United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United Nations General Assembly expanded its commitments to universal political equality for women by formulating a convention on women’s electoral and office-holding rights.

Summary of Event

At its inception following World War II, the United Nations assumed declaratory commitments to the preservation and expansion of human rights. The charter of the United Nations listed the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms among the chief purposes of the new international organization, and both the preamble to the charter and its first article affirmed that such rights were held equally by men and women. United Nations;women’s rights[womens rights] Women;political and legal rights Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952) [kw]United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved (Dec. 20, 1952) [kw]Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved, United Nations (Dec. 20, 1952) [kw]Political Rights of Women Is Approved, United Nations Convention on the (Dec. 20, 1952) [kw]Rights of Women Is Approved, United Nations Convention on the Political (Dec. 20, 1952) [kw]Women Is Approved, United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of (Dec. 20, 1952) United Nations;women’s rights[womens rights] Women;political and legal rights Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952) [g]North America;Dec. 20, 1952: United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved[03990] [g]United States;Dec. 20, 1952: United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved[03990] [c]United Nations;Dec. 20, 1952: United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved[03990] [c]Women’s issues;Dec. 20, 1952: United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved[03990] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 20, 1952: United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved[03990] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 20, 1952: United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved[03990] Lie, Trygve Bernardino, Minerva

Empowered by this charter, which included these general statements on the principle of political equality, the United Nations General Assembly convened its first session in 1946. The assembly was immediately confronted with the fact that some of its member states had not yet extended to their female populations political rights equal to those enjoyed by males. To address this situation, Denmark’s delegation to the United Nations presented a draft resolution, or policy proposal, to the General Assembly in late 1946. The proposal recommended that all United Nations member states permit women to run for political office and to participate in elections on an equal basis with men. The debate that followed gained some urgency when the U.N. Economic and Social Council Economic and Social Council, U.N. gathered statistics indicating that, although 70 percent of United Nations member states had granted women the franchise, 20 percent had not, and 10 percent had placed special conditions and limitations on women’s voting rights that did not apply to men residing in the same country.

In considering the Danish proposal, member countries differed widely on what action the United Nations should take. Some argued that Denmark’s proposal was too narrow because it did not address economic or legal issues; others, including the United States, resisted the proposed resolution on the grounds that it was only a restatement of principles already contained in the U.N. charter and that therefore its passage would have no effect. There was, however, general acceptance of the view that political discrimination against women solely on the basis of gender was inconsistent with the charter’s declarations on equality.

On December 11, 1946, the General Assembly had adopted its first resolution primarily concerned with women’s enfranchisement, the Resolution on the Political Rights of Women Resolution on the Political Rights of Women, U.N. (1946) . This declaration called on United Nations member states that had not granted women equal political rights to do so. At the same time, the Economic and Social Council established the Commission on the Status of Women, Commission on the Status of Women, U.N. a new body within the United Nations that monitored women’s progress toward equality under the national laws of United Nations member states and provided information on relevant developments to the General Assembly.

Following the December, 1946, resolution, the new commission faced a dilemma: Although the General Assembly could adopt prescriptive resolutions, the U.N. charter expressly precluded the organization from intervening in matters that lay within the domestic jurisdiction of member states. Thus, although the General Assembly had passed the resolution on political equality, neither the Commission on the Status of Women nor any other U.N. body could compel member states not in compliance to implement the resolution. Nevertheless, from early 1947 the commission resolved to give the highest priority to the issue of political equality for both genders, and it developed a twofold policy strategy. Annual reviews of the legal, social, economic, and political impediments to women’s equality in all United Nations member states were produced, and in 1949 the commission initiated an effort to draw up a binding international instrument under which governments would commit themselves to guaranteeing women equal rights of political participation. This initiative culminated in the promulgation of the Convention on the Political Rights of Women in 1952.

Between 1947 and 1952, however, an extended debate arose at the United Nations over the issues connected with the full enfranchisement of women. The Commission on the Status of Women consulted with a number of nongovernmental organizations such as the International Federation of University Women, the International Cooperative Women’s Guild, and the World Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and its reports revealed not only the extent of women’s exclusion from electoral politics but also a pattern of officially sanctioned economic and racial discrimination in member states of the United Nations.

Government officials from these states often confirmed the findings, arguing that special circumstances justified their policies. In 1947, for example, the Guatemalan government told the commission that enfranchisement provisions of its domestic legislation did not apply to native inhabitants of non-European origin because “their cultural level is not yet sufficiently developed.” Governments responsible for administering trust and colonial territories were also reluctant to approve the enfranchisement of women in those areas. New Zealand, often commended for extending the vote to its female citizens as early as 1893, prevented women of non-European origin from voting in its trusteeship territory of the Samoan Islands.

The Belgian example of electoral restrictions on women is representative of many of the issues debated at the United Nations in the early 1950’s. In Belgium, all women could vote in municipal elections, but only mothers and widows of World War I-era soldiers and female deportees of that time could vote in national elections. No similar conditions were applied to men. Belgium also refused to accept the principle of political equality in its African territories, claiming that local conditions and the “stage of development of the indigenous populations” made democratic equality impossible there.

The problems of European states’ colonial possessions and the political rights of their inhabitants were never successfully addressed by the Commission on the Status of Women. In order not to impede progress toward drafting a new convention, the commission decided to decouple the question of political rights for women in signatory states from the issue of political rights for women living in dependent or colonial territories. With this compromise in place, United Nations agencies, including the commission, were able in 1951 to make strides toward a new, binding convention.

At its fifth session in 1951, the commission recommended that a draft be prepared of an international legal instrument that would assure women in signatory states of equal political rights. This new document differed from the 1946 resolution in one important aspect: Member states of the United Nations would be requested to sign and ratify this convention, thus undertaking responsibility for upholding its provisions in all of their domestic legislation.

