SOAS University of London

Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy

Women and the UN Charter

UN Women in the News:

Student, Maria Eugenia Granjo Redondo tells us Why Women and the UN Project with Portuguese Translation (pdf; 30kb)  

Bertha Lutz and the creation of the UN (pdf; 106kb) - with Portugese translation by Student, Lidia Matias.

Gender Equality in the UN Charter: How did it get there? Does this matter today?

Women’s Equality is in the UN Charter Because of the Actions of Women from the South

In 1945 the UN Charter became the first international document to inscribe the rights of men and women as part of fundamental human rights. This is the reason why the UN today has a clear legal mandate to actively promote the rights of women, a mandate that UN Women was established to realize and protect. Who are we to honor for the specific references to women’s rights in the Charter? Ask even specialists how gender equality came about, and the answer is generally: "Was it Eleanor Roosevelt?”

The San Francisco conference in 1945 where the Charter was signed, was dominated by men. Out of 850 delegates, only four women signed the Charter. And of the 50 countries represented, women only had voting rights in 30 of them. Ensuring women’s rights was a hard fought battle.

Agency from outside the Great Powers was critical as women from non-western countries played a pivotal role in ensuring that women were explicitly mentioned in the United Nations charter. Female delegates from Brazil, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and female participants from Mexico, Venezuela and Australia promoted feminist views that demanded an explicit reference to women’s rights in the Charter. Research reveals that it was one person in particular that would not stand back, that continued to claim the need to reference women, it was the Brazilian delegate Dr Bertha Lutz. In her memoirs she assert that other female delegates from the United States and the United Kingdom told her "not to ask for anything for women in the Charter since that would be a very vulgar thing to do”. Luckily for the world, Bertha Lutz was not willing to back down on her demands on the reference to women.

The presence of women in major policy-making roles present at San Francisco is itself a significant chapter in the history of women at the United Nations, but a closer look at the debates and details of this reveals complexities and nuances that might not be immediately obvious. The experience of women in the early United Nations raises important and often difficult questions about gender, feminism, and the focus on women’s concerns in early United Nations politics that continue to inform academic and policy-making debate today.

While some of the female participants strongly identified as ‘militant feminists’ - seeing women’s equality and discrimination against women as a distinct issue that needed to be addressed. Others preferred a more general egalitarian approach that de-emphasized gender in favor of a stronger ‘meritocracy’ approach, arguing that ‘we are not "women delegates”’ - that is, that they were regular delegates who just happened to be women. Some supported the creation of a separate Commission on the Status of Women, while others shied away from it, seeing it as a risk of ‘segregating’ them from other human rights concerns.

The fact that these tensions were keenly felt at the very creation of the modern United Nations - and that Southern women delegates played a significant role in establishing the institution as it is today - deserves recognition, and greater attention.

By having defended women’s rights in a context of intimidation and dissuasion, those delegates are role models, not only for Southern women, but for all women and girls around the world.

This is part of the larger project on UN History for the Future.

UN Women

SOAS students discuss the role of women in the UN Charter at the UNOG Library

Students from SOAS University of London have participated in a panel discussion on the role of women in the UN Charter at the UNOG Library in Geneva on 8 February. The seminar focused on how gender equality was included in the Charter and why it matters today. SOAS MA candidates in International Studies and Diplomacy, Elise Luhr Dietrichson, Fatima Sator and Hibatallah Talal Al Saud along with Dan Plesch, Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD) at SOAS, discussed the role of the four women who campaigned to include women's rights in the charter.

Elise Luhr Dietrichson, MA student, said: 'During my time in UN Women, I was told that 'women' and Eleanor Roosevelt was critical in ensuring the rights of women in the UN Charter. Historical accounts now tell me that it was much more complex and it was the American delegate during the San Francisco conference, Ms Virginia Gildersleeve, who proposed that the reference to women's rights should be taken out of the preamble.

Luckily, particularly delegates from Australia, Brazil and Uruguay stated the need to reference women in the preamble of the Charter. The women of the south fought for a UN that today has the mandate to actively promote the rights of women.'

The work on Women in the UN Charter is part of a long-standing CISD project on UN History for the Future.

Radio Links:

The UN Radio (Portuguese) has written a piece + interview

CISD: Women Of The Global South Were Instrumentalling Placing Gender Equality On The UN Charter


Dr Dan Plesch Ms Elise Luhr Dietrichson Ms Fatima Sator