Before sundown one sticky evening last July, New York—based artist-activist Natalie White quietly approached the U.S. Capitol Building, dipped a brush into a white Starbucks cup filled with lipstick-red craft paint and brushed “ERA NOW” in large, even strokes at the foot of Congress’s front door. The temporary welcome mat served as a finale to “Natalie White for Equal Rights,” the artist’s creative campaign designed to raise awareness about the 94-year-old Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, which, if ratified to the Constitution, would become the first piece of inclusive federal women’s rights legislation in U.S. history.
Two weeks later, two Capitol police officers flew to New York and showed up at White’s front door, but her Brooklyn apartment was empty. When White, still in D.C., learned there was a warrant out for her arrest, she reached out to a friend, famous civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, who has a long history of high-profile cases involving both free speech and public nudity, to facilitate her surrender and arrest. In the early hours of August 11, White walked through the doors of a police station on 119 D Street and turned herself in. Six month later, she stood on criminal trial in Washington, D.C. for what she argued was her First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful assembly.
White represented herself during the trial, and turned her opening statement into a 20-minute monologue in which she defended her “ERA NOW” action and made a case to Congress to ratify the constitutional amendment.
“I didn’t carve anything into the sidewalk,” she told the judge. “I didn’t use an explosive device. I didn’t write ‘Death to Congress.’ My words were meant to tell Congress that the ERA is not dead. Women still want equal rights. My intentions were purely political.”
She also incorporated a litany of facts about international women’s rights into her courtroom performance. “Over 30 million women and children are currently living in poverty, who wouldn’t be if women were just paid equally,” she explained. “The Equal Rights Amendment could end systemic pay discrimination.”
After two days of proceedings, the court sentenced White to a small fine and a six-month order to stay away from the Capitol, save for ERA-related meetings with lawmakers, an uncommon provision that White personally negotiated. In spite of the guilty verdict, she left the courtroom feeling she had gained more than she’d lost.
If ratified, the ERA would become the first piece of inclusive federal women’s rights legislation in U.S. history.
While the prosecution had spent the trial debating the merits of washable craft paint, White had used it to capitalize on the fortuitous timing of her trial date and the crackling political energy surrounding the Women’s March and Trump’s inauguration, moving her stage from the Capitol’s steps to a courtroom to shine a brighter spotlight on the ERA.
“When I painted ‘ERA NOW’ in front of the Capitol Building in July, no one had any idea who was going to become president. There was no Women’s March planned. I had nothing to do with setting the trial date; it was set by the judge. The trial just so happened to randomly be set for January 17 and 18; the Inauguration was on January 20; the Women’s March was on the 21st. It was the perfect storm.”
In 1982, the ERA died in Congress, falling three state ratifications short of the 38-state threshold. Had it been ratified, it would have become the Constitution’s 27th Amendment, the last having set the legal voting age to 18, 11 years earlier. More important, it would have been the first time women’s rights had ever been constitutionally protected in a comprehensive way.
Most people incorrectly assume gender equality is already covered by the 14th Amendment. According to a recent poll commissioned by the Equal Rights Coalition, for example, 80 percent of respondents believe “men and women are already guaranteed equal rights in the U.S. Constitution.” In reality, the 14th Amendment doesn’t actively protect equal gender rights. “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex,” the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once explained. “The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”
The amendment originally died in Congress in the midst of anti-ERA campaigns led by conservative activists such as the late Phyllis Schlafly, who argued that the ERA’s failure to address biological differences between men and women would lead to unwanted societal repercussions ranging from mandatory universal draft requirements to the loss of child custody rights.
For decades, equal rights activists had abandoned hope that the legislation could be resurrected. But then Donald Trump was elected president. Before that, more and more politicians had begun to balk about the gender wage gap, even as it gained traction as a major issue in the 2016 presidential election. Now, women from all walks of life are revisiting the Equal Rights Amendment as a necessary piece of legislation to protect them in a time when ideological divisiveness and partisanship—not human rights—determine U.S. policy.
