Document Type


Date of Degree

Fall 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Schoen, Johanna

Second Advisor

Gotkowitz, Laura

First Committee Member

Hoenicke Moore, Michaela

Second Committee Member

Gobat, Michel

Third Committee Member

Kramer, Paul


This dissertation analyzes how transnational feminist advocacy and ideas about gender shaped modern human rights doctrines that remain central to this day. After World War II, United Nations delegates drafted and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). During this process, international feminist activists disagreed about how to incorporate women's long-standing rights claims into the emerging human rights framework. Fiery interwar debates about laws and standards that regulated female labor persisted, prompting influential U.S. feminists to oppose the inclusion of gender-specific rights. To challenge U.S. opposition, key delegates to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) forged an unofficial coalition. Despite the fact that these CSW delegates held competing ideas about gender and represented distinct national governments, they collectively crafted a significant but little-known women's human rights agenda and lobbied UDHR drafters to adopt it. Their proposals not only included political and civil rights, but also promoted particular economic and social rights for women as a group. They maintained, for instance, that child care and maternity leave should be obligations of the state. Indeed, the CSW insisted that recognition of their women's human rights agenda was essential to building a socially-just postwar order.

While Anglo-American women dominated interwar NGOs, the CSW showcased myriad international voices and won critical allies among liberal and conservative UN delegations by linking the advance of women's human rights to notions of modernity and democracy. As a result, the CSW made substantial political and civil rights gains, such as the guarantee of equal rights in marriage and divorce. Yet feminist delegates had to juggle their internationally-minded agenda with the interests they were to serve as national representatives. This task was further complicated by nascent Cold War politics and a growing anti-feminist backlash at the UN. In this context, UDHR drafters ultimately rejected the CSW's call for women's economic and social rights--a "social revolution" for women--in favor of the perceived stability of the "traditional" family. By the early 1950s, anti-communist pressures led the CSW to sever the pursuit of women's rights from the developing human rights framework at the UN. Feminists' absence from the UN human rights debates over the next several decades removed a forceful challenge to U.S.-led efforts to privilege political and civil rights over economic and social rights, and fostered a tacit hierarchy of rights that persists to this day.

This dissertation places the CSW's competing vision of universal human rights at the center of the postwar human rights project, and expands our understanding of the history of international women's activism and human rights. By analyzing official UN records, delegates' papers and memoirs, and the records of governmental and non-governmental organizations, it reveals that postwar human rights advocacy was critically shaped by women's activism of the interwar period. Furthermore, this dissertation demonstrates that the CSW's demands for women's rights shaped the context from which the universal human rights framework emerged. Indeed, feminist activism and debates about the rights of women influenced UDHR drafters' views about human rights in ways that expanded, but also significantly curtailed postwar human rights standards. As a result, feminist activists continue to fight today for full recognition of women's rights as human rights.


Commission on the Status of Women, feminism, human rights, United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women's activism


viii, 431 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 414-431).


Copyright © 2012 Jo Ella Butterfield

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