Are Women Human?

(This analysis was originally published in Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues, Harvard University Press, 2006, pp. 41-43.)

Over fifty years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defined what a human being is.1 It told the world what a person, as a person, is entitled to. Are women human yet?

If women were human, would we be a cash crop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York’s brothels?2 Would we be sexual and reproductive slaves? Would we be bred, worked without pay our whole lives, burned when our dowry money wasn’t enough or when men tired of us, starved as widows when our husbands died (if we survived his funeral pyre), sold for sex because we are not valued for anything else? Would we be sold into marriage to priests to atone for our family’s sins or to improve our family’s earthly prospects? Would we, when allowed to work for pay, be made to work at the most menial jobs and exploited at barely starvation level? Would our genitals be sliced out to “cleanse” us (our body parts are dirt?), to control us, to mark us and define our cultures? Would we be trafficked as things for sexual use and entertainment worldwide in whatever form current technology makes possible?3 Would we be kept from learning to read and write?4

If women were human, would we have so little voice in public deliberations and in government in the countries where we live?5 Would we be hidden behind veils and imprisoned in houses and stoned and shot for refusing? Would we be beaten nearly to death, and to death, by men with whom we are close? Would we be sexually molested in our families? Would we be raped in genocide to terrorize and eject and destroy our ethnic communities, and raped again in that undeclared war that goes on every day in every country in the world in what is called peacetime?6 If women were human, would our violation be enjoyed by our violators? And, if we were human, when these things happened, would virtually nothing be done about it?

It takes a lot of imagination — and a determinedly blinkered focus on exceptions at the privileged margins — to see a real woman in the Universal Declaration’s majestic guarantees of what “everyone is entitled to.” After over half a century, just what part of “everyone” doesn’t mean us?

The ringing language in Article 1 encourages us to “act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Must we be men before its spirit includes us? Lest this be seen as too literal, if we were all enjoined to “act towards one another in a spirit of sisterhood,” would men know it meant them, too? Article 23 encouragingly provides for just pay to “[e]veryone who works.” It goes on to say that this ensures a life of human dignity for “himself and his family.” Are women nowhere paid for the work we do in our own families because we are not “everyone,” or because what we do there is not “work,” or just because we are not “him”? Don’t women have families, or is what women have not a family without a “himself”? If the someone who is not paid at all, far less the “just and favorable remuneration” guaranteed, is also the same someone who in real life is often responsible for her family’s sustenance, when she is deprived of providing for her family “an existence worthy of human dignity,” is she not human? And now that “everyone” has had a right “to take part in the government of his country” since the Universal Declaration was promulgated, why are most governments still run mostly by men? Are women silent in the halls of state because we do not have a human voice?

A document that could provide specifically for the formation of trade unions and “periodic holiday with pay” might have mustered the specificity to mention women sometime, other than through “motherhood,” which is more bowed to than provided for. If women were human in this document, would domestic violence, sexual violation from birth to death, including in prostitution and pornography, and systematic sexual objectification and denigration of women and girls simply be left out of the explicit language?

Granted, sex discrimination is prohibited. But how can it have been prohibited for all this time, even aspirationally, and the end of all these conditions still not be concretely imagined as part of what a human being, as human, is entitled to? Why is women’s entitlement to an end of these conditions still openly debated based on cultural rights, speech rights, religious rights, sexual freedom, free markets — as if women are social signifiers, pimps’ speech, sacred or sexual fetishes, natural resources, chattel, everything but human beings?

The omissions in the Universal Declaration are not merely semantic. Being a woman is “not yet a name for a way of being human,”7 not even in this most visionary of human rights documents. If we measure the reality of women’s situation in all its variety against the guarantees of the Universal Declaration, not only do women not have the rights it guarantees — most of the world’s men don’t either — but it is hard to see, in its vision of humanity, a woman’s face.

Women need full human status in social reality. For this, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must see the ways women distinctively are deprived of human rights as a deprivation of humanity. For the glorious dream of the Universal Declaration to come true, for human rights to be universal, both the reality it challenges and the standard it sets need to change.

When will women be human? When?


1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G. A. Res. 217, U.N. GAOR, 3d Sess., at 72-76, U.N. Doc. A/810 (1948). All quotations from the Universal Declaration in this essay can be found here.

