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One-on-One: Filmmaker Brings to Light the Equal Rights Amendment

By Caroline Dobuzinskis

Kamala Lopez, Founder of Heroica Films, Inc.

This month is Women’s History Month and yesterday marked a milestone: March 22 marked the 40th anniversary of when the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) first passed the Senate and was sent to the states for ratification. ERA is a proposed Constitution Amendment—first written in 1923 by suffrage leader Alice Paul—that would affirm the equal treatment of women and would prohibit discrimination based on gender.

IWPR interviewed activist and filmmaker, Kamala Lopez, who has made informing citizens about the ERA part of her mission as the founder and president of Heroica Films, Inc. Lopez is also the Founding Director of GlobalGirl Media’s Los Angeles Bureau , is the recipient of the 2011 Women of Courage Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus, and was recognized in 2012 as the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century Award by Women’s eNews.

Lopez, who has been acting since the age of seven, came to activism on the ERA through almost happenstance circumstances: while promoting her film about the first Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin, she was shocked to learn that gender equality had not been ratified under the Constitution. In 2011, she connected with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who is also the lead House sponsor of a bill reintroducing the ERA. Maloney asked Lopez to help her create a campaign to build public support for bringing ERA up for a vote, which hasn’t happened since 1982.

A brief history on the ERA: First introduced in 1923, the ERA passed the U.S. Senate and then the House of Representatives and was sent to the states for ratification on March 22, 1972. Immediately after its initial passage in 1972, the ERA gained 22 ratifications, but the momentum quickly slowed as opposition formed. In 1976, no states ratified the amendment and, so far, only 35 of the necessary 38 states have ratified.  The ERA has been subsequently reintroduced in every session of Congress since the year the ratification deadline passed in 1982. Each time it has been reintroduced without a ratification deadline. The 2011 Walmart v. Duke sexual discrimination case shed new light on the ERA.

Lopez’s production company launched a multimedia campaign called the ERA Education Project that includes a website with news and information, as well as several PSAs (like this compelling one). “The problem with talking about the ERA is that people don’t connect it to their lives right now,” said Lopez. “There is a real lack of urgency about it.” Lopez has upcoming projects aiming to get women “on the offense” on the issue of equality under the ERA.

Lopez spoke with IWPR about her start in filmmaking, her inspiration for activism, and her upcoming projects. Here is an excerpt from the interview.

IWPR: Tell me more about your background and how your experience lent itself to your current role as a filmmaker?

Lopez: I moved to Los Angeles after [graduating from Yale with a bachelor’s in Philosophy and Theatre Studies] to pursue acting. After several years as a working film and TV actor, I came to the realization that if I didn’t want to remain in a powerless position, I was going to have to work on new skills and attempt to create and produce material.

I produced my first short film in 1995—the same year I formed my production company Heroica Films. Since then I have produced many short films, internet media campaigns, and the feature film “A Single Woman” about the life of first Congresswoman and pacifist, Jeannette Rankin.

I am in the process of putting together a documentary about the state of women’s rights in the United States and what we can all do to change the situation. I plan to cross the country talking to women about the issues that affect them and educating them on the need for ERA.

IWPR: What inspired you to start the ERA Education Project?

Lopez: Whilst doing women’s history research to incorporate into the film [about Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin] I learned that—although Alice Paul had written the ERA soon after women achieved the vote and believed this was the next necessary step towards women’s full participation in our society—it had not been ratified. That really stopped me dead in my tracks. It was as if a very large invisible elephant in the room had briefly become visible.

When I got back from DC [after showing the film, “A Single Woman”] I started doing some cursory research into the situation and was truly and finally aghast at what I perceive to be one of the greatest injustices of all time. And one that I believe is simply in place because people, like myself, are not aware of it.

Lopez with several interns from the National Organization for Women (NOW) at a press conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the ERA on March 22, 2012, in Washington, DC.

IWPR: What do you think that passing the ERA would achieve for women?

