By Danielle Calle and Sarah Eilers ~
The film A Question of Justice documents in powerful images and words the work of female attorneys and activists from 38 nations who, in 1975, attended the First Inter-Hemispheric Conference on Law, Population, and the Status of Women. The goals of the conference were ambitious—healthy debate and a meeting of minds on principles deserving of endorsement worldwide to deliver to women the rights and choices “which men of all nations take for granted.” As Aziza Hussein of Egypt, a social welfare and family planning advocate, phrased it:
“In order that a woman be a person able to contribute to, and to benefit from, social progress and development, she must enjoy equality with men in law and in fact, in all fields.”
The conference was held at the Airlie Foundation in Airlie, Virginia, outside Washington DC. A Question… is one of hundreds of titles made by the film production arm of the foundation. In collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Inter-American Dialogue Center, and other organizations, Airlie Productions created titles focusing on global health, family planning, and the environment, many set in Latin America and narrated and written by screenwriter-director Miriam Bucher. Dr. Murdock Head (1924–1994), seen in the last few minutes of the film, led the Airlie Foundation for 30 years.
The National Library of Medicine holds scores of Airlie titles. During the past 18 months, staff of the Library have digitized nearly the entire collection, and will be making the films available in NLM Digital Collections once they are transcribed and captioned.
Half of Humankind
Harriet Pilpel (1911–1991), a U.S. lawyer specializing in First Amendment and reproductive rights issues who participated in 27 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court between 1937 and 1991, sets a determined tone early on, telling the attendees, “I hope that the dominant mood will be one of daring and courage.” Attendee Keys Macmanus establishes a framework for progress by noting that “law is the history of the mixing of codes.” The conference is structured around this precept, focusing on five dominant legal systems: United States, Continental, Commonwealth, Islamic, and Latin American law. This throughline is key to understanding the meeting’s overarching themes and outcomes, and the three languages used to conduct the proceedings: English, French, and Spanish.
The documentary opens with a survey of laws—both sacred and profane—that have dominated modern societal principles, providing historical context for the countries and systems represented at the conference. It begins with biblical figures Moses and Abraham, prophets of moral codes, and swiftly moves to the schism between law and divinity. The Magna Carta, which elevated man-made laws over the assumed divine rights of the noble class, paved the way for the historical development of democracy, and eventually the U.S. Constitution. We the People suggests the possibility of inclusion. Says our narrator, “Half of humankind is after all, woman.” The film’s opening montage illustrates another underlying tension: how to arrive at consensus when the weight of history and religion set the delegates so far apart? As the introductory sequence closes, the title of the film is displayed and the camera lingers on an image of the scales of justice, imbalanced.
The film makes clear that problems and solutions specific to one country cannot apply to all. With regard to family planning and support, for example, there are progressive Sweden, more-conservative Iran, and lying somewhere in between, Latin America, a region that has “compressed centuries of progress into two decades.”
The film’s narrator concedes, “In this struggle, there are no absolutes save the condition that laws change as times change.” Stephanie Daly of Trinidad and Tobago provides a sobering perspective, one that reminds the viewer that most conference attendees represent the elite in their countries. “The articulate women…tend to preserve the status that they have achieved. It’s no use to a woman with no money to be told she has the right to vote if she is not in a position to be concerned with that.”
With this, primary themes emerge: the family as central, and elevation in the status of women as both possible and desirable. Daly’s counterargument is evident in the conference’s recommendations that make essential the right to education and equal employment, and which recognize that for both men and women, control of fertility helps make possible other opportunities.
At the conclusion of the conference, attendees had agreed on seven key principles that they intended to take to leadership and lawmakers in their home countries. These principles are seen in similar form in numerous later declarations and agreements centered around women’s rights.
- That grounds for divorce shall be the same for men and for women.
- That parental obligations and rights shall be shared equally between father and mother.
- That women shall have the same inheritance rights as men.
- That each person shall have equal opportunity of remunerative work and equal rights as to salary, fringe benefits, and working conditions for equal work.
- That steps shall be taken to eliminate polygamy, where it still exists legally.
- That there shall be no legal barriers to the distribution of information, education, and services in connection with safe and acceptable methods of contraception.
- That all persons shall have the right to freely choose the number and spacing of their children.
What Happened Next?
It appears from the historical record that the conference didn’t meet again in this precise format, but the issues discussed have been taken up time and again in other critical settings. According to Lori Ashford, an independent reproductive health consultant in Washington, DC, “…in the 1970s a number of international meetings likely helped lay the groundwork for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a treaty adopted in 1979. That’s considered the key declaration of women’s human rights (and legal rights), and because it’s a treaty it has greater legal status than UN policy conferences…” The U.S is one of two signatories to the treaty, while 189 countries have fully ratified it and six have taken no action. Ashford also explained that the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995 “…focused on women and their social standing and legal rights, and today we have UN Women as the global body that tracks progress. The language used is often very similar across national and international documents because lawyers and advocates tend to work together to keep it consistent.”
What do Women Want?
The film concludes, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, with a question posed by Sigmund Freud—what in heaven’s name do women want? To our narrator and the conference’s delegates, the answer is clear. To 21st-century viewers living in a multi-faceted, diverse society, it likely falls short. The film’s title card emerges anew, the former scales of justice no longer tipped, but balanced. A woman’s voice answers the query: “Justice, Dr. Freud, justice.” The principles and ideals expressed in A Question of Justice may feel evanescent, yet its portrait of progress by women the world over can serve as encouragement for a better path forward.