Law From Below: Women's Human Rights and Social Movements in New York City


  • This research was generously supported by a grant from the Law and Social Sciences Program of the National Science Foundation, #SES-0417730, awarded to Peggy Levitt and Sally Engle Merry. We appreciate those who helped us with the project, advised us, and provided comments on earlier drafts. We are particularly grateful to Ejim Dike and the staff of the Urban Justice Center and the staff and members of the Voices of Women Organizing Project. Susan Sturm suggested one of the study sites, and our students did some work together on the research. We received helpful comments and advice from Madelaine Adelman, Gad Barzilai, LaDawn Haglund, and Meg Satterthwaite, as well as from audiences at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University, Stanford Law School, the University of Oregon Law School, and the University of Washington.

Please address correspondence to Sally Engle Merry, Department of Anthropology, New York University, 25 Waverly Place, New York, NY 10003; e-mail:


Despite the ambivalent history of the domestic application of human rights in the United States, human rights increasingly offer important resources for American grassroots activists. Within the constraints of U.S. policy toward human rights, they provide social movements a kind of global law “from below”: a form of cosmopolitan law that subalterns can use to challenge their subordinate position. Using a case study from New York City, we argue that in certain contexts, human rights can provide important political resources to U.S. social movements. However, they do so in a diffuse way far from the formal system of human rights law. Instead, activists adopt some of the broader social justice ideas and strategies embedded within human rights practice.