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Baldez, Lisa. Defying Convention: U.S. Resistance to the U.N. Treaty on Women’s Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 249.

Reviewed by: Wendy O’Brien (School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts & Education, Deakin University)

In Defying Convention, Lisa Baldez provides a thorough and compelling analysis of the complexities that underpin the United States’ reluctance to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The second most ratified treaty in the world, CEDAW, enshrines rights that are now a global norm. Yet, the United States, a global leader on human rights, and a key party to the drafting of CEDAW, continues to be deeply divided on the issue of ratification.

Noon Guest Ms. Rosario Manalo, Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, will brief on some of the main outcomes and themes of the work of the CommitteeÕs current session.

Press Briefing by CEDAW Chairperson. photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

In six substantive chapters, Baldez addresses three central questions: the historical and geopolitical processes by which women’s rights have come to constitute a global norm; the processes by which CEDAW implements this norm; and the reasons why the United States remains impervious to the diffusion of this global norm. The final question dominates the study, and culminates in a cogent argument about the material benefit that ratification would have for American women.

Carefully situating her analysis within the shifting geopolitical landscape over several decades, Baldez identifies that contemporary global conditions are relatively congenial to United States’ ratification. Globally, the women’s movement has increased in visibility and strength. With a widespread ratification and the support of a large coalition of NGOs, CEDAW is increasingly understood as “a powerful tool to effect change on the international and domestic levels” (p. 152). While this is a victory in terms of the global diffusion of women’s rights, it is these very conditions, as Baldez argues, that have deepened opposition to CEDAW among conservative elements within the United States. Baldez is clear that it is domestic opposition to CEDAW that has prevented ratification of this convention.

Baldez provides a thorough account of the divisions that have now spanned more than 25 years by drawing on interviews with CEDAW’s supporters and opponents, as well as meticulous analysis of transcripts from the four Senate Committee hearings in which ratification was considered. Baldez identifies that, in addition to the fact that CEDAW is a deeply partisan issue, progress toward ratification is hindered by the existence of divergent views among women’s organisations about the likely impact of ratification. Women’s organisations and others in favour of CEDAW, including those in progressive organisations and some CEDAW advocates in government, argue that ratification would consolidate the United States’ global leadership on human rights, thus ensuring that the United States sends a message to the world that all women are entitled to the same rights that American women currently enjoy. As Baldez and other proponents of CEDAW suggest, ratification would mitigate claims that the United States holds the world to a standard on women’s rights, from which the United States itself remains exempt.

Women’s organisations that oppose CEDAW do so because they perceive that international involvement in domestic affairs will adversely impact the freedoms enjoyed by American women. Strong grassroots campaigns by conservative groups have proven influential in arguing that ratification would compromise American sovereignty, and would herald an era of social engineering inconsistent with the American way of life. Baldez recounts, for example, the spurious representation by Concerned Women For America (CWA) that CEDAW posed an imminent threat to the celebration of Mother’s Day. In this case, CWA had misrepresented the CEDAW committee’s communication to Belarus about the importance of avoiding sex-role stereotypes that prevent women’s access to the labour market (the Belarusian support for Mother’s Day had been cited by the committee as an unhelpful gesture in challenging traditional gender roles). By mobilizing arguments such as this, groups that oppose CEDAW have, with some success, framed CEDAW as a culturally inappropriate intervention that will compromise American values and freedoms.

SG meeting with Ms. Nicole Ameline (Chairperson, CEDAW)

Secretary-General Meets Chair of CEDAW. photo credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

Baldez goes on to identify that political structures in the United States exacerbate the impact of domestic opposition of this kind. The institutional rules governing treaty ratification in the United States make it more difficult to ratify treaties in the United States than almost anywhere in the world. Ratification of CEDAW would require Presidential support, and the vote of two-thirds of the Senate. With such a high threshold for treaty ratification, divisions among women’s groups have largely stymied progress towards ratification.

Baldez astutely identifies that the arguments of  those in favour, and those opposed, rest on the same misconception. This misconception is that American women have little to gain from ratification, as they already enjoy all the rights that CEDAW guarantees. Baldez counters this assumption in her excellent final chapter. Here, Baldez examines the limitations of constitutional protections for women’s rights and, using domestic violence as a compelling case study, argues that ratification of CEDAW would provide women with a much-needed basis for legal protection from sex-based discrimination in the private sphere. In this chapter, Baldez brings her analysis to fulsome conclusion and it is here that she makes the greatest contribution to feminist legal scholarship and to constitutional legal theory. The study offers much that will interest feminists, women’s rights advocates, and those with an interest in legal responses to domestic violence and violence against women generally.

March for Gender Equality and Women's Right

International Women’s Day March for Gender Equality and Women’s Rights. photo credit: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz.

More broadly, the analysis provided by Baldez serves as a reminder of the powerful role that sovereignty and domestic law play in decisions about treaty ratification. The fundamental tension between global standards and domestic systems of governance is given particular focus in the context of the United States’ ongoing reluctance to ratify an international convention that more or less aligns with American values. Baldez makes a convincing argument that the difficulty that the United States has had in ratifying CEDAW serves as a useful case study, through which we might gain enhanced understanding of the practical barriers to human rights treaty ratification and compliance. The breadth of the study will be of interest to human rights scholars and advocates more generally, and particularly to theorists of treaty ratification.

In all, Baldez offers a detailed historical account of the multi-faceted arguments regarding CEDAW’s ratification, and sheds much needed light on the extent to which women’s rights engage competing interests and conflicting agendas domestically and internationally. Finally, by tracing the sources of deep-seated opposition to CEDAW, and illustrating that the United States’ failure to ratify results in compromised human rights protections for American women, Baldez illustrates just how necessary CEDAW is as a convention to enshrine women’s rights as global norms.