In March 2015 actress Patricia Arquette gave an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards for her role as a supporting actress, her remarks designed to raise awareness of the unequal status of women in the United States. To a standing ovation of women, including actresses Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez, Arquette called upon “every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” Backstage, after the speech, she expanded on her comments, specifically targeting the shortcomings of the American Constitution, which she argued was written for men. She stated, “The truth is, even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface there are huge issues that really do affect women. And it’s time for all the men who love women, and gay people, and others, to fight for us now.”1 Her speech generated more public dialogue about the Equal Rights Amendment than had been seen in decades.
At the same time, in a matter of minutes Arquette had excluded millions of people. Her words were interpreted by many to have minimized the struggles of equal rights activism for other marginalized populations, such as queer and trans people and people of color. Especially in a year that saw a massive mobilization of Black Lives Matter, a movement that speaks specifically to the institutional failures to end racism, Arquette’s “we” seemed underinformed. Similarly, 2015 was a year in which, despite the legalization of marriage equality in all fifty states, a county clerk in Kentucky could garner massive public and political support for her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses. It is evident in our political moment that there are many people in America who do not, in fact, “sort of feel like we have equal rights,” and so her prioritization of one oppression over another made her the target of much criticism.
Not long after the Academy Awards, in June 2015, actress Meryl Streep [End Page vii] stepped up for the Equal Rights Amendment, mailing every member of Congress a copy of Jessica Neuwirth’s book, Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now.2 In her letter that accompanied the book, Streep implored the members of Congress to “stand up for equality–for your mother, your daughter, your sister, your wife or yourself–by actively supporting the Equal Rights Amendment.”3 As of September 2015, Streep had received only five responses.4 Author and activist Jessica Neuwirth’s ERA Coalition, the mission of which is to support passage and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, claims on its website that “the movement for sex equality is strong and is gaining momentum.” Furthermore, the ERA Coalition, a 501(c) (4) political organization that is working to support passage and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, aims to bring “the wisdom of veteran activists together with the energy and social media skills of a new generation to build a successful coalition effort for the passage and ratification of the ERA.”5 Its member list includes dozens of famous supporters, 60 percent of whom are white women (if we include the white men, 78 percent of the total listed membership is white).6 Its Board of Directors, despite its mission to bridge veterans with the new generation, is made up of women all over forty years of age.7 In short, the faces of the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States today are predominantly of wealthy, white, middle-aged and older women.
This special issue originated at a conference, “The Equal Rights Amendment in the 21st Century: Where Have We Come From, and Where Will We Go?” held at Roger Williams University in November 2013. The conference mission was to bring together people who could address the past of the ERA in a multidisciplinary way, in order to hypothesize about its continued relevance in the twenty-first century.
The failure of the Equal...