Women’s Wrongs: Feminism’s Gains Are Washing Away

But we're too busy trashing Sheryl Sandberg to notice

Last week, PBS premiered Makers, a documentary about the history of the American women’s movement. The film shows how rapidly American women’s rights advanced between 1955 and 1975. There’s Dusty Roads demanding that “stewardesses” be able to keep their jobs after they turned 32; there is Kathrine Switzer getting shoved by the organizer of the Boston Marathon for daring to be the first female to run; and there are Bella and Barbara and Gloria, arm in arm, marching in the streets with thousands, banners waving, demanding, demanding, demanding.

Those demanders are grandmotherly now, or gone. The program ends on a downbeat: with former Nixon protégé Monica Crowley and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer talking about how feminism isn’t for them, like Groucho Marx not wanting to be a member of a club that would invite him in.

Today’s feminist fallback position is to bicker and eat its own. Now Sheryl Sandberg is up for a beat-down. If her name were Jack Welch, Ms. Sandberg would be carried around Michael’s Restaurant on a litter for writing a blockbuster telling women how to get rich and powerful. But Maureen Dowd used her Sunday bully pulpit last week to accuse her of using “the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself.”

Please.

How did we get to this place where we pick apart our own best and brightest, rather than focusing our energy on gender parity in Congress and the boardroom?

The Makers documentary makes clear that the women’s movement lost its focus trying to nurture differences rather than insisting on three or four basic rights that apply to all women, everywhere. It fell apart under charges of being elitist, not welcoming enough of minorities, the poor, or lesbians.

But women of all classes and ethnicities benefit from equality, a violence-free existence, reproductive freedom and the right to support oneself economically.

Last week’s passage of the Violence Against Women Act was an encouraging step in returning the U.S. to a place of leadership on women’s rights. The act requires the U.S. to make violence against women a diplomatic priority.

But the U.S. remains the only Western industrialized nation not to have ratified CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, sometimes described as an international bill of rights for women.

Countries that ratify CEDAW commit to incorporate principles of gender equality into their legal systems and to abolish all discriminatory laws in their countries. The U.N. ratified CEDAW in 1979, a generation ago, and 187 countries have signed on. America stands with Iran, Sudan and Somalia in not having signed it.

As Zainab Salbi, a global women’s rights leader and founder of Women for Women International, has put it: “American failure to ratify CEDAW at home presents a severe challenge to its credibility in any efforts to promote women’s human rights abroad.”

Last month, new Secretary of State John Kerry pledged in his Senate confirmation hearings to support CEDAW. After three female secretaries of state who could not muster U.S. muscle behind this important issue, it’s about time.

The United States should be a world leader in standing up against the sex-selecting practices in India and China that have led to huge imbalances in the numbers of men in those countries. The lack of women in India, where there are a whopping 37 million more males than females, has been blamed as one of the causes of the recent upsurge in sexual violence in that nation.

Instead, the climate in America is such that when a petition passed around Congress seeking support for women wanting to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, it garnered only 14 signatures—all from female lawmakers.

This year, we pull our troops out of Afghanistan. That’s a good thing, but in negotiating a peace with the Taliban, we leave millions of Afghan women vulnerable to a laundry list of abuses that include publicly accepted beatings, torture and mutilation of women who run afoul of Taliban strictures. Incredibly, the human rights of women are not on the negotiating table, bypassed in favor of our more pressing need to get billions of dollars of equipment safely out of the country.

There is a planet on which a Hollywood boob song might actually be funny. It’s one where women fill half the House and Senate, and half the CEO chairs in the Fortune 500. It’s a world where our government strongly and regularly places sanctions on horrific gender-based human rights violations instead of excusing them on the basis of culture and tradition.

But that’s not the world we live in.

editorial@observer.com