Kamala Lopez is on a mission to get the long-suffering Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) passed—and she's starting with making a film about why America needs the law that would guarantee equal rights for women and men under the Constitution. The film, Equal Means Equal, has six days left to raise its $87,000 budget on Kickstarter.
I remember learning about the ERA as a teenager from an episode of The West Wing. But for those who missed season two of that show or any women's history class since: After a huge amount of activism, the ERA passed Congress in 1972, but then fell three states short of being ratified nationwide. It has been introduced in every Congress since then and Lopez believes that women-made media can push equality into being reality under law.
I talked with Lopez about activism, how she first learned about the ERA from an actress, and why Kickstarter beats Hollywood when it comes to funding feminist films.
SARAH MIRK: What's your history? How did you get started on this project?
KAMALA LOPEZ: I'm mainly an actor, I started acting when I was seven and somewhere along the way, in the mid-nineties, I realized I needed to create my own work because I was getting the same kinds of roles over and over again. So I started to write and produce my own material. In 2006, I started work on this project that wound up being called A Single Woman, about our first congresswoman Jeannette Rankin and how no now knows about her despite her being elected without women having the vote. When I was researching that film, I discovered the fact that the ERA never passed. It didn't really hit me until I was walking through the Smithsonian Institute, because the film was playing there, and there was an actress dressed up as a suffragist. She was playing the role of Alice Paul and she explained that we still didn't have equal rights under the Constitution. When she said that in that moment, it hit me like a piano falling on someone's head. I was like, "What? That seems strange. Are you sure?" I couldn't wrap my mind around it, so I went home and looked into it and I found it was the case. I started going to visit high schools and colleges and found that there are very few people under the age of 40 who know what the Equal Rights Amendment is and they certainly don't know that they don't have equal rights protection under the law.
Were you alive when this was first being debated? Do you remember hearing about it then?
I must have been, but I guess I wasn't paying attention. It just didn't get to me somehow.
Why do you think this is an issue that people generally don't know much about?
That's one of the central themes we're going to be investigating in the film. One of the reasons is that I think the women who had been working two to three decades to see this happen were so demoralized when this petered off that I think they had to lick their wounds for a little while. A great many women who had been activists at this time retreated and stopped participating civically, so they became absent from the view of what was going on. The second factor is that I think there is a concerted effort to convince women that everything is okay. That message reaches women in so many ways, it's almost that the air we breathe is in acceptance of the situation.
I know some people are critical of the idea of the ERA, saying that we can't change culture from the top down, through federal policy, but from the bottom up. How has working on this film project made you think about the relationship between grassroots activism and federal policy?
Well, I think it's too soon to say. That is the great question. When we tour with this film prior to November, so that we can educate voters on the fact that they don't have equal rights if they're women, we'll see how grassroots activism impacts federal policy. I think when you remove the factor of ignorance, the public will not stand for this. You can see it in the gay rights movement, the medical marijuana movement, Occupy—when they see there is this glaring injustice that's been swept under the carpet, I think they'll be responsive to that. As an individual, I must at least do what's in my capacity to do.
What's effective about making a movie for this? Have you thought about other forms of activism?
I know the power of media. For instance, when I produced a campaign of the Writer's Guild of America during the writer's strike—we produced a series of 67 short viral videos using big movie stars that literally ended the strike within three months. The group fighting the unions (which didn't want to give us a percentage of new media revenues) said that they didn't want to fight the PR campaign. If the women's movement can harness pop culture in a way that's fresh and modern and isn't too serious and that avails itself of all the talent we have that we can deploy—I'm talking the Tina Feys of the world, the Oprahs of the world—we can make this happen. Cultural capital trumps actual capital. Since none of us is in the women's movement have much actual capital, we need to leverage cultural capital.
It sounds like the idea here is to work with big name stars to push this issue. Are you working with any political groups?
Yes, our fiscal sponsor is the National Women's Political Caucus. We're also partnered with the National Council of Women's Organizations. This is a team effort. We have an opportunity to come together over raising awareness around a foundational issue that I think needs to be addressed in order to move forward on various other fronts. If we can all agree to focus on this one issue and put all our energies toward this, I don't see it being more than couple years at the most, we can secure this. Once we have this, we can really move forward. We wouldn't have Barack Obama in the White House without the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
How do you specifically find it hard to be a feminist in the film industry in LA?
I jumped right into the most difficult environment to navigate as a feminist and a humanist. But then again, it's somewhere where more of us need to be. We need more feminist voices in these halls of power because media shapes culture and mainstream media is made here in Hollywood.
There was and is no interest in films like the one I made about Jeannette Rankin. There is no outlet for that. I'm putting together a film right now about sexual assault in the military and I'm working with the main expert in The Invisible War, we can get no traction. I've collaborated with brilliant women and not been able to get projects off the ground. Hollywood's not interested in stories about women. Hollywood is interested in women as parts of stories that are driven by men. That's the situation and that has to do with the imbalance of power. We are underrepresented across the board in every area of this society and until we have ERA, we're not going to be represented fairly because there's no incentive, no reason for them to do it.
We were talking about this and I said, "God, $87,000 is a lot of money for a Kickstarter." That's like, one day on a movie, but it's a lot for a Kickstarter. And I was thinking, "Can we cut this in any way?" and then I thought: if there is not $87,000 worth of interest in equal rights for 52 percent of the nation, then I really have to examine whether or not I'm trying to force something down society's throat that it really doesn't want. For four years this has been my focus. If nobody cares, then it shouldn't be my focus. For me, it seems self-evident that you need to lay the foundation of the house before you start building it. But if that doesn't resonate with people, I'm not going to keep pushing it.
Here's the fundraising video for Equal Means Equal: