When the American Constitution was written in 1787, “we the people” referred only to white men. Its authors intentionally omitted women of all backgrounds and men of color because they were considered chattel—as in property. While the 14th Amendment, 19th Amendment, Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Title IX have given us some gains, today women are still not considered equal under law in the United States of America.
That must be wrong, right? That’s what filmmaker Kamala Lopez thought, so she set on what would become a seven-year journey to find out more. The result is the new documentary Equal Means Equal, written and directed by Lopez and executive produced by several notable people including Liz Lopez, Patricia Arquette and Paramount Home Media Vice President of Marketing Jyoti Sarda. The 90-minute film exposes how women’s basic human rights are not embedded in the Constitution by looking at 10 realms where women are unequal, including wage discrimination, domestic violence and rape, and reproductive healthcare. The work also shows why we need an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to change things. Suffragist Alice Paul wrote the ERA in 1921 and it has been introduced in Congress nearly every year since, but never added to the Constitution. It came close once: the ERA passed Congress in 1972 and needed 38 states’ approval to be added to the Constitution. But it fell short by three states by the time the ratification deadline expired.
At a screening of Equal Means Equal in Los Angeles last week, Lopez explained how learning that history launched her on the film project. “When I found out that the ERA had not passed and that women do not have equal protection under the Constitution, I felt like someone told me, ‘That thing in the sky that you’ve always thought was the sun, is actually a light bulb,’” said Lopez. “I had bought into the narrative that I was empowered and I could be whoever I wanted, but it’s a lie.”
If you know someone who likes to argue that sexism doesn’t exist, take them to see this documentary. Afterwards, they won’t have an argument to stand on. It’s packed with disturbing statistics. For example, there are more homeless women in the US than any other industrialized country. Every day, three American women die as a result of domestic violence. Ninety percent of women who are in prison for killing men were abused by them.
Legislation and legalities determine what constitutes human rights in this country. When it comes to women’s rights specifically, state and federal courts as well as the Supreme Court are still weighted against women. In workplace discrimination cases, for example, a female defendant has to prove the intent to discriminate against her based on gender, a nearly impossible endeavor. In fact, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, stated outright that women are not specifically protected under the Constitution. In 2011, the Court ruled against a class action job discrimination lawsuit filed on behalf of the 1.5 million women who work at Walmart, the number one private employer in the U.S. (The film points out the fact that Justice Scalia’s son was a partner at the law firm that represented Walmart.) The Supreme Court is not willing to look at sex or gender and the result is “not a glass ceiling, but a brick wall.” Having an ERA would change that. The Supreme Court and corporate CEOs know that women are not protected under the Constitution. Why don’t the rest of us?
At the advance screening of Equal Means Equal in Los Angeles last week, several labor and gender activists discussed how they’re part of a new coalition to get the ERA passed.
Jessica Neuwirth, President of the new ERA Coalition and author of the book Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment is Now, thinks it should be easier to pass now because many of the arguments that were used against the ERA in the past are gone, such as the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. “Traditional gender constructs have changed. More men are behind it now too,” said Neuwrith. “At the same time, we have new tools for activists like social media. Most countries in the world have this. We’re so far behind.”
Bamby Salcedo, President and CEO of TransLatin@ Coalition, suggests that we need to look at the ERA as “a new era,” wherein we use our grassroots power to change the culture from a patriarchal model to one of inclusion that honors human rights. She’s mobilizing for the ERA because it will have positive outcomes for transwomen as well.
Dara Richardson-Heron, Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA USA, said “People want to make this too big to manage, but it’s really simple. We are able to come together to form this coalition because this is a matter of principle. Women are equal to men, yet our Constitution does not allow that to be fact so we are treated as second-class citizens.”
In 2014, Oregon became the first state in 30 years to amend their state Constitution to include the ERA. The effort was led by the grassroots organization VoteERA.org, which brought it to the voters through a ballot initiative. Getting it passed state-by-state is one of the strategies of the national movement, as well as doing so on the federal level.
As Lopez told me in no uncertain terms: “The Equal Rights Amendment will give us something we can point back to you and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute we are actually humans and there’s a certain level of civility we expect.’ The ERA is the thing that begins the change and the thing that without which no change is possible.”
Equal Means Equal is currently seeking distribution. In the meantime, you can get more info about the film at their website.
Read an interview with director Kamala Lopez on how Hollywood isn’t interested in stories about women.