Uncovering history: women founders of the United Nations

These women paved the way for the recognition of women’s rights as human rights by the United Nations and other international governing bodies.

Bertha Lutz, San Francisco Conference, 26 June 1945 (1)
Bertha Lutz signing the UN Charter in 1945

The UN Charter (1945) is the founding document of the United Nations (UN), and was signed by delegates from 50 countries in San Francisco in June 1945. It paved the way for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, which established human rights law internationally, and gave rise to many other international treaties too.

Just four of the 160 delegates to the UN Charter meeting in 1945 were women. They were: Virginia Gildersleeve (USA), Bertha Lutz (Brazil),  Minerva Bernardino (Dominican Republic) and Wu Yi-Fang (China). Only two of them fought for women’s rights.

Brazilian scientist Bertha Lutz was sent to San Francisco in 1945 primarily to advocate for women’s rights to be represented in the UN Charter. She’s most famous in Brazil for her contributions to science. Minerva Bernardino was a diplomat from the Dominican Republic who is best known for her role in promoting women’s rights in signing the UN Charter.

Lutz and Bernardino faced significant opposition from delegates from other nations. Imagine the historical context in which the delegates met, close after the end of the second world war: the words “man” and “men”, like “mankind”,  were often used synonymously to signify “all people”. Most delegates probably did not see women’s rights as distinct from men’s rights; most delegates probably assumed that ensuring men’s rights was enough.

Apparently, neither did some of the women. Virginia Gildersleeve, the US female representative, asked Lutz not to fight for equal representation in the Charter because she felt it would be “vulgar”. Coming from a privileged position, Gildersleeve possibly viewed women’s rights as something only less developed nations had yet to achieve, and that gender equality had already been reached for women in the US. (However, she fought for women’s rights inside the US in other ways.)

With the support of Minerva Bernardino and other women advisors from Latin America, Lutz advocated for the equal representation of women in the UN Charter against Virginia Gildersleeve and British female advisors. The first draft of the UN Charter didn’t even mention the word “women”. These women fought for, and eventually achieved, the inclusion of the word “women” in the Preamble and Article 8 of the UN Charter. They read:


We the people of the United Nations determined to… reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of Nations large and small.

Article 8

The United Nations shall place no restrictions on the eligibility of men and women to participate in any capacity and under conditions of equality in its principal and subsidiary organs.

They also achieved the inclusion of the word “sex” in the section which outlined all the grounds on which the UN would not tolerate discrimination, so that women could not face discrimination based on their sex. Lutz even proposed creating a special commission of Women whose purpose it would be to analyse the “legal status of Women” around the world in order to better understand the inequalities they face and be better prepared to combat them.

Minerva Bernardino, San Francisco Conference, 26 June 1945
Minerva Bernardino signing the UN Charter in 1945

All this essentially underscores the basis of women’s rights being recognised as human rights. Without these additions, the UN would probably not have a mandate to protect women’s rights – and certainly not as early as it’s 1945 founding document.

Lutz said:

The mantle is falling off the shoulders of the Anglo-Saxons and we Latin American Women shall have to do the next stage of battle for women.

Addressing the final session, US President Truman said:

The Charter of the United Nations which you have just signed, is a solid structure upon which we can build a better world. History will honor you for it. Between the victory in Europe and the final victory, in this most destructive of all wars, you have won a victory against war itself… With this Charter the world can begin to look forward to the time when all worthy human beings may be permitted to live decently as free people.

Professor Rebecca Adami and Fatima Sator presented their research on the forgotten women founders of the UN at SOAS University of London last week (watch here). They also presented their findings at the UN in May 2018 with fellow researcher, Elise Dietrichson (watch here). Professor Adami’s book on the subject was published this year: Women and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Routledge).

One of the biggest questions that Adami, Sator and Dietrichson raise is to ask why these women’s contributions have been forgotten. Why hasn’t this legacy of women from the Southern hemisphere been remembered? Why hasn’t history honoured them for it?

It might be because they were women. But Eleanor Roosevelt’s contribution to the UDHR holds a place in US and international history. I think it more likely that this history has been erased, forgotten, silenced, because they were women from less powerful nations.

Perhaps those nations weren’t all that proud of the part these women played, either. Not many people know that China sent a woman (Wu Yi-Fang) to sign the UN Charter, and another (Yizhen New) to sign the UDHR. I suspect not many people are aware that China was part of this international process. Why has China’s contribution to this part of international human rights law been forgotten? More on this soon.

P.s. It has been a while since my last post – sorry! I’ve been busy advocating for women’s rights, and I’ve just started reading my MA at SOAS, University of London. I will be back with more soon.

Read on

Indian women pioneers at UN hailed as upholders of women’s rights, Hindustan Times

How Latin American Women Fought for Women’s Rights in the UN Charter, ipsnews

Short History of the Commission on the Status of Women, un.org

History of The United Nations Charter, un.org

Women and the Origins of the UN – A Southern Legacy, UN Web TV

Women and the Origins of the UN, Peac Institute

Adami, Rebecca. Women and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Routledge

Women Founders of the UN, event at SOAS University of London youtube

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