2. For data supporting all statements on violence against women in this analysis, see Radhika Coomaraswamy, Report Submitted by the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, Commission on Human Rights, 50th Sess., Agenda Item 11(a), U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1995/42 (1995); Radhika Coomaraswamy, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, U.N. ESCOR Hum. Rts. Comm’n, 52d Sess., Prov. Agenda Item 9(a), U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1996/53 (1996); Radhika Coomaraswamy, Report, U.N. ESCOR Hum. Rts. Comm’n, 53d Sess., Prov.Agenda Item 9(a), U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1997/47 (1997)

3. See Traffic in Women and Girls, Sub-Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2002/51 E/CN.4/RES/2002/51 (Apr. 23, 2002). The U.S. Department of State estimates that around 800,000 people are trafficked internationally annually, most of whom are women and children. Trafficking in Persons Report 7 (June 2003).

4. The majority of the world’s illiterate people are women. See UNESCO, Statistical Yearbook 1997 2–6 tbl. 2-2 (estimating 28.8 percent of the world’s women and 16.3 percent of the world’s men are illiterate).

5. See Interparliamentary Union, Women in Parliaments, 1945–1995: A World Statistical Study (1995).

6. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Women’s September 11th: Rethinking the International Law of Conflict, 47 Harv. Int’l L.J. 1 (2006).

7. Richard Rorty, “Feminism and Pragmatism,” 30 Michigan Quarterly Review 231. 234 (Spring 1991) (“MacKinnon’s central point, as I read her, is that ‘a woman’ is not yet the name for a way of being human”).

9 comments to Are Women Human?

  • Heidi Howkins Lockwood

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not the only United Nations document which is marred by reprehensible and “not merely semantic” omissions that have had a significant negative impact on the status of women worldwide. I believe it was the same (1948) session of the UN General Assembly that adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG). The CPPCG defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (Article 2, General Assembly resolution 260 A III)

    Why should the legal definition of genocide be limited to national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups? The influence of Joseph Stalin in excluding political groups from the definition is well documented — and some have proposed amending the definition to include the word ‘political’. But what about women? Why do we need a separate term — “gendercide” — to describe the hundreds of thousands of women who are killed every year (through female infanticide, femicide, the crises of maternal and infant mortality, etc)?

    When will “killing [women]; causing serious bodily or mental harm to [women]; deliberately inflicting on [women]… conditions calculated to bring about …the physical destruction [of women, in whole or in part]; and imposing measures intended to prevent births [of women]” be considered — and prosecutable as — a form of genocide?

  • Mindy Jane Roseman

    Professor MacKinnon is rightly outraged by the indignities and abuses women endure every day, untouched by the international legal and normative developments we now call “human rights.” There is much packed into her short comments and I’d just like to address two of her assumptions which she exploits to great rhetorical effect.

    The first is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), now over 60 years old, should mean what it says, and say what it means. There is an old yarn about the origins of contemporary human rights—that out of the ashes of the so-called civilized nations waging World War II, rose the phoenix of Human Rights, flying over all of humanity, declaring its beings equal in dignity and worth. Human rights norms were elaborated, multi-lateral institutions established, mechanisms of accountability created, so that the world would never again know such horror. A nice story we tell ourselves, or as Nietzsche might have remarked, a convenient fiction.

    Recent scholarship has revised and significantly complicated our understanding of the motivations, purposes, objectives that went into the UDHR, the international treaties that were intended to instrumentalize the rhetorical force of human rights norms, and indeed, the entire human rights project. Carol Anderson, Sam Moyn, Mark Mazower, and Brian Simpson, just to name a few, have helped flesh out the “darker side” of human rights, demonstrating how the very real interests of states (in other words politics) trumped the altruistic, if not utopian, values that human rights espoused. It would be an overstatement to say the UDHR and the human rights project were a cynical ploy to distract those who wanted to make the world different and anew, from those determined to maintain their power. But it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate either.

    So Professor MacKinnon’s lament that the UDHR has done perhaps nothing for women, or made things even worse for some, is less a cri de coeur and more a recognition that patriarchy was never its object. Left on its own—and it wasn’t until the mid 1980s and 90s that feminist, youth, and queer activists and scholars started to engage seriously with the international system—human rights were rather inert and decorous.

