In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Feminism and Human Rights

  • Introduction
  • The Global Rise of Women’s Movements
  • Feminist Critique of Human Rights Androcentrism
  • Global Institutions Promoting Gender Equality
  • Human Rights, Anti-essentialism, and Gender Fluidity
  • Reclaiming Traditional Gender Orders and Opposing Gender Equality

International Relations Feminism and Human Rights
Sussane Zwingel, Brianna Hernandez
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0314


Feminism is about striking down gender hierarchies that exist in various forms in all societies. The notion of human rights envisions dignified lives for all humans based on their equal value. Both feminism and human rights are multivocal discourses and struggles for social transformation and justice. Despite these parallels, feminist and human rights ideas and activisms have long developed in separation, with some exceptions such as the women’s suffrage movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Both discourses have gained international significance in the second half of the 20th century. Since the 1980s, there is significant engagement between human rights and feminist thinking that has produced a transdisciplinary array of literature. For this bibliography, human rights are framed as a discourse of Eurocentric origin that has become a global standard starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It is also a framework that has attracted many forms of criticism, e.g., that it is an expression of Western imperialism, statism, individualism, and androcentrism. The structure follows the twofold engagement of feminists who have made the human rights framework fruitful for their goals: the first is the attempt to incorporate women, as the slogan “women’s rights are human rights” suggests; the second is to analytically read gender as a relationship of power into the human rights framework. This bibliography emphasizes global level dynamics and draws only occasionally on regional or domestic processes. However, feminist human rights work has been developed from many parts of the globe and typically takes an intersectional approach in which gender hierarchies are not targeted in isolation, but in combination with other forms of discrimination. Attempts to engender the human rights framework have expanded even further to critique binary and heteronormative gender orders and the exclusions they produce. In response, defendants of non-egalitarian gender orders have become more forceful in reclaiming traditional gender-binary and -complementary values. Besides the vast amount of academic literature, activists have played a tremendously important role in shaping feminist and human rights ideas. Therefore, the bibliography contains a mix of scholarly and practitioner writings, as well as some particularly influential feminist organizations. The sections evolve chronologically, but the contributions selected mutually influence and respond to each other: The global rise of women’s movements; feminist critique of human rights androcentrism; global institutions promoting gender equality; substantive concepts of women’s rights and gender equality; human rights, anti-essentialism and gender fluidity; and antifeminism: reclaiming traditional gender orders.

The Global Rise of Women’s Movements

The critique that the human rights framework is androcentric and marginalizes women’s experiences was articulated by feminist lawyers, development practitioners, and internationally oriented women’s organizations starting in the 1980s. The overview provided by de Haan 2013 shows that this criticism was embedded in long traditions of women’s movements fighting to improve the status of women, first within their own countries, and, with the foundation of the United Nations, also at the global level. According to Garner 2010, while there were early attempts to make gender equality an integral part of the UN’s mandate to work for world peace, it took until the 1970s for this claim to be seriously addressed. The UN world women’s conferences (1975, 1980, 1985, and 1995) as well as some other UN conferences in the 1990s provided important global spaces for transnational network building and for formulating women’s rights in their full scope. Women’s organizations from the Global North and the Global South (and prior to the end of the Cold War, also from the Socialist block) have sometimes clashed over diverging priorities, but Moghadam 2005 argues that they ultimately developed a shared view of global justice in response to the discontents of globalization. According to Tripp 2006, women from the Global South have significantly strengthened their influence on global governance institutions. At the same time, the UN expanded its women-focused institutional setup (see also Global Institutions Promoting Gender Equality). Fraser and Tinker 2004 adds illustrations of this process presenting insider perspectives of gender equality advocates working at the United Nations. Jain 2005 and Antrobus 2004 trace the movement-influenced institutional process in detail: Jain focuses on the institutional dynamics in the United Nations and Antrobus foregrounds transnational women’s movements. They tease out achievements and challenges, including broader political and economic dynamics that undermine the global level consensus on supporting gender equality.

  • Antrobus, Peggy. The Global Women’s Movement: Origins, Issues and Strategies. London: Zed Books, 2004.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781350223189

    Antrobus traces global women’s activisms in relation to general developments in world politics. This allows her to tease out interesting complexities. For example, while the UN women’s decade (1976–1985) greatly increased global awareness regarding gender hierarchies, the de-facto situation of women deteriorated during this time due to neoliberal economic policies. She also argues that the achievements of the global women’s movement are threatened by militarism and fundamentalism.

  • de Haan, Francisca. “A Brief Survey of Women’s Rights.” UN Chronicle 2013.

    This article offers a very brief overview of the UN milestones and events to advance women’s rights.

  • Fraser, Arvonne, and Irene Tinker, eds. Developing Power: How Women Transformed International Development. New York: The Feminist Press, 2004.

    This collection presents voices of women who have worked inside of the UN in areas such as women and development, girls’ education, family planning, and women’s rights. The stories are written as testimonies and describe the UN as a site of constant multicultural negotiation. They also illustrate structures of gender-based discrimination and the difficulty to give weight to non-governmental voices within the state-centered organization.

  • Garner, Karen. Shaping a Global Women’s Agenda: Women’s NGOs and Global Governance, 1925–85. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010.

    Garner traces women’s global-level activism starting in 1925, twenty years before the UN was founded, until the conclusion of the UN women’s decade in 1985. She describes the becoming of a global, but Western-dominated, feminist movement that successfully influences global governance institutions to address women’s concerns. Racial and class hierarchies which are significant for large parts of the world’s women play a subordinated role in this effort.

  • Jain, Devaki. Women, Development, and the UN. A Sixty-Year Quest for Equality and Justice. United Nations Intellectual History Project Series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

    Jain describes a scaffolding process of gender awareness within the United Nations, starting with a learning phase, followed by more substantiated understandings of women’s issues. Especially the four world women’s conferences between 1975 and 1995 provided space for comprehensive analyses of women’s subordination and far-reaching demands toward states. However, she argues that since 1995, a new convergence of militarization, globalization, and conservatism revealed the fragility of these achievements.

  • Moghadam, Valentine M. Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005.

    This book analyzes how women’s networks from the Global North and the Global South developed a shared view of global justice facing the rise of neoliberalism and fundamentalist movements. First World feminists came to understand the importance of economic issues, and Third World feminists directed their attention to women’s legal rights. The author studies several feminist networks in detail, for example, Women Living Under Muslim Law (WLUML).

  • Tripp, Aili Mari. “The Evolution of Transnational Feminisms. Consensus, Conflict, and New Dynamics.” In Global Feminism: Transnational Women’s Activism, Organizing, and Human Rights. Edited by Myra Marx Ferree and Aili Mari Tripp, 51–75. New York and London: New York University Press, 2006.

    Tripp challenges the notion that transnational feminisms have been dominated by Western women’s organizations. She rewrites the “waves” narrative of feminism that is largely based on Western achievements by drawing on feminist struggles from all parts of the world. Since 1985, women from the Global South have taken the lead in shaping the global agenda with issues such as electoral gender quotas and the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

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