On October 2, 1951, United Nations secretary-general Trygve Lie circulated the text of a draft convention, requesting comments and reactions from member states. Canada, the United States, and Great Britain all argued against the proposed convention, citing its limited scope, technical questions about the wording of the draft, and the need for education about equality, not new legal requirements. Other states, such as Iceland and the Republic of China (Taiwan), fully endorsed the proposal. In the General Assembly, where the one-country, one-vote principle applied, a loose coalition of European, Asian, and American countries cast their ballots in favor of promulgating the convention, which was adopted by the General Assembly on December 20, 1952.

The final draft of the convention thus approved would be binding only on those countries that subsequently chose to accede to it. Its provisions included two articles declaring that women would be entitled to vote in all elections on the same terms as men and would be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies. A third article required that women be entitled to hold appointed offices and to exercise all public functions established by national law on equal terms with men.

Significance

The 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women was of greatest importance as a symbolic statement of the principle of political equality rather than as a catalyst for United Nations member states to overhaul their discriminatory domestic legislation or for governing states to alter the terms of their rule over territories and possessions. In 1968, the International Year of Human Rights, the Commission on the Status of Women reviewed the developments since 1952 and noted with regret that only half of the United Nations member states had ratified or acceded to the 1952 convention; a total of fifty-four countries had formally accepted the obligations it imposed.

Among those states that had not signed the convention was the United States, which based its continuing rejection of the document on its third article. U.S. officials argued that accession to the convention would enable women in the U.S. armed forces to engage in combat duty. Although many countries chose not to accede formally to the 1952 convention, United Nations figures gathered in 1968 indicated that by then 120 countries, including almost all the newly independent states, had adopted domestic legislation that granted women most of the rights embodied in the convention. The exceptions to this general trend toward enfranchisement included states such as Portugal, which imposed special taxation or educational qualifications on female voters, and a number of predominantly Islamic countries, including Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, which barred women from voting and holding public office.

Although the formal adoption by the General Assembly of the convention in 1952 stimulated the general trend toward greater political equality for women, its significance as a precedent for subsequent human and women’s rights enactments by the United Nations is of even greater importance. The 1952 convention was the first international treaty under which signatories assumed legal obligations concerning the exercise by women of domestic political rights, as well as the first instrument in which the U.N. charter’s statements on gender equality were applied to a particular political problem.

After the convention’s promulgation, U.N. agencies such as the Economic and Social Council and the International Labor Organization, supplementing the pioneering work of the Commission on the Status of Women, chaired beginning in 1953 by Minerva Bernardino, investigated a broad array of technical, economic, and social issues of special importance for women’s lives. From these investigations and continuous monitoring of marriage laws, education and employment opportunities, and family planning and health care regulations emerged a variety of new policy initiatives designed to protect women’s positions throughout the world. Indeed, in a number of U.N. covenants and policy declarations since 1952, the basic provisions of the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women have been repeated and expanded.

The clearest example of the impact of the 1952 convention on subsequent U.N. activities emerged in the late 1960’s. In 1966, the United Nations approved the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, U.N. (1966) which incorporated the fundamental elements of the earlier convention. Most important, in November, 1967, the General Assembly approved the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, U.N. (1967) which was a comprehensive statement of the many antidiscriminatory policies approved by the United Nations since the late 1940’s. This document, updated and rewritten as a U.N. convention in 1979, traces its origins directly to the 1952 convention and serves as a catalog of the fields in which the United Nations has pressed for the extension of full and equal rights for women throughout the world. Although the limitations on the United Nations’ power to compel its member states to implement its decisions remain in force, the organization has successfully framed statements such as the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women that have had broad and lasting impacts as precedents for international legislation on basic human rights and gender equality. United Nations;women’s rights[womens rights] Women;political and legal rights Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, April. The Politics of Women’s Rights. New York: Longman, 1988. Presents a focused discussion of the forms and consequences of political discrimination against women in the post-World War II era. Primarily concerned with the British context, but also discusses legal changes affecting women’s status implemented by the European Economic Community and its European Court of Justice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Federova, Masha, and Willem-Jan van der Wolf, eds. The United Nations and the Protection of the Rights of Women. Vol. 1. Nijmegen, the Netherlands: Wolf Legal, 2005. Contains selected documents on women’s global equality, beginning in 1945, the year the United Nations was created, until 1985. Includes texts of the major conventions, treaties, and declarations; selected resolutions of the U.N. bodies; reports; and other relevant documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, June C. Women, Men, and the International Division of Labor. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983. Outlines the particularities of women’s political and economic status in the global context. Identifies many of the chief issues with which U.N. agencies and policy declarations have been concerned since the late 1940’s and on which debate on the promulgation of the 1952 convention focused.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Osmanczyk, Edmund Jan. The Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements. Edited by Anthony Mango. 3d ed. 4 vols. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis, 2003. Provides brief but detailed entries on a variety of international organizations and enactments relevant to women’s political rights. Includes entries on the history of the international movement for women’s political equality and on a number of U.N. initiatives to improve women’s political and economic status.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sieghart, Paul. The International Law of Human Rights. New York: Clarendon Press, 1983. General survey of international human rights legislation that outlines the framework within which United Nations activities and initiatives in the field are introduced. Discussions of the nature and limitations of international legal instruments and of the relationship between sovereign governments and international organizations are vital to an understanding of the utility of United Nations enactments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.N. General Assembly. International Human Rights Instruments of the United Nations, 1948-1982. Pleasantville, N.Y.: UNIFO, 1983. Contains texts of most of the major international conventions and protocols approved by the United Nations before 1982 that are related to the affirmation of fundamental human rights and women’s equality.

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