The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has languished for years. First introduced in 1923, it is still embroiled in legal battles and controversies. Now, a new initiative is turning to art in the hopes that it can take an almost century-old idea to the finishing line.
On March 19, Artists 4 ERA is launching an exhibition to raise awareness and funds for Vote Equality, a grassroots nonprofit promoting equal rights for all Americans. The campaign brings together a who’s who of creatives, from street artist and activist Shepard Fairey, whose 2008 Hope poster became the iconic image for Barack Obama’s campaign, to Erin Yoshi and Peregrine Honig. The ultimate hope? To use the power of art to tell stories and rally people so that women can, at long last, get equal billing in the U.S. Constitution.
The ERA was introduced in Congress three years after women won the right to vote. It then stalled until 1972, when the amendment was reintroduced into Congress and passed. After numerous step backs, the fight for equality got a renewed boost when Nevada (2017), Illinois (2018), and Virginia (2020) ratified it, in part fueled by the #MeToo movement and President Trump’s election.
Five states, however, have since rescinded their support and now dispute its passage. That’s why Dabney Lawless launched Artists 4 ERA. “I’ve always been an activist by nature; my mother used to march for the ERA in ’70s,” says Lawless, who runs a separate PR firm. “Without an outcry, it’s never going to happen. You need momentum; you need people to understand,” she says.
After watching a documentary about Fairey that traced his journey from his roots in punk rock to his creation of the Hope poster, Lawless leaned on art to rebuild the momentum. “The biggest thing was to find artists who were passionate and activists,” she says. A friend of hers, Hannah Rothstein, got on board first, then came Chuck Sperry, who rallied Fairey, Tracie Ching, and others to the cause. In total, 29 artists joined, and all created an original piece of artwork that could be made into an 18 X 24-inch poster. (Lawless says that the majority of them ended up donating 50% of the profits to Vote Equality.)
Artworks range from floral patterns and birds to images of powerful, confident women holding up protest signs or the liberty torch. Many of them come in limited editions of 20 to 150 prints. Sperry launched on March 6, and his prints have already sold out–but the public will be able to see the full collection on March 19, at an exhibition in Oakland, California.
Fairey is releasing 600 prints at $100 a piece. His poster features his signature stencil style and is centered on a young girl surrounded by circles and rays that bring her into focus. The woman is both no one and everyone —”a young woman activist pushing for equal rights for women, which we all need,” says Fairey.
His poster is replete with historic references to the feminist movement, from a newspaper clip that reads, “The future is equal” to a 1972 public notice of the upcoming vote to ratify the constitutional amendment. “My approach was to look at some of the powerful images from the movement’s history, giving cumulative weight to the moment we are in now,” he says. “I like the saying, ‘The Future is Equal,’ but I wish it wasn’t necessary.”
Ultimately, Fairey hopes that his artwork will elicit empathy. “We all would like to know that we could live in a society that treated us equally regardless of race, class, or gender we were born with,” he says. “Empathy is a crucial emotion needed to remind people of that principle.”
When the Oakland exhibition ends, it will tour across the country, starting with Los Angeles. Lawless says that Vote Equality also has a fleet of “radical vote-getter” vans that will be wrapped in Sperry’s art, and travel to colleges across the country, making more than 1,000 of his prints available to people and helping register people to vote. “We’re a nonpartisan organization, but ultimately we want to reach young people and get them re-engaged,” says Lawless. “This is just starting the conversation. Art has that power to help evoke something in people.”