“Women and men still do not have equal rights.”
That’s the opening statement in the trailer for Equal Means Equal, a documentary film exploring our country’s need for an equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The revelation is presented as a bombshell: “What do you mean, we don’t have equal rights?” How could such an oversight exist in our country? Is the omission a deeply ingrained holdover from the patriarchal roots of U.S. democracy, and therefore irrelevant? Or is it a powerful force of oppression that continues in our country?
This question was posed long before 2016, before Hillary Clinton’s bid for president was defeated not by sloppy emails but by Russian interference. Before Pussy Grabs Back, before hundreds of global women’s marches. Before birth control was once again regulated to near-outlaw status.
Yes, we still lack equal rights in our country, in that the U.S. never passed an equal rights amendment. But the difference between when the film was made and now is that we are well aware of our lack of equal rights—but by no means is the film now irrelevant. Rather, it is made even more painfully and essentially relevant with our current president.
Equal Means Equal was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary of 2016. The filmmaker, Kamala Lopez, reflected on the film’s course from inception to its current place in Trump’s America in a conversation with Ms.
Your film is so comprehensive, so big in scope. How did you distill the focus? Did the number of subjects grow the further you did research, or did you narrow down from a broader lens?
To the consternation of my writing partner, Gini Sikes, for the first couple of years my interest was in looking at gender discrimination across our society in as many ways as it presented itself. If I located an area where I wondered whether there was some kind of quantifiable bias against women, I created a bnin for it where we would put in pertinent clips from interviews that we had filme,d as well as news stories and other data we researched and compiled. We ended up with over two dozen bins. Our initial cut was over seven and a half hours long! I really thought that this merited a multi-episode TV series, but that was not to be.
What tipped you off about our country’s lack of an equal rights amendment?
An actress at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC in 2009. I was there with my husband, Joel Marshall, showing my first feature film as a director at the National Portrait Gallery. It was A Single Woman, about the first U.S. Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin. We got there early and I saw a woman, dressed as a suffragist, walking around the lobby, like a “living history” type of installation. As a performer, I felt strongly that I should acknowledge and interact with her, and when I approached her she said to me, very directly: “I’m Alice Paul, back to haunt you because you’ve done nothing to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment on a federal level.”
There was something profound and confusing about that moment, both in terms of the abstract information I was receiving and the anachronistic visuals that accompanied being told that women still did not have equal rights under the law. And I simply got stuck in that moment. If you take a moment right now to reflect that our government has not seen it fit to give women the basic respect of equality under law, it feels like a swift kick to the guts—like it can’t really be true. But it is, and it is frightening.
Did you recognize its absence and made the links to its effects on so many different subjects, or were you looking for a way to unify all the subjects with one thesis and hit on the ERA?
Once I was able to allow the reality of the absence of basic civil and human rights for women to sink in—which took a long time, and was almost like a death of something that I held near and dear, and was a major part of my personal identity; i.e. coming to terms with the fact that my perception of my personal “empowerment” was a false facade and that I, like most American women, was the victim of pervasive and concerted propaganda campaign—I posited that there would have to be consequences to such a basic absence, and that these could and should be studied and quantified. And, without trying to be too philosophical here, I wondered whether it could be possible that the absence of ERA provided the essential environment that sex discrimination needed in order to grow and thrive the way it has across multiple areas of our society in both the public and private sectors.
What about your background, as a writer, activist and actor, was the most influential in leading you to direct this film?
I think that there was nothing special about me except that I was very personally engaged with the questions this topic raised, and felt that this is perhaps the single most important issue that we can and must focus on. It made me tenacious. Given the tenor of the times, I do not feel hyperbolic in my assertion that the ascendance of women is perhaps the only potential solution to our rapidly spiraling descent towards extinction as a species. Man clearly poses an existential threat to the entire eco-system all living beings depend on for our survival. If women cannot demand basic civil and human rights under law in putatively the most powerful western democracy extant, how can we possibly achieve the balance of power necessary to have impact on the trajectory of history and save our species and the planet? The Equal Rights Amendment is the necessary first step without which all other steps towards the progress of women’s rights will ultimately fail. It is the a priori action—the foundation that, when poured, allows us to build upon it to achieve great heights. Without it, our skyscrapers are built on smoke and mirrors, ready to come crashing down with a good hard shake.
What was the hardest part about making this film?
What was the most inspiring part?
The strength and power of people, especially women, who have had to put up with less than nothing to survive and thrive in our society but manage to do it. I marvel at what the average American woman is capable—it’s astounding and remarkable but completely unacceptable, unfair and unjust.
You made the film pre-Trump. How does the upcoming political climate bode for the ERA? Are you still hopeful?
In the same way that the words of former Dean of the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, in an interview at Hastings Law School, served to put women on alert that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment DID NOT apply to women: “Surely the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only question is whether is prohibits it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that was what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that.” So too can the outlandish words and deeds of the new President serve to galvanize a constituency of women who have failed to act as the majority that we are.
So much has transpired since you began this project. Justice Scalia died, Planned Parenthood was under attack, the Supreme Court ruled on Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Hillary. Do you still think the fight for an ERA is relevant? Do we need to add another struggle to the list of things we will be battling under Trump, like the ACA, a new Supreme Court Justice, the fight for $15, etc.? I’m playing devil’s advocate here asking that, but how do we convince our country that the fight is still relevant when there are so many pressing and immediate agendas to address?
Buying into the narrative that there is anything more important than the ERA is dangerous and a result of poor education on the matter. Please watch the film to fully understand how the Constitution is the legal underpinning for all our legislation and explicit exclusion of women in the basis of all gender discrimination. And to take that one step farther, gender discrimination and male dominance is threatening the future of the species and planet.
When the majority of the population is not being afforded these basic civil and human rights, the judiciary has no choice but to rule on what is there, it cannot invent and rule on the nonexistent. If our society concurs that women, at 47 percentof the paid workforce, have emerged from the sole purview of the home and their sphere of influence now necessarily includes the classically male realm of the workplace, politics, etc., then they must have equal representation in society in order to participate in policy decisions that affect their lives and economic outcomes.