Lopez: Passing the ERA would do multiple things for women. Primarily, it would enforce equality in wages, health insurance, pension and Social Security…I believe that acknowledging women’s fully equal status would have a quantifiable effect on very serious issues that are undermining and injuring women every day. Issues such as international policy and the ratification of the [Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women], domestic violence and crime, rape, healthcare and reproductive rights, cultural bias, media exploitation and denigration, lack of childcare, maternal rights, religious oppression and discrimination within the military, among others.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

More Research Needed to Help Prevent Street Harassment

Woman walking down streetBy Holly Kearl

This April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Primary prevention for sexual violence involves education and the creation of safe environments, including on the streets of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. One important issue that seldom receives attention from researchers or the media is the street harassment that happens to women walking down sidewalks, taking public transportation, and in other public places. Guest blogger Holly Kearl, author and Program Manager with the American Association of University Women (AAUW), outlines the impact of street harassment on women, and calls for additional measures to effectively address and prevent this type of activity.

When it comes to creating policies that address the sexual harassment that happens in public places between strangers, termed street harassment, the phrase that comes to mind is catch-22. Let me explain.

Four years ago, I wrote my master’s thesis at George Washington University on street harassment. I examined how women were using websites to address and deal with street harassment in lieu of legal regulations or useful policies. While conducting a literature review, I was shocked to learn that few street harassment studies exist, few academic articles had been written on the topic, and almost no books had been published.

These discoveries led me to write my own book about street harassment, published last year by Praeger. As part of the book research, I informally surveyed more than 900 people from 23 countries and 45 U.S. states. Ninety-nine percent of the women had experienced street harassment, and not just whistling or honking. More than 80 percent had been the target of sexually explicit comments and vulgar gestures, 75 percent had been followed, over half had been groped, more than one-third had faced public masturbation, and one-fourth had been assaulted by a male stranger.

In the United States, there have only been two non-campus-based studies about street harassment, both of which showed it was the experience of 100 percent of the women and the types of harassment women experienced were similar to my findings. Both studies were conducted in the 1990s, one in Indianapolis and the other in the California Bay Area.

The statistics from my study, even though they are informal, were shocking. What shocked me even more was realizing how many women had changed their lives because of actual or feared street harassment. Most of my survey respondents reported “on guard” behaviors while in public on at least a monthly basis, including constantly assessing their surroundings, avoiding making eye contact, and pretending to talk on a cell phone.

The next most common type of behavior was that which restricted their access to public spaces, such as taking alternate routes because of harassers, avoiding being in public alone, and paying for a gym membership rather than exercising outside.

Most alarming, a percentage of women had made significant life decisions because of harassment. Around 20 percent had moved to a new neighborhood because of harassers in the area and almost 10 percent had changed jobs because of harassers along the commute.

When I discovered these results, it became clear to me that street harassment has a negative economic impact on women and it impedes women’s equality.

The economic impact is even clearer when you read women’s stories on sites like my blog Stop Street Harassment and the 25 Hollaback websites. On these sites, women share how they pay for taxis instead of taking public transportation after dark, drive three blocks instead of walking, skip evening networking events, and avoid or drop out of night classes.

After four years of learning, writing, and speaking about this issue, I know there will never be gender equality until street harassment ends. I also understand that policymakers are hard-pressed to make significant changes without data that illustrates a problem and without research suggesting policies that could improve the problem.

This is where we reach the catch-22.

To truly address street harassment, we need citywide, statewide, and/or nationwide studies to give us concrete data about its prevalence, the impact it has on women’s lives, and why it happens (and thus what we can do to prevent it). Then policies can follow.

These important studies require funding to be conducted well (I did my informal survey online, with a shoestring budget). Funders often hesitate to put money behind an initiative that has not been proven to be a problem. Street harassment hasn’t been proven to be a problem because there are so few studies. There are so few studies because there is no funding…and back and forth and back and forth.

This is unacceptable. In the United States, we take pride in our country being the land of the free, but that’s not true for women. Girls routinely face harassment on their way to school and when they are out with friends, and women routinely face harassment on their way to work or while running errands – particularly if they walk or take public transportation. They should not be penalized because of this catch-22.

It’s time to break the cycle. It’s time for a smart funder to realize that the stories, informal data, and studies from the 1990s support the need  for new, comprehensive studies that can inform new policies—and help make our streets safe and free for girls and women, as well as for boys and men.

 

Holly Kearl is the American Association of University Women Program Manager and the author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women (Praeger Publishers, 2010). Holly has written articles about street harassment for publications including the Guardian, Forbes.com, Huffington Post, and Ms. Magazine Blog.

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