    Which brings me to my second point: time. How long does it take for society to change or for change to take hold? Professor MacKinnon is disappointed that in the sixty plus years that human rights has been bandied about as a universal norm, women are still marginalized, excluded, and subordinated. If the UDHR were a blue print for a revolution, we might expect more to have been done. Human rights norms, however, are not calls to arms. They are calls to better State governance. A social revolution, civil resistance, even a Supreme Court case, is likely a quicker means of to redistributing power than human rights education and implementation.

    Too little, too late for the world’s women, I agree, but the UDHR may not be the culprit. The UDHR is a symptom of an international governance system designed to move at a glacial pace, and not necessarily in accord with the plain meaning of its words.

  • Professor MacKinnon’s long time advocacy for women is built on her crystal clear thinking and analysis. The depth of her commitment provokes wild criticisms, most of them completely off the mark. Due to the consistent excellence of the analyses, there is often little to add to her work. My department dedicated our annual lecture series in 2009 to the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My comments here derive from my talk about her book, Are Women Human?

    Although some argue that the plain meaning of the words of the UDHR should be ignored and, instead, we should rest easy on the implied intent, I agree with Professor MacKinnon that what is said is what is intended. There is no oversight there but there is evidence, in plain view, of the omission of women from the fullness of humanity. Unless and until the wrongs suffered by women qua women are addressed, then, as Professor Rorty noted, ” ‘a woman’ is not yet the name for a way of being human.”

    As an experiment and to illuminate this particular point, I proposed the following as an example of how women are not yet fully human: Article 23 (UNDHR) advocates for “just pay to everyone who works.” However, no where are women paid for the work we do for our families. Is this because, MacKinnon asks, that we are not included in “everyone who works” or is it because that what we do is not “work”? Please note that even though Article 23 is written in a gender neutral manner, it does not include the free labor women do, including but not limited to birthing every person who exists as well as the work involved in nurturing a family in all the ways that matter, i.e., physically, emotionally, spiritually.

    As I considered the “ever present, everywhere” nature of this fact, an idea occurred to me. Please bear with me for a moment. Whenever wages for housework is proposed, even hypothetically, the most common counter claim is that, for example under capitalism, to pay women for housework in addition to paying those working outside the home, often including women as well, would cause an economic collapse. I wonder why not then pay women for our work in the home, as necessary if not more so to viable economic systems, and leave those who work outside the home to work for free? It would keep the same amount of monies in the coffers of a family and in circulation but just who is valued for what kind of work would shift dramatically. Why not? Those who work outside the home, predominantly men worldwide, would likely refuse. Given this likelihood, why is it expected that women work for free? One might object to this analysis by saying that Article 23, urging equal work for equal pay, really only refers to work done outside the home. If so, then this, in and of itself, adds support to the claim that the Declaration of Human Rights is gendered in a way that omits significant concerns of women.

    Finally, rape laws are of an ongoing concern for me and many feminists. In my state, first degree rape cannot be successfully prosecuted unless there is evidence that the woman vigorously resisted. This evidence is most often going to be injury of some sort. If women were human, why would rape be a crime for which resistance must be proved in order to be prosecuted? What if robbery law was written in this manner? So there is evidence all around us, including in our relatively secure, prosperous, progressive university communities that even here, women are not yet fully human. Thank you Professor MacKinnon.

  • Rae Langton

    MacKinnon has written a powerful denunciation of the gulf between vision and reality—between the stirring UN vision of the rights owed to every human being, and the lived reality of those human beings who happen to be women. She has a double-headed critique, drawing attention not just to the gulf between stirring vision and disastrous reality, but also to bias in the UN vision itself: the supposed universal vision for ‘human beings’ was in the first place a vision for men. The language of the ‘Universal Declaration’ illustrates the point that Simone de Beauvoir was making at a similar time in history, when she said in the The Second Sex that the male gets to be both the ‘neutral’ and the ‘positive’, the female the ‘negative’, the ‘marked case’. So we find, in the Declaration, that the neutral is also the male, the ‘human being’ works for wages, has a ‘wife and family’, and solidarity among human beings is ‘brotherhood’.

    Her critique can be read specifically about the UN, or more generally about biased visions of the human. There’s an implicit claim that women are not treated as human now, precisely because the original UN vision was biased. And there’s a more general argument that biased conceptions of human rights serve effectively to keep women out of the club of the human.

