Ninety years ago this summer, a Republican legislator from Tennessee, Harry T. Burn, was the key vote that gave women the right to vote in the United States. Thirty-five states had ratified it out of the 36 needed to add the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The state legislature was tied, with 48 votes for and 48 against. On Aug. 18, 1920, Burn broke the tie.
Now, it seems that another Tennessee Republican could be the key to advancing, in some people’s eyes, the cause of abolishing international gender discrimination.
The Republican? U.S. Sen. Bob Corker.
Corker has been identified as a target of a national campaign urging the United States to ratify a United Nations treaty first drafted in the late 1970s called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This year, the CEDAW Task Force of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has organized a national campaign to urge the Senate to ratify the treaty. Locally, the campaign has sent postcards to Corker, urging him to vote in favor of CEDAW.
“The reason why you’re seeing so much activity in Tennessee is that [Aug. 26] is Women’s Equality Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the 19th Amendment,” said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the leadership conference.
Burn, who was originally undecided on the women’s suffrage issue, was famously moved to vote yes after receiving a letter from his mother. The City Paper was unable to reach Corker’s mother, Jean Corker, of Signal Mountain, Tenn., by press time.
Corker’s office offered an email statement indicating that, as of now, he is less-than-supportive of the treaty.
“Senator Corker has been a leading advocate for improved access to social and economic opportunity in the developing world and supported efforts to end the suffering of and violence against vulnerable populations, including women. … Like most Americans, Sen. Corker believes we should stand up for the basic human rights of all people and work toward ending violence and discrimination against women wherever it occurs, but he thinks the CEDAW treaty is overly broad and could undermine U.S. sovereignty.”
Nevertheless, for the campaign, it looks in many ways to be the right year to at least attempt to change Corker’s and some of his colleagues’ minds, wielding points including the company the U.S. now keeps in failing to agree to be bound to the terms of the treaty. Qatar’s accession — in effect, the same as ratification but for the fact that Qatar didn’t sign the original treaty — makes 186 out of 193 U.N.-recognized nations on board with CEDAW. The other six non-compliers are Sudan, Somalia, Iran (all with less-than-impressive records when it comes to human rights) and Nauru, Palau, and Tonga (three island countries with a combined population nearly rivaling Chattanooga’s).
This year will also mark the first time the United States has submitted itself to a Uniform Periodic Review by the UN’s Council on Human Rights. A failure to ratify CEDAW could tarnish its record in gender equality. Finally, this year’s mid-term election will likely give some Senate seats to Republicans. Since any treaty requires a two-thirds majority (or 67 votes) for Senate approval, that already means eight GOP votes are needed on top of the full 59-member Democratic Caucus. The prospects look grimmer in 2011.
First, though, a treaty will likely have to be approved by the Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, is the ranking member of that committee, but he voted against the treaty in 2002. That’s where Corker, the second-ranking Republican, comes in.
The treaty will likely be required to pass this committee to reach the Senate floor, but Corker’s office said it doesn’t expect ratification to be offered in the Senate during the 111th Congress.
CEDAW has garnered support from President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Corker’s voting history suggests that hoping for his support for the treaty might be something of a long shot. He voted against invoking cloture — which would have ended debate and forced a vote — on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007, legislation that extended the amount of time an employee would be eligible to file a pay discrimination suit against her employer. When the 2009 version of the bill finally did come up for a full vote, Corker voted against it. Last year, he voted against an amendment to the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act that called for the Defense Department to end all contracts with companies that stopped employees who were victims of rape from taking their cases to civilian court.
It’s also worth mentioning that Corker has consistently voted pro-life. A treaty like CEDAW that has been construed, accurately or not, as having a “pro-abortion agenda” is unlikely to appeal to him politically.