The ERA and Heidi Schreck’s ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’

Rosdely Ciprian, Heidi Schreck, Thursday Williams and Mike Iveson during the Broadway opening night performance of What The Constitution Means To Me at the Hayes Theatre on March 31, 2019, in New York City. (Walter McBride / Getty Images)

What does the Constitution mean to me, to you, and to everyone living in the United States? These are questions being asked more and more as the 2024 election approaches and with the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) just a handful of congressional votes away from becoming the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.

2024 is a perfect year for a rebound of the award-winning play What the Constitution Means to Me, a personal journey written and performed on Broadway by Heidi Schreck.

The play is informative, interactive and inspiring today more than ever, with important connections to the many constitutional issues now before the Supreme Court, including abortion, sexual violence, immigration and the need for the ERA.

Filled with humor and history, the play examines what the U.S. Constitution means to those who live under it. As a high school student, Heidi Schreck participated in the American Legion’s Oratorical Contest, giving speeches about the Constitution in debate competitions across the country. Here, she won enough money in the competitions to pay for college.

Through personal stories about her grandmother’s forced marriage, domestic violence and her own experience getting an abortion, Schreck resurrects a teenage self to investigate the profound effect the Constitution had on four generations of women in her family. As the play unfolds, each personal narrative is another example of persistent gender and race discrimination. The lead actor points to the original “We the People” preamble, which is the opening statement that explains the Constitution’s purpose, and its underlying philosophy that basically did not include women—in voting or other inalienable rights—when signed in 1787 and sent to the states for ratification.

After a successful run in New York City and performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the play—a 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony Award nominee, and winner of the Obie Award, Off-Broadway Alliance Award, and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award—was set to begin productions nationwide. Then COVID-19 hit and closed theaters across the county. Local productions of the play began again in 2023 with many more this spring and summer in community theaters in a dozen states.

Opening Night and International Women’s Day

For Women’s History Month the Portland Stage in Maine celebrated by producing What the Constitution Means to Me for three weeks with opening night on International Women’s Day, March 8. The theater teamed up with the ERA Coalition, Equal Rights Maine, the Maine Women’s Lobby and Ms. magazine as a way to focus on the Equal Rights Amendment bill now before Congress. Closing night is on March 22, the anniversary of the day Congress passed the ERA in 1972 with plans in the works to keep conversations about the ERA moving forward.

Destie Hohman Sprague and Kathy Bonk. (James A. Hadley)

Advocates did a special recognition of the members of the Maine congressional delegation who recognized the ERA as having been ratified—all of whom are co-sponsors of the pending Joint Resolution in the House of Representatives (H.J. Res. 25) and the Senate (S.J. Res. 4)—by giving them ERA Champion Awards. In the House, the Maine delegation has signed Discharge Petition No. 6, which would force a vote to the floor. This is the same discharge petition strategy used by Congresswoman Martha Griffiths in 1972 when the ERA was held up in the Judiciary Committee for more than 30 years.

After the performance, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree told the packed audience from the stage, “Let’s face it, this play is about the fundamental rights of women and their right to choose. We’re fortunate that our rights are protected in Maine. We ratified the Equal Rights Amendment and recently enshrined abortion protections into our state Constitution.”

“But after a deeply partisan and corrupt Supreme Court overturned 50 years of settled law, stripping away reproductive freedom in America, right-wing governors and state legislatures have been emboldened, imposing draconian laws that threaten women across the country. Congress must protect reproductive freedom at the federal level. This production of What the Constitution Means to Me invigorated me, and I hope it inspires others to join in our fight to protect women’s rights and finally adopt the ERA,” Pingree said.

Jennifer Tucker from the ERA Coalition (left) presents an ERA Champion Award to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine). (James A. Hadley)

The show ends with a live debate between the actor playing Schreck, Abigail Killeen, and a teenager, played by Evangeline Cambria, in which they debate the future of the Constitution. A member of the audience determines the winner by the reaction from the audience to the debate.

Connecting to the Equal Rights Amendment

As Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, said after the performance, “I have always been a supporter and activist for the ERA. But after seeing the show, I feel it in my heart and soul like never before.”

The Maine Women’s Lobby is collaborating with Equal Rights Maine on research related to a state equality amendment. “I am proud of our congressional delegation for their leadership on the ERA, along with our governor and state legislators who support women’s rights. They made it possible for us to pass a paid family and medical leave law last year,” said Sprague.

In April 2023, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) were the only two Republicans to vote for the Joint Resolution when Majority Leader Chuck Schumer brought the ERA to the floor. Then, a 52-vote majority of the Senate voted to pass the ERA resolution, but it fell short of the 60 votes needed to eliminate a filibuster. Schumer pledged to bring it back once the House takes action. Schumer was one of the first people to sign the national ERA petition,, at a launch event hosted by former Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and her students at the Hunter College Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute in New York City.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) onstage with a copy of 50 Years of Ms. (James A. Hadley)

Promoting the ERA through Theater

“Theater is about collectively sharing stories that open our eyes to another person’s perspective,” said Anita Stewart, artistic director at the Portland Stage. “It is important for theaters to create work that brings meaning to their community and that’s what community theaters do across the county. What the Constitution Means to Me is such a play. We get to witness Heidi’s story and then participate actively in the closing debate with the audience being called to action. It is remarkable when a piece of theater can do that.”

Two other current plays, one related to the Constitution and another to the Supreme Court, are being performed and offer an opportunity for new audiences to gain a better understanding of why the ERA is needed now more than ever. Suffs, on Broadway, brings to life a chapter of the century of struggle for voting rights. Additionally, the play from 2019, Sisters in Law, is touring in various cities focusing on the relationship between Sandra Day O’Connor, nominated by Ronald Reagan as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a leading feminist attorney put forward to the Court by Bill Clinton.

What the Constitution Means to Me is also available to watch online—although theater-goer and ERA activist Mary Ann Gorman commented, “There is no substitute for live theatre, especially one with an audience so focused on the issues and nuances of the messages.”

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Kathy Bonk is a long-time feminist activist, contributor and advisor to Ms.