    Starting with the latter, how do biased conceptions of the human keep women out of the club? One point is epistemological: harm to women simply doesn’t register, and if it does register, doesn’t look like harm. Another point is moral and political: women are harmed, objectified, treated as things, instead of human beings. These go together: women are objectified—‘a cash crop, shipped from Thailand to New York’s brothels’, ‘trafficked for things for sexual use and entertainment worldwide in whatever form current technology makes possible’, precisely because objectifying treatment doesn’t appear as harm, but as natural, as reflecting ‘what women are for’, as a matter of women’s choices. Yes: biased conceptions of rights are surely a massive hurdle to the advancement of women, whether we’re speaking of supposedly ‘neutral’ liberal visions in the US, or the Declaration that’s her official topic here.

    How much is the UN vision itself to blame? MacKinnon’s critique of the implicit commitments of the 1948 document is brilliant and powerful, but it strikes me the UN’s actions today are not hidebound to it—thanks in part to the work of MacKinnon herself and other activists around the world. Look at MacKinnon’s own footnotes, citing systematic UN documentation on trafficking and violence against women, all of which make vivid and visible exactly the sorts of harms masked by the original declaration. I’m no scholar of the UN, but a search on ‘women’ in the UN database gets over 53,000 hits: there’s the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and many global and regional programs on gender equality, literacy and so on. Whether the UN is effective is another question—which brings up two more issues, practical and philosophical.

    The practical issue: how can the UN work towards this increasingly inclusive vision, when members states, especially the wealthiest among them, such as the US, have refused to pay their dues? Up until recently, the US was massively in arrears, to the tune of $1.82 billion in November 2010. It’s marvelous, and especially worth celebrating in this context, that the Obama government has now paid half these dues, and vowed to pay the rest in due course (Reuters But pressure needs to be maintained on this very practical issue.

    The philosophical issue: it’s a familiar philosophical point that there are no rights without corresponding duties. This means there’s not much point listing rights, unless there’s a clear sense of exactly what citizens and governments have to do, to honor them. MacKinnon argues that women have rights that go well beyond the original UN Declaration. Yes, again! But let’s make sure that in spelling out what those rights are, we get perfectly clear on who has to do what—in order to make them a reality.

  • Wryly asking “are women human?,” Catherine MacKinnon makes visible the contradictions, silences, and gaps in the theory and practice of human rights. Following her lead, a feminist might well wonder whether the global movement for women’s human rights is in some way limited by the very genealogy and rubric of rights itself. As we enter the 21st century, the language of human rights has more or less incorporated or displaced every other inherited political idiom and come to define the way in which the key aspirations of feminism are defined. It is thus worth asking whether women’s second-class status is merely a historical oversight that will be corrected in the course of time or a constitutive flaw in the very idea of rights themselves. Though MacKinnon clearly holds the struggle for rights to be an ongoing and important one, I take her essay to raise reasonable doubts about the widely accepted idea that rights will somehow extend by means of a kind of progressive logic internal to the very concept of rights themselves.

    The supposedly magical power of rights to incorporate more and more disenfranchised groups in an ever enlarging category of the human was arguably first questioned in the work of a thinker who had nothing to say about feminism, namely, Hannah Arendt. Already in 1949, in the immediate aftermath of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, Arendt asked “whether or not there really exist such human rights, independent of all specific political status and deriving solely from the fact of being human,” that is, from nature. The attempt to reanimate the idea of natural human rights as a political foundation repeated in spirit and form the traditional declarations about natural rights formulated at the end of the eighteenth century without accounting for the very crisis that had befallen the idea of human rights since those rights failed in the face of totalitarianism. In Arendt’s view, totalitarianism exposed the logical disjunction in the concept of “human rights,” for the millions of refugees and stateless persons were testimony to the fact that whoever ceased to count as the citizen of a particular state lost not only his or her particular civil rights in that particular state, but also, simultaneously, his or her human rights.

    If “the right to have rights,” as Arendt put it, is rooted not in nature but in political community, then the question is not necessarily whether women are seen as human. We think about women’s rights qua human beings as the basis for their political membership, but Arendt suggests that such rights are meaningless apart from membership in a community. In cases where women are formally excluded from citizenship or its meaningful exercise, that community may well be composed of nothing other than other women who too make a claim to their rights, a claim that is all the more radical because it is made from outside the boundaries of socially recognized membership. The appeal to nature as the basis for rights can blind us to the deeply radical act of claiming them and also to the creation of a common world among those who make such claims. Read in conjunction with Arendt, MacKinnon’s rhetorical question, “are women human?,” inspires me not to repeat yet again the counterclaim that indeed they are human and ought to be given their rights but to insist on the crucial importance of feminism as a political movement.

