates the time of day wherein women shall be permitted to work. Will you tell us this can be done and at the same tell us that a treaty shall not be negotiated enabling adult women to choose their own times of work and their own occupations, which our treaty would enable them to do?

Again, will you tell us that the League of Nations (1921 Convention for Prevention of Traffic in Women and Children) can propose a convention for the suppression of the traffic in women, which convention is to date signed by ore than thirty-five countries in the world — and in the same breath tell us that a treaty cannot be negotiated for other women? Must we become sex-slaves before we can be judged fit subjects for action by convention? International action was not taken on this shameful traffic primarily because women are sold and transported from one country to another. You know as well as we do that that international contention was written because the moral conscience of the world demanded it.

May I say in passing that it is our firm belief that if women were not held in contempt before the law, were not held socially inferior and cheap in the eyes of society, this traffic would never exist. Unconventionality yes, but not traffic in women. It is our firm belief that so swiftly as you make us your equals, so swiftly will your international conventions written on this subject fall into disuse because they will not be necessary.

We find, then, that international conventions are in operation affecting the following groups of women:

1)      Women who work by day.
2)      Women who work by night.
3)      Women who are trafficked in.
4)      Women before and after childbirth.
5)      Women who are ill and proposed for
6)      Women who marry aliens.

Is it not folly to continue on this piece-meal path? Leave aside for a moment the justice of our claim. Leave aside all legal procedure, which is not always synonymous with common sense. Does not plain, homely common-sense compel you to embrace by treaty action now, the rights of all women and scrap all this idiotic segregation of women in conventions? Does not wisdom call to you to save yourselves and ourselves from further bulky, cumbersome, unjust international action? We hope they do.

Some of the delegates have advised us not to propose an equal rights treaty at this time. “This treaty will call up legal and juridical difficulties, and you will be defeated”. Our answer to this is, gentlemen, that if you find our proposal difficult, that is your misfortune. IF statesmen avoid all questions because they are difficult, nothing vital will ever be accomplished. The first requisite is to agree on the broad, general principle of equality between men and women set forth in the proposed treaty, and if your heart is in that agreement, your intelligence will settle the technical difficulties. On the point of defeat, this must be said: a defeat of the treaty will be your defeat — not ours.

There is another point we would like to call to your attention. Since working with this Conference, we have heard the opinion expressed — I regret to say — by one of our compatriots, that equal rights may be all right for the women of North America, but that the women of Latin America are not yet ready for them. We women resent and disbelieve in any hint of sectional superiority. It may ne that there is a hope implied that, although we women of North America may be out of hand, the women of Latin America may still be kept under legal subjection. We do not believe that the men of North America are called upon to be tender protectors of the women of Latin America.

We do not look with approval upon this attempt to divide women. Our subjection is world-wide. The abolition of our subjection will be accomplished by world-wide solidarity of women. Furthermore, we have not noticed that the men of the northern and the southern Americas are reluctant to unite in Panamericanism because there may exist different customs, differing attitudes of mind toward your mutual problems. The unwarranted presumption is again: one code of conduct for women, another for men.

We bear witness today before you to the growing solidarity among the women of the Americas.

This Conference will long be remembered by what it does here for the women of the Americas. Nothing you gentlemen will do during this conference will be of such far-reaching importance as the action you will take toward the liberty of women. Nothing will so distinguish you for all time as to abandon at once all separate codes of law for men and women and to substitute in their place the great principle making women equal with men before the law.

We want to be your peers, your helpmates, your partners in the great adventure of life. These we shall be in a properly civilized society. You can hasten that day.

So long as inequality before the law exists between men and women, less is expected of women by men. Less is expected by women of themselves. This in turn affects our whole body of opinion, our whole culture. Less courage, less balance in judgment, a lower standard of public spirit, and indifference in international cooperation. This is the reward of inequality. This is a menace to men as well as to women. To expect less is to receive less. We stand ready to give all of our abilities to society, not our limited, restricted abilities. Do you want less?

Will you welcome the opportunity, or will you hesitate? Will you condemn us further to the ignoble, unworthy, unlovely procedure of begging every laggard in our hemisphere to concur before action is taken, or will you men whom we choose to call our intellectual equals release us by your acts?

We ask for immediate recommendation by the Conference of the proposed Equal Rights Treaty, a tentative draft of which we now present to you. This treaty was drawn up by Alice Paul, of the U.S., beloved feminist leader and distinguished scholar of international law.

We have gold you what we want. The rest is up to you. Who will be the first country to dare to trust its women with that degree of equality which will come through the negotiation of the treaty? Which country among you will claim this honor?

Panamericanism will move a swifter, lovelier, more rythmic [sic] pace, if men and women run together.



Source: Sixth International Conference of American States, La Habana, 1928. Final act, p. 123.


Also: Personal and professional papers of Doris Stevens, Harvard University. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Cambridge MA