Sovereignty and Sisterhood: American Lawmakers' Responses to Twentieth Century Women's Rights Claims

Posted: 20 Jun 2005


Mining the interaction between anti-slavery work and women's rights is a rich historical enterprise. In this chapter, I invite readers to consider contemporary transnational feminist legal efforts still aimed at ending slavery and at enabling women of all colors and classes to participate fully in the political and social order. The title "Sisterhood and Slavery" continues to mark the capacity of groups, holding less power at formal levels, nonetheless to work powerful transformations.

This title also denotes the complexity of and the distinctions among forms of emancipatory work. At times, the goals of revising understandings of equality based on gender and race have been interwoven. 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, repeatedly, emancipatory efforts have been challenged as failing to include women of all classes and colors. Similarly, advocates have repeatedly debated whether to pursue a singly-focused women's agenda (however complex the definition of its content) or to rely on what today is called mainstreaming (denoting an effort to redress inequality by inserting gender analyses into all forms of policy making). Consistently, interactions among actors based in different countries (now called in the policy literature "transnational advocacy networks" or "transnational norm entrepreneurs") have been instrumental in shaping new understandings of what dignified personhood can mean.

I document these points through exploration of 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. In addition, I focus on twentieth century events in the United States. I compare the country's engagement in efforts to stem trafficking in women with its more hesitant steps towards innovative forms of emancipation, such as providing women with the right to vote and joining the 1979 U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. I argue that the differing responses stem from the perceived stakes a particular intervention raises. Concerns about women's vulnerability, coupled with harms identified as coming from abroad, have repeatedly prompted the United States to work with other nations to stop border-crossings deemed illicit. But when transnational movements propose profound reordering of gender and race hierarchies, lawmakers in the United States have responded with protests against foreign influences. Often, such objectors rely on the federalist form of United States government as imposing a special constraint on national capacities to embrace such inventive efforts.

The idea of jurisdiction is therefore doing a good deal of work throughout the topics and centuries examined by contributors to this volume. Jurisdiction is central to slavery, bounding off slaves from rights enjoyed by other persons. Jurisdiction is the conceptual centerpiece of sex-gender systems, insisting on certain roles for women and men. Jurisdiction also marks the moment when trafficking occurs. Further, within the United States, jurisdiction delineates state from federal, in turn acknowledging the multiplicity of legal regimes within the nation. Jurisdiction is also asserted within the United States as an argument to prevent the national government from enacting equality laws to redress violence against women and from joining international work aimed at major reconfigurations of women's status.

But emancipators do not only bear the burdens imposed by the concept of jurisdiction. Civil rights workers are themselves sources of new jurisdictions, as they repeatedly create and then use a multiplicity of venues - from local sewing circles to international organizations - to help generate the very innovations sought to be cabined through jurisdictionally-based arguments. Excluded from formal sites of government, women were among the first to generate alternatives - early NGOs - nongovernmental organizations offering other visions of what society might entail. Jurisdiction serves thus as a form of oppression, as an obstacle to reform, and as a source of opportunity for those seeking to redefine rights. The ability to move from venue to venue also requires reformers to work to develop bridges across jurisdictions to make power and to dislodge long-entrenched definitions of the bounded roles assigned to women, men, and governments.

Suggested Citation

Resnik, Judith, Sovereignty and Sisterhood: American Lawmakers' Responses to Twentieth Century Women's Rights Claims. SISTERHOOD AND SLAVERY, Kathyrn Kish Sklar and James Brewer Stewart, eds., Yale University Press, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Judith Resnik (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1447 (Phone)
203-432-1719 (Fax)

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