Women in International Law Network

The Olive Schill Society

by Elise Luhr Dietrichson and Fatima Sator

The foundations of gender equality, which are central to global governance today, can be traced back to the effective diplomatic skills of Latin American women delegates at the conference that agreed to the United Nations (UN) Charter. This piece, by SOAS researchers Elise Luhr Dietrichson and Fatima Sator, is an adaptation of a contribution to Le Monde Diplomatique entitled ‘Les oubliées de San Francisco’.

The San Francisco conference in 1945, where the UN Charter was signed, was dominated by men. Only three percent of those who attended the conference were women, and of the 50 countries represented, women only had voting rights in 30 of them. Nevertheless, the Charter of the United Nations became the first international agreement to proclaim the equal rights of men and women as part of fundamental human rights. Ensuring women’s rights was a hard fought battle. This formal inclusion of women’s equality was the foundation of equality at the global level that is now taken for granted as the sun rises each morning. And yet it happened neither by chance nor with ease.

Four women signed the UN Charter: Bertha Lutz (Brazil), Wu Yi-fang (China), Minerva Bernardio (The Dominican Republic) and Virginia Gildersleeve (US). Only two of these advocated for the rights of women: Lutz and Bernardino. Still, many books, a CD-ROM, and countless websites credit all four of these women for the reference to women’s rights in the Charter. By doing so, the role of these authors in the drafting of the Charter is defined by their gender, and not by their actions.

A closer look at history reveals that Article 8 of the UN Charter on equal participation, the addition of ‘sex’ to the nondiscrimination list contained in Article 1, and the first proposal for a special commission on women, can all be attributed to the agency of women from the Global South. However, the name of the Latin American women and an Australian advisor who throughout the drafting of the Charter continued to advocate for the specific mention of women, are left out of the UN’s own account of its history. This aligns with the tendency that when good ideas are founded outside the West, they are often ignored[i].

Very few today would know the name of Bertha Lutz, the Brazilian delegate and leader of the feminists who proudly pronounced that Article 8 is “a Latin American contribution to the constitution of the world”[ii]. Contrary to the sentiments of Lutz, it was believed by delegate Virginia Gildersleeve and other British female advisors at the time, that Article 8 was not necessary, as “women were not to be excluded” from participating in the organization anyway. In what would be a surprising twist today, Lutz and Bernardino joined forces against these Western women delegates. In her own memoirs, Bertha Lutz recalls how “[Gildersleeve] went on to say that she hoped I [Lutz] was not going to ask for anything for women in the Charter since that would be a very vulgar thing to do”[iii]. Lutz replied that “the need to defend rights of women was the main reason why the Brazilian Government [sic] had put me on the delegation”. Gildersleeve pointed out how the rights of women in the US were “well established and equal opportunity for women had often been demonstrated” in response to Lutz’ suggestion for a women’s commission, known as the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) today, concluding that there was “nowhere in the world where women had complete equality with men”.

Lutz’ lobbying pursuits earned her the nickname ‘Lutzwaffe’ from British and American delegates who were “bored and irritated by the repeated and lengthy feminist speech”. According to Gildersleeve, there was not much need for the militant feminism promoted by Lutz. It is therefore important that we give credit where credit is due: to the women delegates of Uruguay, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the Australian advisor Jessie Street.

Another crucial foothold for women’s rights is the specific mentioning of the human rights of women in the Preamble of the Charter. Once again, in Gildersleeve’s draft for the Preamble, she took out the word ‘women’ as she believed that ‘human rights of men’ would be an inclusive enough term. Lutz and other Latin American feminists, on the other hand, stated: “we also know that it has always been held that women have been included in the general term ‘men’ throughout the centuries, and we also know that it has always resulted in the fact that women were precluded from taking part in public affairs”.

Lutz and Bernardino were conscious of how they, as Latin American delegates, were representing countries of the Global South, as opposed to the Western representatives. The British women advisors and Gildersleeve argued that this “spectacular feminism” might only be necessary in “the backward countries, where women have no vote and few rights of any kind”. Lutz notes: “it is a strange psychological paradox that often those who are emancipated by the efforts of others are loth [sic] to acknowledge the source of their freedom”.

Challenging the current representation of history

 The forgotten contributions of the women from the Latin American countries illustrate two points. Firstly, that the presentation of history is political. It is no coincidence that if we ask who was responsible for getting women’s rights into the UN, Eleanor Roosevelt would appear as the likely candidate. Indeed American feminists might assume that their delegates would have had to fight against Latin machismo. Nothing could be further from the truth. Secondly, the origins of global ideas and values such as gender equality are often credited to Western actors, even though this credit might not always be rightly placed.

The need to decolonize our minds and decolonize feminism is an equally important reminder for young non-Western women that one of the most visionary Articles of the United Nations Charter came from one of their representatives. Berta Lutz and her colleagues need to be commemorated and lauded extensively as powerful and much needed enforcers of global feminism.

The United Nations Information Centre in Brazil has produced a video based on Elise and Fatima’s research:

Video extracts of their press briefing to the United Nations Correspondents Association can be found in this media clip:

[i] Acharya, A., 2014. Who Are the Norm Makers? The Asian-African Conference in Bandung and the Evolution of Norms. Global Governance, Volume 20, pp. 405-417.

[ii] United Nations, 1945. Documents of the United Nations Conference on International Organisation (UNCIO), Volume VI: 172, Commission I, General Provisions. London and New York, United Nations Information Organization.

[iii] Lutz, B., n.d.. Reminiscences of the San Francisco Conference that Founded the United Nations, Bertha Lutz Brazilian Plenipotentiary Delegate in Papers of Margery Irene Corbett Ashby, 6B/106/7/MCA/C2. Women’s Library, London