Human rights and _____ rights

Ron Lindsay did a post on the Women in Secularism conference last week, reminding anyone who needed reminding that it’s not just for women.

I doubt any of the speakers want a passive audience. They want an audience that will listen attentively, but who will also engage them with questions and challenges. Moreover, there will be ample opportunity for discussion not only with the speakers but also with one’s fellow attendees. This conference will be a great learning experience—for both men and women.

I do! I want a passive audience! I want people who will just sit there and nod agreement the whole time.

Just kidding.

Ben Radford (in a comment) expanded on the idea that women’s rights aren’t just for women.

What, exactly, are “women’s concerns”? I’ve never understood that. Usually people offer examples like child care, the right to an abortion, the right to equal pay, domestic violence, rape, and those sort of issues as “women’s concerns,” which I think is unfortunate and misguided. These are HUMAN concerns, and equally important to men; the characterization of these as “women’s concerns,” it seems to me, only serves to marginalize these important issues. It’s like saying that gay marriage is a “gay issue,” when it’s really a human rights issue. I can understand why people use the phrase as shorthand for a diverse group of social issues, but it always strikes me as somewhat sexist…

That’s a mix of categories. I think child care should decidedly not be a “women’s concern,” on the grounds that children have fathers as well as mothers. I think treating child care as a “women’s concern” just plays into the social custom by which mothers have all or nearly all the responsibility for child care, and that concern for women’s rights requires constant reminder that the responsibility can and should be shared.

But all the other items are specific to women. (Cue MRAs crying that men are raped too and the victims of domestic violence too.) In that sense it’s reasonable to call them women’s concerns, and it doesn’t imply that they’re women’s concerns to the exclusion of being human concerns and men’s concerns. But the rape of a woman, for instance, happens first of all to the woman who is raped. I don’t think it’s sexist to be clear about that.



  1. Captain Mike says

    Even if no men were ever subjected to domestic violence or sexual assault, I can think of one really obvious way that those issues apply to men as well. It’s not like women are battered and abused by some sort of natural force.

  2. Simon says

    What, exactly, are “women’s concerns”? I’ve never understood that

    I’m getting flashbacks from Orlando where the gentleman who said he “didn’t see color”.

    The same response applies to gender issues.

  3. jamessweet says

    I can see the argument both ways. It’s a well-known phenomenon among those acquainted with feminism (and a virtually unheard of phenomenon among those who choose to turn on Faux News at maximum volume and say LALALALAICANTHEARYOU in response to any factual content spoken in their general direction) that progress in “women’s rights” (scare quotes only because of the subject of this post) almost always benefits men as well. Just in the list of examples you have, the right to safe and legal abortion very much does benefit men as well! The ways in which it does are too numerous to even list here.

    I think it ultimately is appropriate to refer to “women’s rights”, “gay rights”, etc. in most contexts, simply because everybody cannot focus on everything all the time, and these terms do represent a coherent set of issues. But Ben Radford is correct that these are ultimately “human rights” issues in the broad sense, and while they may disproportionately affect the named groups, they affect us all and we should all care about them.

  4. Dave says

    I have thought for a long time [as OB knows, though she probably has much more important things to remember…] that one of the many problems with ‘rights’ discourse is exactly this – that certain sets of rights get attached to certain sets of people and [apart from the larger problem of them allegedly having something that actually resides in how other people treat them] this results in those ‘rights’ becoming only those people’s ‘problem’.

    I think we shouldn’t care about ‘human rights’; I think we should throw the concept out of the window entirely. I think we should care about how a decent society ought to treat everyone in it, and people outside it, and other living things, and whole ecosystems; and we ought to behave like citizens and social actors with agency and ownership of our individual and collective actions, hold ourselves accountable for their consequences, and actively debate what is right and wrong, and why. Rather than, as we appear to have chosen, to pretend that an arbitrary list of things that ought to happen because they’re nice is an actual set of ‘rights’ that we somehow acquired in 1948 and yet at the same time magically have always had, even though most people for almost all of history clearly didn’t have them, and an awful lot of people don’t have them now either. NOT LEAST because rights-talk precludes the possibility of any sensible discussion of which so-called rights to prioritise, in favor of yelling ‘give me my rights now’ at the sky, or at people who don’t agree with you, which is about as much use.

    And breathe…

  5. maureen.brian says

    No, Dave.

    When I got to your second paragraph and especially to the phrase “how a decent society ought to treat …” I had a flashback. I was back in a world of sitting neatly – knees together, of course and back straight – with my socks pulled up to exactly the same height and expected to listen and smile while adults spouted any drivel they wanted about me but to say nothing and never even pull a face when they got onto the subject of whether a woman’s brain (or her innards, I was never sure which) could cope with being at university.

    Now, that believed itself to be a decent society and in many ways it was but there whole tranches of subject matter it had never thought about and never would until we began to discuss them under the heading of rights.

