At a gathering in Kenya in 1985, Angela Davis explained her definition of feminism by citing an event happening just down the road: “When Maureen Reagan comes to Nairobi to represent the United States of America, she does not represent me!” The President’s daughter had been named co-chair of the US delegation to the United Nations World Conference on Women in Nairobi, and Davis was quick to point out the hypocrisy of an administration claiming global leadership on women’s rights while curtailing basic reproductive freedoms at home.
Activists have long, and rightfully, criticized US participation in international women’s conferences as empty rhetoric, but these convenings have also catalyzed major changes in US foreign policy since the 1970s. With another global gender summit on the horizon — the second leg of the Generation Equality Forum (GEF), kicking off in Paris today — it’s worth reflecting on how these types of events have advanced concrete commitments to gender equality.
The GEF builds on four UN World Conferences on Women hosted between 1975 and 1995 where governments convened to stake out a global agenda for women’s rights, and parallel NGO forums served as fertile ground for a growing transnational feminist movement. They were valuable platforms for public diplomacy, giving the United States a stage to articulate its vision of equality — a matter of serious national interest during the Cold War when women’s issues were a contentious ideological battleground between the West and the Soviet bloc. While publicly the US delegations trumpeted American women’s many legal and professional achievements, and at times manipulated procedural rules to undermine Soviet provisions, behind the scenes these conferences helped create the institutions and agency frameworks that govern US defense, diplomacy, and development today. Each one provided a critical opening for feminists both inside and outside government to nudge the issue of gender equality ever higher on the US foreign policy agenda.
The speech echoed back in Washington, and historian Karen Garner writes that the 1995 conference “transformed government policy language.”
The first World Conference on Women in Mexico City coincided with the UN’s International Women’s Year: 1975. Each US federal department was directed to devise a plan for marking the occasion, and though some were comically shallow — the Department of Interior’s “Woman of the Month” award — they forced US agencies to assess where women sat in their mandates and personnel. United States participation in the conference itself got off to a rocky start, when USAID Administrator Daniel Parker’s remarks met with loud complaints that a man had been sent to represent American women. Between interruptions, he highlighted recent policy changes that had been finalized just in time to promote, like the creation of USAID’s Office of Women in Development in 1974.
Ahead of the 1980 World Conference on Women in Copenhagen, the State Department solicited broad public input. Nearly 4,000 people attended outreach events across the country to discuss strategies to advance the global status of women, a rare pathway for widespread civil society engagement with foreign policymakers. President Carter even signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), though its ratification has been repeatedly blocked in the Senate since. The 1980 conference focused on research, data, and reporting. For the US government, this included a comprehensive policy paper on the links between development and women’s rights, which was released in 1982 and charted a new course for the integration of women into foreign aid programs. Both the 1980 and 1985 conferences elaborated new international standards, pushing the United States and other nations to establish new offices and funding streams in response.
The 1995 Beijing Conference featured the highest-profile American representative yet, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who gave an enduring keynote speech that cemented a slogan activists had been pushing for years: “Women’s rights are human rights.” The speech echoed back in Washington, and historian Karen Garner writes that the 1995 conference “transformed government policy language.” It also transformed practice and programs. President Clinton created an Interagency Council on Women in the White House to implement the Beijing Platform for Action, the State Department instructed embassies to include women’s issues in their standard reporting and mandated it in annual human rights reports, USAID formally committed to gender mainstreaming its operations and funneled millions of dollars of new funds to women’s participation in democracy, girls’ education, and economic empowerment programs. By the time Madeleine Albright was appointed the first female Secretary of State in 1996, she could say “Advancing the status of women is […] being actively integrated into the foreign policy of the United States. It is our mission.”
Unlike previous world conferences, this summer’s GEF is a “champions only” convening, a platform to pledge new commitments to women’s rights that bypasses the states unlikely to support progressive calls to action. While this means there won’t be a global consensus document, it could spark competition in funding announcements, and see potential agreement on new accountability mechanisms. It offers a chance for the United States to keep up with neighbors Canada and Mexico — which each have a “Feminist Foreign Policy” — by announcing the kind of transformative and ambitious foreign policy initiatives that NGO coalitions have recommended to the Biden administration, from substantial increases in the percentage of foreign aid earmarked for women’s rights groups to gender analysis of trade agreements and immigration reform. Like its precursors, the GEF could raise the bar yet again, pressuring countries to turn rhetorical promises into real change.
Rebecca Turkington is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and PhD candidate in History at the University of Cambridge. She previously worked on gender and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security