The concept of equal rights for women has been around for more than 200 years, ever since Mary Wollstonecraft published her essay, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” in 1792. “Equal rights for men and women” was included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations in 1948.
Finally in 1979, the U.N. passed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which requires all signers to promote gender equality in law and practice. But the U.S. is one of a handful of countries that never signed CEDAW.
When it came up for a vote in Congress in 1981, notoriously racist, sexist, anti-gay bigot Strom Thurmond led the reactionary charge against it. And though President George W. Bush is said to have considered reintroducing it in the early 2000s — probably to bolster the argument that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was needed to free women there — that never happened.
No wonder a slew of new sociological studies show that the U.S. is outrageously, totally behind the times when it comes to gender equality. Family historian Stephanie Coontz, writing in the Feb. 17 Sunday Review of the New York Times, reports that the U.S. is one of only eight countries out of 188 countries, and the only major industrialized country, that does not offer paid maternity leave.
Rather, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to both women and men after a child’s birth, adoption or in cases of family illness. But only half the U.S. work force is eligible for unpaid leave, and many of them cannot afford to take it.
The Society of Human Resources Management noted in 2002 that 30 percent of the largest U.S. corporations offered some form of paid leave to some employees, though that’s a tiny percentage of the total work force. California, New Jersey and Washington state also offer some form of tax-funded paid leave.
In contrast, according to the newly published book “Children’s Chances” by public health researcher Jody Heymann, 180 countries guarantee paid leave to new mothers, with 81 of them also offering it to fathers. China, Canada, Cuba and most European countries provide 26 or more weeks. Australia, the majority of countries in Africa and South America, and a few countries in Asia, like Vietnam, provide 15 to 25 weeks. The rest offer 14 weeks.