    Finally, too often we think about rights as legal artifacts whose creation and extension constitutes the raison d’être of feminism. Accordingly, once formal political and civil rights have been won (as they mostly have in this country), feminism as a political movement ceases to exist. Refusing to sign on to this now widely held post-feminist view of our current situation, MacKinnon reminds us that any rights victory is always tenuous. That is not only because vast populations of women across the globe have no rights whatsoever but also because there is a difference between having rights in a legal sense and being able to claim the rights that one formally has. Rights exist only to the extent that they are embedded in practices of political freedom. Arendt teaches that it is a mistake to confuse constitutionally guaranteed rights with the actual exercise of political freedom. Put somewhat differently, it is possible to have constitutionally guaranteed rights without substantive political freedom. Needless to say, such unclaimed rights will not stand for long. It is as members of the political community called feminism that women claim their rights and reanimate the idea of rights as practices of political freedom.

  • Nancy J. Hirschmann

    Catherine MacKinnon, as usual, asks direct, hard-hitting questions that do not try to gloss over the ways in which women are treated throughout the world. The fact that this was taken from her 2006 book and requires no alteration only deepens the commentary. But many people do not want to hear what she has to say; they want to avert their eyes from the ugliness she points out about they ways humans treat each other. Her brand of unforgiving feminism is what people who wish to distance themselves from feminism love to hold up to get themselves off the hook: see, feminists exaggerate, they’re hysterical, they miss the finer subtleties of making choices within cultural contexts, they fail to appreciate the importance of religion, or culture, or tradition. They make strident claims and insistent demands for impossible degrees of change. But as uncomfortable as MacKinnon often makes many people, she’s usually right.

    And yet, is it really true that women are not human? Certainly the gist of MacKinnon’s critique, that women have always been treated as imperfect, lesser, incomplete humans, is one we cannot deny. But humanity is not an either/or category, as anyone familiar with the history of sexism and racism can testify. As Hegel could tell us, if women were not at some level human, what would be the benefit to men of subordinating them? It is precisely the slave’s humanity that makes the master’s victory in the struggle for recognition worth struggling for. And it is only his ability to maintain the slave’s subordination that allows him to use that recognition to fuel his existence. If women weren’t human at all, what would be the advantage of controlling them, in beating them, in raping them, in coercing them? When she asks “If women were human, would our violation be enjoyed by our violators?” the answer is clearly that a significant part of the “enjoyment” comes precisely from the power to subordinate another human being. When they are beaten, or raped, or starved, or murdered, or denied the freedom to leave their homes, or forced into marriage, or forced to wear certain clothes, or had their genitals excised, they are being treated as humans—it’s just that their human status is “different,” they are “special.” So the “different” kind of treatment is ok, it even makes sense, in this view. But as MacKinnon herself has noted in one of her most famous essays, difference is often just another word for dominance.

    Surely, men (and women) also often abuse animals, which is equally horrific, as various commentators on this website have argued. But the abuse of women has a special status: to recoin the James Carville slogan, “It’s the misogyny, stupid!” For the examples MacKinnon offers us are examples not just of the dehumanization of women, but of the hatred of women. You don’t have to be human to be hated, but hating humans has a special significance, a special power, and when that hatred can be encoded into policies, laws, institutions, customs, and traditions, it defines “humanity” in a specific way for specific groups of people.

    There used to be a slogan for the pro-choice movement that was popular in the 1970’s: “a woman’s life is a human life.” That meant more than just being alive: the unique feature of human beings is the ability to make choices and act on them as autonomous agents. That was being denied to women in denying them rights to abortion, read as bodily autonomy. It is denied to women, as MacKinnon notes, every minute of every day. Thanks to her for never letting us forget it.

