Sisterhood, Slavery, and Sovereignty: Transnational Antislavery Work and Women's Rights Movements in the United States During the Twentieth Century
WOMEN'S RIGHTS AND TRANSATLANTIC ANTISLAVERY IN THE ERA OF EMANCIPATION, Kathryn Kish Sklar & James Brewer Stewart, eds., Yale University Press, pp. 19-54, 2007
Posted: 8 Oct 2007 Last revised: 1 Oct 2014
This chapter is part of a book devoted to the history of women's work in anti-slavery movements, the centrality of slavery to the early women's rights movements, and the reliance by activists for gender equality on the analogy between women's oppression and slavery. My focus is on the relationship between sisterhood and slavery during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Despite many victories, the last centuries have not eradicated some of the horrors associated with the term slavery nor completed the project of equality for women.
Deployment of the terms sisterhood and slavery remains useful because they mark the capacity of groups that lack formal power nonetheless to work powerful transformations of law and practice. These two words also denote the complexity of and the distinctions among the forms and content of emancipatory work. At times, the projects of gaining equality for persons regardless of their gender and race have been joined. At other points, women's equality rights have been seen as separate from and even conflicting with other movements aimed at furthering human dignity. Moreover, women's rights advocates have been challenged for failing to shape reforms inclusive of women of all classes and colors. And today, as in earlier centuries, advocates debate whether to pursue a singly-focused women's agenda (however complex the definition of its content) or to rely on what is now called mainstreaming (denoting an effort to redress inequality by inserting gender analyses into all forms of policy making). Throughout the eras considered in this volume, the interactions among actors based in different countries (called in the policy literature transnational advocacy networks or transnational norm entrepreneurs) have been instrumental in recognizing the dignity of all humans and in influencing agendas pursued by feminists domestically.
I document these claims by exploring how, during the twentieth century, transnational women's rights groups used the term slavery and a broader understanding of the system of violence against women to redefine war crimes under international law, to organize legal opposition to trafficking in persons, and to change the understanding of the scope of human rights. Thereafter, I consider some of the effects of these movements on the official policies of the United States government. After acknowledging the noxiousness of slavery, this country began to participate in transnational efforts to stem trafficking in women, a form of slavery. But the United States has been slow to join other transnational work predicated on innovative understandings of the meaning of equality. The long road to women's voting rights in the United States parallels the country's hesitation to ratify and apply domestically the 1979 U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
The analytic narrative that I offer and the comparisons drawn highlight that the idea of jurisdiction - of delineated and bounded authority - is doing a good deal of work throughout the centuries and the topics examined by contributors to this volume. Jurisdiction is central to slavery, as slave owners' dominion cut off slaves from rights enjoyed by other persons. Jurisdiction is a conceptual basis of the sex-gender system that insisted on distinct roles for women and men. Jurisdiction also marks the moment when trafficking occurs, as persons are moved from one nation to another. Further, within the United States, jurisdiction delineates state from federal authority; state prerogatives (their jurisdiction) have been repeatedly asserted within the United States as an argument against the use of national power to enact equality laws, be they aimed at ending slavery, empowering women victims of violence, or joining international agreements such as CEDAW aspiring to reconfigure women's status. And jurisdiction aptly denotes the effort to protect United States' law against assertions that its normative commitments to human dignity and equality entail obligations not yet understood as implicit in the Constitution.
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