White is one such woman, and her device of activism is art in a variety of forms: photography exhibits featuring her signature nude self-portraits; acts of creative protest, like the “ERA NOW” calling card she left for Congress; and fact-riddled videos and performance art, like her recent demonstration at trial. White’s pro-ERA efforts began after she learned that the U.S. had dropped eight spots on the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap Report, to 28th place. Friend and Free the Nipple actress Sarabeth Stroller helped White recognize the connection between the gender wage gap and the ERA.
“I couldn’t believe that such a massive pay gap could exist in the United States of America,” White says. “That’s when Sarabeth told me about the Equal Rights Amendment and how it had never been ratified. That really changed my life.”
Joining White and Stroller in their effort are a slew of famous friends, including actress Lizzy Jagger, Oscar winner Patricia Arquette, and Kamala Lopez, founder of the ERA Education Project. Together, they form just one branch of an increasingly vocal network of marquee names harnessing their visibility in support of the amendment. Arquette famously used her Academy Award acceptance speech for best supporting actress to discuss equal pay; Lopez’s film Equal Means Equal is now considered a sort of cinematic bible on the ERA.
“Natalie and Kamala are working full-time on the ERA and activism,” says Jagger of the group’s ERA efforts. “Sarabeth and I are working on it part-time. Patricia is constantly traveling to meet with all different women’s groups. [There’s] a surprisingly small group of women trying to spread the word.”
According to Jagger, simply raising awareness is just one of the challenges this group faces. “If you watched Gloria Steineim’s speech, and in all of the televised speeches during the Women’s March, no one mentioned the Equal Rights Amendment,” she notes. “Even though we have this momentum and it feels like women want equal rights, no one’s attaching the word amendment to the end of that. There’s no clear message in the current women’s movement, and we’ve had a hard time being heard.”
On March 22, Nevada became the first state to ratify the ERA in 40 years.
Activists outside of White’s circle have had a hard time being heard as well. In 2015, the same year as Arquette’s speech, Meryl Streep sent a letter and a book about the ERA to every member of Congress, asking them to “stand up for equality—for your mother, your daughter, your sister, your wife or yourself—by actively supporting the Equal Rights Amendment.” She received only five responses.
Now, a mere two years later, the conversation seems to be changing at a rapid pace, with more people both inside and outside of government taking interest in the ERA. On March 22, Nevada became the first state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in 40 years—35 years to the day after the congressional deadline. “People are too quick to be dismissive here of what we are doing with the ERA,” Senator Pat Spearman, the bill’s chief sponsor, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “What Nevada will do is lead the way, and the other two states will come quickly.” Nevada has the second-highest population of female lawmakers in any other state legislature; nearly 40 percent are women. “It is never too late to bring equality to all. Never. As far as I am concerned, the effort to get the ERA passed in Nevada is a just and righteous cause,” Spearman said. Republican Robin Titus, however, likened Nevada’s post-deadline ruling as “political theatrics.”
On the surface, if ratifying post-deadline seems like nothing more than symbolism, that’s exactly the point. ERA supporters argue that such efforts could force Washington to decide whether amendments are still valid after deadline, citing Congress’s first extension of the ERA from 1979 to 1982 as a precedent.
Proponents of the amendment are working hard to make this happen. Seven states other than Nevada have resolutions on the table in 2017 and organizations like the National Organization for Women are now focusing on state legislatures that have exhibited strong support for the ERA in recent years, such as Virginia and Illinois. Whether Nevada’s ruling is a precursor to the ERA becoming the first new amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 25 years or just a ceremonial gesture, it is the latest sign that a Trump-era women’s movement is not only alive but also extremely well.
Natalie White’s latest show, A Muse Me, at Bill Brady Gallery in Miami, opens April 11. Visit molly.nyc/amuseme for more information.