  • Anat Biletzki

    There is one small, by-the-way comment, tucked into the vehement and fully justified statements that make up MacKinnon’s reproof of the UDHR, which is actually startling, or should be, to a feminist reader. In today’s lived world, she writes, women do not have the rights promulgated by the Universal Declaration, but “most of the world’s men don’t either”! If that is so, how can we mount the barricades exclusively for women’s rights while at the same time claiming to be distressed over the universal rights of all? And if the problem is then reduced to the problem of the original UN “vision” being women-blind, isn’t that, in some way, a lesser problem (more easily termed “semantic,” and more convincingly seen to be changing with time, as Rae Langton has noted)?

    If all of humanity were universally recognized as entitled to the human rights articulated in the UDHR, would we still be constantly barraged by reports on political killings? Would torture be going on daily – not only in far-away places, but right under our noses? Would there be abductions by governmental security forces all over the world? Would children be used as porters in armies and recruited into military wars? Would children – girls and boys – be trafficked for sexual use and sexually molested within their own families? Would they be dying from HIV in Kenya even when medicines are free of charge? Would millions of people – men, women and children – be traveling the world as refugees? And would over 10 million a year be dying of starvation in a world which could handily feed them all?

    Yes, there is an astounding gap between the vision and the reality, but that yawning divide does not pertain solely to women; and all humans “need full human status in social [and political] reality.” Perhaps, then, the attempt to identify the core of women’s inferior status, instead of dwelling on the sad reality of women’s rights, must indeed return to that inherently biased UDHR vision that saw not the face of women; and to the continuing conceptual, social, political default that will not admit women as human (while also not admitting others as such).

    It is at this juncture, however, that I am reminded of the impassable paradox (are paradoxes ever passable?) elaborated so meticulously by Wendy Brown: identifying women explicitly as worthy of (certain) human rights reinforces the fence separating us from other humans, while relying on neutral, universal standards (mostly in legislation) buttresses the powers that be – inevitably male powers – that are already in place. Otherwise put: insisting resolutely on specific women’s rights might serve to differentiate between women and a (consensual, traditional) conception of the human; and contrarily, focusing on rights through a general prism that does not pinpoint women, even when addressing issues that we know are specifically pertinent to them (like pornography?), could, and often does, empower those who were naturally addressed in the UDHR, i.e., men. What is to be done that could consistently harbor women’s rights with human rights?

    One thing we can do is reply to MacKinnon’s final question – when will women be human? – literally. Women are human. This, however, might shift the predicament somewhat, for it cannot help to diffuse another inconsistency: although women’s rights do seem to have made progress in the 60 years since the UDHR (see Langton’s data and assessment of the state of women), it is not yet clear that human rights – of children, of refugees, of indigenous peoples, of the handicapped, of men and of women – are truly ascendant in anything other than popular, faddish discourse. The “human” (along with affiliates such as humanism and the humanities) is losing ground to a set of global values far removed from the UDHR, and it is this denial of humanity that should also concern us as, and for, women.

  • Catharine A. MacKinnon

    Developments in the international order since this piece was written inform consideration of the cogent and wide-ranging responses in this discussion.

    Human rights of women against sexual violence in particular, at the core of the analysis presented in this piece and at the foundation of the subordination of women, have among other means been implemented through the treaty bodies of the UN, regional courts (Europe and Latin America), in particular through the activities of the International Criminal Court (ICC). All the ICC’s prosecutions have centered on gender crimes in one way or another, making clear that human rights can be effectively implemented through criminal law as well as in civil frameworks, as well as refuting the view that international law moves glacially. In fact, the notion of gender crime, which begun in a civil domestic legal context (sexual harassment in the US), has become established in international law in under 30 years, transforming many restrictive rubrics along the way. At least legally speaking, this is closer to the speed of light.

    These developments also serve to illustrate that the international approach to human rights is far larger than the aspirational language of the UDHR – which, for all its normative power, is neither a treaty nor a transnational organization. Clearly, rights, interpreted and deployed as they have been in this area, far from being trapped in the nineteenth century, can open whole new vistas of legal change towards social change.

    None of these changes – which have progressed further on the ground than they have in the academy – has pursued a universalistic approach in the classical sense, far less has it been based on postmodern reality denial that speaks of harm and injuries to women in quotation marks, as other pieces collected in the book under the same title as this piece make clear.

    As recognition of gender crime has evolved, everyone’s humanity is guaranteed not by obscuring their collective particularities, but upon that very specific ground on which their humanity is so often violated, as women have led the world in exposing. And although there is a long way to go, the international legal order has responded more fully and more effectively in restoring that humanity than has the law of any nation on earth.

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