Despite the depth and breadth of their expertise, U.S. delegates will go to next week's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing empty-handed in one key respect: They represent the only industrialized democracy that has not ratified a United Nations treaty on ending discrimination against women.
In the 16 years since it was approved by the United Nations, the treaty has been ratified by 144 countries. But in the U.S. Senate, a floor vote has yet to be taken.
That non-action, women's groups fear, may undermine the United States' credibility in negotiations at the conference, particularly on sensitive questions of human rights.
"It's embarrassing for us," said Billie Heller in exasperation, after learning last week that the African nation of Lesotho had become the latest to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The Los Angeles activist has led the fight for U.S. ratification since the Second U.N. Conference on Women in Copenhagen in 1980.
"Congress is making such a furor about how we are the beacon for human rights in the world," she said.
"How do they excuse not ratifying the treaty that affects the lives of half the population of the planet, and 144 countries have?"
Former President Jimmy Carter, who signed the accord in 1980, recently called the U.S. failure to ratify it an "unfortunate fact [that] will be highly noticed" in Beijing.
Even supporters of the treaty acknowledge that the failure to ratify it is more a reflection of partisan politics than a sign that women's status in the United States lags behind that in the rest of the world.
Opposition has come mainly from conservative forces that believe the United Nations is "overreaching" into the affairs of sovereign states.
Were the United States to ratify the treaty, women's groups could appeal to it in seeking equality in health care, employment and other areas -- but it would not extend protections beyond those already guaranteed by the Constitution.
But U.S. ratification would probably mean more to women outside the nation, according to Sandra Coliver, an international law specialist in Washington.
"Our ratification of the treaty would have an immense impact on women around the world," said Ms. Coliver.
"The fact that we have failed to ratify has allowed governments to defend their failure to comply with the treaty."
The treaty last failed to gain ratification in 1994. The convention was approved by a majority of the Foreign Relations Committee but never made it to a floor vote.
When Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas indicated that she would vote no, several other Republicans followed suit, effectively killing it.
Ms. Kassebaum could not be reached for comment, but her critique of the treaty is found in a 1994 Senate report.
"We fear that creating yet another set of unenforceable international standards will further dilute respect for international human rights norms," she wrote.
"We are hesitant to invest much hope that [the convention] will lead to real changes in the lives of women."
Critics point out that signing a piece of paper is a meaningless exercise when many parties to the convention are guilty of serious violations of women's rights.
In fact, many countries listed "reservations" to sections of the treaty upon ratifying it. Iraq, Libya and Bangladesh, for example, note that under Islamic law, men should have more extensive rights than their wives.
"The reservations are so sweeping that many governments have begun an initiative to challenge the provisions so as to undermine the treaty," said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in New York and a member of the U.S. delegation to the conference.