Kamala Lopez earns her living as a Los Angeles-based actress and filmmaker. But in recent years, she has become something else: a full-fledged activist with a singular mission — to see the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a piece of legislation that has been nearly a century in the making.
Ms. Lopez was one of the featured speakers who took part in the January 20 Women’s March on Washington D.C. and she used her time at the podium to make the case for passage of the ERA.
“All Americans should be treated equally under the law — period. That’s not happening and that’s all anyone needs to know,” said Ms. Lopez in a recent phone interview with the Reporter. “I think we’re really seeing a seismic shift, not only in women’s activism, but in their perception of it. If the public hadn’t given credibility to women the way they have been lately, we wouldn’t be able to move forward.”
“I’m heartened that it’s not just being portrayed as a movement of confused women upset about stuff,” she added. “We’re getting to the nitty gritty of gender discrimination.”
Many of those discriminatory arguments are detailed in “Equal Means Equal,” Ms. Lopez’s 2016 documentary which will be shown at the Shelter Island Library on Thursday, March 8 at 7 p.m. The screening is sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Shelter Island in honor of Women’s History Month and it has something of an Island connection. Liz Lopez (the filmmaker’s mother) is an executive producer of the film and close friends with Island resident and LWV member Jean Lawless.
In another interesting local twist, on January 22, Ms. Lopez and fellow activists staged an action in Washington, D.C. in which they reenacted the women’s suffrage parade of March 3, 1913 that took place 105 years ago this week. Among the historic figures they portrayed was Shelter Island summer resident Inez Milholland, aka “The Woman on the White Horse,” who wore a long, white cape and led the 1913 demonstration astride a white steed. Hers has become an iconic image in the fight for women’s rights.
The fight for those rights continues to this day. Through real-life stories and legal case studies, “Equal Means Equal” offers a snapshot of the status of women in America today. It argues there is a real and pressing need for the ERA as revealed through the inadequacies of present laws to protect women from issues such as workplace harassment, domestic vio-lence, sexual assault and the gender wage gap.
“Despite the Dow and all these bells and whistles that we’re doing so well, people are hurting daily in not being able to cover their bills,” Ms. Lopez said. “I’m talking about American families — not just women. One in five kids comes from a household without enough money to put dinner on the table.
“The men would be desperately happy to get that 45 percent extra coming into the household,” she added, referring to the wage discrepancy that exists between men and women — and is even worse for women of color.
As it stands now, the only Constitutional right guaranteed to women is the 19th amendment — the right to vote, which came in 1920. The ERA was born in 1923 on the heels of that right, introduced by suffragist Alice Paul who saw that more gender protections were needed, given that the Constitution does not explicitly guarantee that its rights apply to all citizens, regardless of sex.
And while the language of the ERA contains just 24 words and is fairly simple and straightforward — “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” — its passage has been anything but.
The ERA’s prime time in the spotlight began in 1972 when the legislation was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. But it ultimately fell three states short of the 38 needed for passage and by 1982, the ERA was effectively dead, killed by conservatives who mobilized opposition against it using arguments that seem oddly dated by today’s standards. Among them was Phyllis Schlafly’s contention that the ERA would primarily benefit young career women, thereby threatening the security of middle-aged housewives with no job skills.
Then, after lying dormant for decades, on March 22, 2017 Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA — 45 years to the day after Congress passed it. In 2017, ERA bills were also introduced in the legislatures of Arizona, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Utah and Virginia. With only two more states needed for passage, proponents see Virginia and Illinois as the most likely to follow Nevada’s lead and are focusing efforts there.
“This is the year that it’s all going to change. One thing I’m very committed to is not permitting the can to get kicked down the road any further,” Ms. Lopez said. “Once I realized the importance of ERA ratification, I found out why — and who — is keeping it from coming up for a vote in each of the 14 remaining states.”
“I’ve gotten to the bottom of how both Democrats and Republicans have jollied these lovely ladies along with promises of ERA ratification if they help get them elected in November,” she said. “Then none of it pans out.”
“We’re moving past politeness and on to ‘Well, maybe you’ll listen to a lawsuit.’ We’re saying pull the thing out of committee and get a vote,” Ms. Lopez added. “If none of these states will vote, we’ll file a clear lawsuit that the state is not doing its job to hold hearings and vote on legislation.”
One of the barriers for support of the ERA has been the lack of perceived need, given that women have made great strides in recent decades. But those with the long view like Ms. Lopez hold that the ERA is vital in providing a clear judicial standard for deciding sex discrimination cases. Without the amendment in place to protect women as equals at the Constitutional level, legislative advancements like the Equal Pay Act, Title IX and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act are vulnerable to erosion or even reversal.
“We have to start at the foundation. I’m not faulting brilliant attorneys who have tried to do an end run around this basic injustice. That’s what we see in enforcement of Title IX on campus,” Ms. Lopez said. “But if you don’t fix the foundation, there will be cracks that become loopholes and gaps.”
“What’s still missing is making the connection for the public between lack of Constitutional equality and all these things coming up,” said Ms. Lopez. “I think we’re almost there. It’s just a matter of awareness building and people being willing to go one step further. I’ve had my ‘Me Too’ moment, so what’s next? It can’t just be a subjective examination of the culture, which is valuable. We need to move on to hardline underlying systematic institutions.”
“No wonder we’re falling through the cracks — there’s no floor.”
Kamala Lopez’s documentary “Equal Means Equal” will be shown at the Shelter Island Library on Thursday, March 8 at 7 p.m. The event is free and sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Shelter Island.