The forgotten origins of “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”

When First Lady Hillary Clinton took the stage at the Beijing Women’s Conference of 1995, the world listened. She spoke with passion and purpose: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.” It was a triumphant moment for Clinton, whose speech drew praise from across the aisles and around the world. Yet the media failed to tell the world that women in the global South were the ones who had invented the slogan. Few people heard about the international feminist networks who had been educating government officials and spreading ideas about women’s human rights long before Clinton became interested in the topic.  

Clinton never claimed she invented the phrase “women’s rights are human rights,” but many people assumed that she had. The First Lady’s speech attracted the public’s attention. The international feminist movement did not. Yet without the ingenuity of feminists from the Global South and networks of committed activists on every continent who had spent years theorizing about women’s human rights, Clinton would never have spoken those words. It was the global feminist movement that brought the campaign for women’s human rights to the United Nations, to nonprofit organizations like Amnesty International, and to ordinary people around the world. They even taught the First Lady herself.  

The long history of advocacy around “women’s rights are human rights” features activists from the Global South and women of color in the US. For instance, in 1945, at the founding of the United Nations, Latin American feminists played a critical role in trying to advance “women’s rights” into the category of human rights. And after World War II, when the US Black freedom movement often deployed human rights arguments, Pauli Murray, the attorney, feminist, and civil rights advocate, argued specifically that “women’s rights are a part of human rights.” What changed at the end of the 20th century was that a far-reaching and expanding global feminist movement began to collectively use the idea that “women’s rights are human rights” to advocate for change at the United Nations and beyond. 

That movement gained steam in the 1980s, when women in different parts of the world began to question why the majority of human rights advocacy focused on male political prisoners. A 1981 issue of Human Rights Quarterly featured a collection of articles that explored what it would mean to advance calls for women’s human rights.  

On the grassroots level, when women involved in anti-dictatorship efforts in Latin American countries joined human rights movements that focused on male political prisoners, they also began to ask why these movements did not address violations against women. Mothers who had organized during Argentina’s “Dirty Wars” to demand the return of their children and grandchildren (whom the regime had “disappeared”) started to assert their rights as humans rather than as women.  

Meanwhile, women from different parts of the world began to criticize the male bias implicit in definitions of war crimes that excluded rape and other forms of sexual torture. Some asked why women who had been “trafficked” did not qualify for the refugee status and asylum typically given to male victims of human rights violations.

What changed at the end of the 20th century was that a far-reaching and expanding global feminist movement began to collectively use the idea that “women’s rights are human rights” to advocate for change at the United Nations and beyond.   

All of these efforts critiqued narrow male-centered definitions of human rights and called for a broadening of the framework to include violations against women. And as women in these movements increasingly exchanged ideas with one another at meetings and conferences held in different parts of the world, they gave support and momentum to one another. They were part of a burgeoning global feminist movement that was propelled in large part by activists from the global South. During the 1980s and early 1990s, that movement grew in strength through events such as the 1985 UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi.  

The slogan “women’s rights are human rights” first appeared on many activists’ radar around 1988, seven years before Clinton took the stage in Beijing. A Filipino women’s coalition called Gabriela launched a “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” campaign as part of their protests against the dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos. The slogan caught on, not because it came out of left field, but because it perfectly encapsulated an ongoing conversation among women human rights advocates from different countries.  

It took a worldwide movement to promote the slogan and bring it to the international stage. In the early 1990s, at several international meetings and conferences, women from around the world plotted a collective strategy to advance women’s human rights at the local and global levels. A key funder and organizer was longtime US feminist Charlotte Bunch’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) at Rutgers University. Bunch and her network recognized that feminists from the Global South were leaders in the advocacy work around women’s human rights. She also knew that there had been a long history of US feminists acting imperiously on the global stage, dictating strategy and assuming they know best. The CWGL sought to enact a different form of global feminist interaction, one in which US activists listened and learned from people from other nations and in which representative from countries around the world plotted strategy together as activists in “parallel movements.”

The lesson for today is clear: political figures rarely dream up or enact radical ideas alone.

Gender-based violence was experienced by women in every single country yet not taken seriously as a human rights violation anywhere, these women’s rights advocates observed. They recognized that women’s individual experiences varied considerably, both within and among nations. Yet they concluded that everyone would benefit from a push to expand international human rights frameworks to include women’s experiences. 

In the early 1990s, this burgeoning women’s human rights network joined several others international feminist campaigns in setting their sights on the United Nations. Journalists expected feminist activity to resemble the sit-ins and demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s. They were not prepared to cover it happening at the UN. Yet in 1993, at the Second UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, feminists organized a high-profile tribunal on women’s human rights violations, lobbied government delegates, and presented a petition signed by half a million people from 124 countries, demanding recognition of women’s rights as human rights. They left the conference triumphant.  

The Vienna declaration affirmed “the human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights." The document also named gender-based violence as a human rights violation. Activists from different parts of the world used the declaration to lobby their governments for new laws and policies that would protect those most vulnerable. And they built on the gains they won in Vienna when they negotiated the Platform for Action for the Beijing Women’s Conference of 1995.  

Before Hillary Clinton took the stage in Beijing, she had consulted feminist activists and toured countries in the global South where she had learned about women’s human rights struggles. Her speech at the Beijing Conference did not come out of thin air. It reflected what she had learned from this thriving global feminist movement.  

The lesson for today is clear: political figures rarely dream up or enact radical ideas alone. Social movements must seize every opportunity to school government representatives and pressure them to promote shared prosperity and justice for all.