    Then think of all the other societies which have praised themselves for their decency and expected praise from others but kept slaves, kept their women laced into stays which cracked their rib-cages and distorted their organs – not for a couple of hours but for centuries. Some of those women kept fainting, not surprisingly, but that was just encouragement to treat the little lady like a doll.

    Now we have the Rush Limbaughs of this world keen to protect the delicate little flowers from knowledge of their own reproductive systems. Either that or protect men from the idea that a woman might make a decision. I’m not sure which: the man confuses me.

    The concept of decency has too often been used to reinforce the status quo whereas with rights we have seen real progress. It’s made all of us a little uncomfortable at times but there’s no reason why you should be spared odd moments of discomfort.

    And thinking “RIGHTS” never stopped me having a discussion with anyone, about anything! Sometimes “DECENCY” did.

  6. Dave says

    Well, if you want ‘decency’ to mean that, then that’s your problem. I mean taking responsibilty for buildng a society in which people don’t need to pretend there’s a dream-object called ‘rights’ hovering out there in order to get what they need to live in peace, tolerance and flourishing.

    Do you think I’m talking about some white-picket-fence Bedford Falls Norman Rockwell fantasy? I’ve been thinking and working in green feminist-anarchist circles my whole adult life, which is going on 25 years now. Don’t project your back-story onto me because you have a problem with what a word means to you.

    Tell me where you will find these ‘rights’ you supposedly already have? Tell me how you know you can get them defined to suit you, and not to suit someone who disagrees with you, tell me how you’ll make that definition stick, and why someone else’s claim that it violates their ‘rights’ won’t overrule it. People think it’s a good argument because we’ve been stuck making it since Thomas dam-fool Jefferson and James dimwit Madison, but it just isn’t. If it was, American women’s ‘right’ to bodily autonomy wouldn’t be teetering on a political knife-edge the way it is now, because nobody would think the ‘rights’ of a fertilised embryo had anything to do with the matter.

  7. says

    Dave – really? If no one talked of rights then religious zealots would not have come up with another way to make abortion seem evil? Why wouldn’t they?

  8. psocoptera says

    Dave, when people use “decency” in parts of the US, it is often a bludgeon to beat down people who violate some convention regarding “proper” behavior. Maybe empathy or compassion would be a better terms. Likewise, “accountability” in that context could take on a strong libertarian flavor over here; not as bad as “responsibility,” but close. Also, I haven’t noticed that it is about the rights of a fertilized embryo – it is about controlling women’s sexual behavior (as explained by Rush Limbaugh) and because some of our fine citizens think a ball of cells has a soul (anti-abortion/personhood legislation). And because they are wildly misinformed about biological norms in menstuating species. Our fetuses are more like parasites than they want to believe…

  9. maureen.brian says


    The first human rights document of the modern era was not post-WWII.

    It was the Convention on the Rights of the Child, first published in 1923 and drawn up by Eglantyne Jebb. She had been working in central Europe after the well-fed blokes who sat round that shiny table and signed the Treaty of Versailles decided that getting the defeated powers to pay reparations was far, far more important than restoring a clean water supply, setting up basic agriculture or even feeding infants.

    After years of banging her head against both petty officials and minsters and after being threatened with a treason trial she decided she needed to get through to these people somehow and came up with the idea of expressing the child’s legitimate needs as rights.

    It doesn’t matter whether you would have approached the problem the same way or even whether you like it. It worked.

  10. Desert Son, OM says

    The other advantage to codification of something in terms of rights is the establishment of historical precedent: once enshrined, it becomes harder (not impossible, certainly) for organized efforts to revoke same once the rights have been recognized. It also provides those previously without recourse an underlying construct that strengthens efforts at recognition and protection.

    Because at some point down the road, someone who is dreadfully afraid that other people not like them are even being recognized as humans will make pace to try and undercut that. You can see it in everything from Jim Crow laws to redlining to slut shaming to “preservation of marriage” initiatives.

    Establishing principles in terms of human rights doesn’t suddenly make the denial of those rights go away, but it is crucial to solidifying in broader public awareness – as well as legal frameworks – the idea that those rights do exist and should be acknowledged, fought for, and protected.

    Still learning,


  11. lordshipmayhem says

    There are only a handful of rights and issues that are solely women’s issues – and they deserve all the support from men in dealing with the exercising of these rights. And all that I can conceive of are under the umbrella of “reproductive rights”: the right to choose whether or not to proceed with an abortion, the right to choose what kind of birth control, the right to say “No”.

    By the way, can we stop referring to rape as a sexual crime? It’s about power and control, not about sex. It is a crime of violence. The offender is usually trying to dominate over the victim, be that victim male or female. Again, the victim is often female and the offender is usually (not exclusively, but usually) male, but in any case the victim needs all the support we, men and women, can give her or him. We should not re-victimize the victim by thinking, much less saying, they “deserved it”, were “tempting him” or whatever. Adults know “no = no”.

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