Meet the Courageous Recipients of FMF’s Global Women’s Rights Awards

FMF board member Dee Martin, Ms. executive editor Kathy Spillar, labor activist Dolores Huerta and Feminist Majority Foundation president Ellie Smeal. (Nina Zacuto)

The 16th annual Global Women’s Rights Awards, hosted by the Feminist Majority Foundation (publisher of Ms.), convened Tuesday evening in Los Angeles. This year’s awards celebrated the activism to secure final ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and the bravery of both U.S. and Afghan women in the face of misogynistic laws and leadership.

The evening recognized three honorees in particular who have contributed greatly to advancing the rights of women and girls: Former U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Dr. Austin Dennard, and the Bread and Roses documentary team, including director Sahra Mani. (Explore the red carpet highlights on Instagram.)

Carolyn Maloney

Maloney is a leading advocate for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and chair of the national petition drive. On Tuesday, she received the Champion of Equality Award, presented by FMF co-founder and president Ellie Smeal and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.

Ellie Smeal, former U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney and actor-activist Amy Brenneman. (Nina Zacuto)

“I firmly believe the Dobbs decision was a wake-up call,” said Maloney upon accepting the award. “If they can take back women’s rights there, they can take them back anywhere. An ERA puts women’s rights where they cannot be touched: in the Constitution. … It is painful and shocking that my daughters have fewer rights than I had at their age. The ERA can fix this, as courts in Nevada and Pennsylvania have used their state ERAs to expand abortion rights. In my 30 years in Congress, we have never been closer.”

The ERA could protect three key pillars of gender equality: ensuring reproductive health and rights, preventing gender-based violence and promoting economic fairness. It passed Congress in 1972 with the needed two-thirds vote of the U.S. House and Senate. The required three-fourths of the state legislatures then ratified the ERA when Virginia became the 38th state in 2020. ERA advocates are now pushing members of both the House and Senate to support joint resolutions and a discharge petition. With only a handful of votes needed, advocates are hopeful that the ERA will be voted on this year; if not, they will make it an even bigger issue in the elections.

Seven in 10 voters support the ERA being placed in the Constitution, with a strong majority (57 percent) strongly supporting the ERA, according to a national poll by Lake Research Partners for Ms. and FMF, compared to 12 percent who oppose the ERA. And while abortion and the ERA are strong voter turnout issues separately, they’re even more powerful when combined. In particular, candidates talking about abortion and the ERA together is a powerful combination to mobilize Democrats and Independents (especially Independent women), younger women, voters who support abortion rights, college-educated women, Latinas and Black voters, and voters ages 30-39.

“One thing that is wonderful about feminist energy is that we support each other,” said Bass, who is the first woman and second Black person to serve as mayor of Los Angeles. “We lift each other up.”

Bass and City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto. (Nina Zacuto)

On Wednesday, Bass signed the petition publicly in downtown Los Angeles, alongside feminist leaders and ERA advocates including FMF executive director and Ms. executive editor Kathy Spillar, labor activist Dolores Huerta, FMF president Ellie Smeal, and Maloney. At the gala and city hall, activists were encouraged to go to the website and take action to put the ERA into the Constitution.

Left to right: City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto, Spillar, Huerta, Smeal, Bass, California Women’s Law Center executive director Betsy Butler and Maloney. (Nina Zacuto)

“We are going to go to mayors all around the country to build up momentum for women’s rights,” said Bass. “We need an Equal Rights Amendment ever, given the Supreme Court. If we had an ERA, we wouldn’t have to worry about Congress threatening to pass a national law to prohibit a woman’s right to choose.”

“We are pushing like there’s no tomorrow working on this crucial issue,” said Spillar.

Back row, left to right: Butler, Spillar, Maloney, California NOW president Camerina Davidson, Smeal; front row, left to right: Huerta, Bass and Feldstein Soto. (Nina Zacuto)

Austin Dennard

At Dr. Austin Dennard’s 11-week appointment in 2022, she found out her fetus had anencephaly, meaning it was developing without part of the brain and skull. As an OB-GYN herself, Dennard was horrified, picturing her would-be child’s quality of life. Knowing she would not qualify under the exceptions of Texas’ abortion bans, since the risks were not immediate, Dennard traveled out of state to get abortion care so that she would not be forced to carry a nonviable pregnancy to term. 

Today, Dr. Dennard is one of 22 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state’s draconian abortion bans. The historic case, which seeks to clarify the scope of Texas’ “medical emergency” exception under its state abortion bans, is the first time women have directly sued a state over abortion access since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion. A ruling from the state Supreme Court is expected in the coming weeks or months.

Dr. Austin Dennard is an an OB-GYN from Dallas and a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking clarity in the state’s abortion exceptions. (Nina Zacuto)

“I’m just a mother like anyone else, a wife, an OB-GYN, just a woman who needed an abortion but could not get one in her home state. So how does someone who’s never been particularly political, or public, become the face of abortion? I’ll admit, over the past year I have turned to my adoring husband—who proudly considers himself a feminist, I might add—and asked him the same question,” said Dennard. “The answer is you. All of you. Everyone sitting here tonight. You have all helped me find my voice.”

Dennard received the Courage Award on Tuesday, presented by actor and activist Amy Brenneman.

“Austin is the face of what it looks like to authentically, compassionately and courageously stand up to what is wrong with the right-wing approach to women’s reproductive healthcare,” said Brenneman. “Since coming forward, her clinic has been threatened and harassed, but she’s refused to back down.”

Sahra Mani, Bread and Roses

Bread and Roses is a film that offers a powerful window into the seismic impact on women’s rights and livelihoods after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021 and captures the spirit and resilience of Afghan women. The documentary is entirely composed of footage sent to Mani by friends on the ground in Afghanistan navigating a Taliban-ruled city. Together, these videos offer an unparalleled look at Kabul, a city still at war.

Mavis and Jay Leno present the award to Sahra Mani. (Nina Zacuto)

The documentary releases on June 21, 2024, on Apple TV.

Mani received the inaugural Mavis Leno Award for Global Women’s Rights, presented by philanthropist and former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, philanthropist and FMF board member Mavis Leno, and Dr. Sima Samar, former head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Mani’s acceptance speech.

Starting in the late ’90s, Mavis Leno traveled throughout the U.S. speaking and garnering attention to the need to support Afghan women’s human rights. As chair of FMF’s Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid, Mavis recruited over 100 celebrities to reach the public on the plight of women and girls and urge the U.S. government not to recognize the Taliban. In a touching moment on Tuesday, Jay saluted his wife for her tireless advocacy, calling her “my conscience” as he remarked, “I just simply tell jokes.”

Dr. Sima Samar is a doctor, educator and human rights defender from Afghanistan. (Nina Zacuto)

“Afghanistan is the only country in the world where women and girls are not allowed to have access to education beyond sixth grade,” said Samar, who accepted the award on behalf of Mani (who could not be in attendance due to visa issues). “What is more, Women cannot work outside of the house, and cannot have access to contraception.

“Please remember the elections in the U.S. impact not only women of America but also women around the world. I urge you to elect officials who will protect women’s rights here and strengthen human rights and women’s rights worldwide. The violation of women’s rights is not only a problem for Afghanistan but for humanity as a whole.”

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.