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Documentary Watch: Equal Means Equal Makes Forceful Argument for the ERA

I thought I knew all there was to know about the Equal Rights Amendment. I knew that it was first passed in 1972, but by 1982 not enough states had voted to ratify it so the amendment was left in limbo. It’s been reintroduced year after year, but opposition has been well-organized, and numerous court cases did little to clear the path. I also knew, because I lived through it, that feminist became a label that many women resisted. From the very beginning, millions of women seemed to believe feminism would mean less attention from men, that it would upset the balance of power in a world ruled by men, or that it would somehow make them appear less attractive. The backwash from that mindset can still be heard today from young actresses like Shailene Woodley who proudly declare they are not feminists. Once she hits about 45 or 50 she’ll understand why women need the benefits that feminists have fought for.

Either way, the groundbreaking work done by people like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Coretta Scott King, and Shirley Chisholm began to evaporate. We can clearly see the detrimental effects of the ongoing struggle all across America, as women continue to get paid less than men for doing the same job. In Hollywood, women are mostly locked out of the secret club of writers and directors. While the newest piece of ass may have less trouble getting a job, yesterday’s piece of ass finds fewer and fewer opportunities. We see it in the narratives of most Hollywood films, in stories that predominantly revolve around a young boy, a teenage boy, a grown man, an aging man, or a dying man.

The good news is that in the last few years I’ve personally seen things begin to change. Part of that change has to do with the explosion of television where women’s stories are still valued, where women of any age or women of color can still get work, where women can write and direct. Just look at powerhouse Jill Soloway. Women filmmakers have for many years been thriving in the field of documentaries. One such documentary is called Equal Means Equal. It was made by Kamala Lopez, and features many familiar faces of feminism in its interviews, including Steinhem and Patricia Arquette.

Equal Means Equal is a film that should be seen by young women everywhere so that they know exactly what the Equal Rights Amendment is, why people are still fighting for it, and the reasons for resistance to living in an equal society. For women, the range of rights violations is laid out plainly by Lopez in stark terms: domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, sex trafficking, reproductive rights, a double standard for self-defense cases, and of course, equal pay. Separately, each of these issues has been explored before, but until this documentary, no one has ever put it all together in a cohesive way that makes such unquestionable sense for women. The conclusion is simple: the Supreme Court needs to facilitate passage of the amendment, so our Constitution can at last state clearly that there can be no discrimination whatsoever because of sex or gender. This applies, by the way, to both men and women. It means, simply, “For the first time, sex would be considered a suspect classification, as race currently is.” [source]

One of the stunning issues raised in the documentary is that women often have to pay for their own rape kits (absurd). Another disgraceful fact is that restraining orders are occasionally “optional.” It’s wrong that self-defense in a domestic violence case has a stricter standard to meet in courts than self-defense between strangers, and it’s hideous that teenage girls can be sent to prison for “prostitution” after becoming victims of sex trafficking. The Constitution, said the now departed Justice Antonin Scalia, does not protect against any of these nightmare scenarios created by sex discrimination, but surely everyone can see that it needs to.

Equal Means Equal is a film that provides all the necessary ammo for anyone who wants to fight for the ERA and needs concrete examples to explain why it’s important. Patricia Arquette chose to speak out against pay discrimination in Hollywood when she won the Oscar for Boyhood, which helped reopen the debate about equal rights for equal work. Although widely derided by complainers on Oscar night, her words have since led many other actresses, like Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, to speak out. Many others remain silent. Probably because competition for work in Hollywood is so intense, actresses are afraid to make demands when twenty other more complacent actresses are waiting in line to take the scarce roles that are available. Women in Hollywood today lack the kind of leverage and power they used to have. Some are now beginning to stand up. Let’s stand behind them. Let’s stand with them.