The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has been on hold for years. First introduced in 1923, it is still embroiled in legal battles and controversies. Now, a new initiative is turning to art, which it hopes will bring a nearly century-old idea to the finish line.
On March 19, Artists 4 ERA will host an exhibit to raise awareness and funding for Vote Equality, a grassroots nonprofit that promotes equal rights for all Americans. The event brings together a wide range of creatives, from street artist and activist Shepard Fairey (whose 2008 Hope poster became an iconic image of Barack Obama’s campaign) to Erin Yoshi and Peregrine Honig. Ultimate hope? Harnessing the power of art to tell stories and unite people so that women can finally receive their equal status in the U.S. Constitution.
The ERA was introduced in Congress three years after women won the suffrage. It then stalled until the amendment was resubmitted to Congress in 1972 and passed. After numerous backslidings, the fight for equality received a new boost after ratification in Nevada (2017), Illinois (2018) and Virginia (2020), in part due to the #MeToo movement and President Trump’s elected.
However, five states have withdrawn their support and are now contesting its passage. That’s why Dabney Lawless introduced the Artists 4 ERA. “I’ve always been a natural activist; my mother used to march for the ERA in the ’70s,” said Lawless, who runs an independent PR firm. “Without an outcry, it will never happen. You need motivation; you need people to understand,” she said.
After watching a documentary about Fairey that traces his journey from punk rock’s roots to his creation of the Hope poster, Lawless relies on art to rebuild momentum. “The most important thing is to find artists who are passionate and active,” she said. One of her friends, Hannah Rothstein, joined first, and then Chuck Sperry, who assembled Fairey, Tracie Ching and others to join the cause. A total of 29 artists joined, all of whom created an original piece of art that could be made into an 18 X 24 inch poster. (Most of them end up donating 50% of their profits to Vote Equality, Lawless says.)
Artwork includes floral motifs and birds, as well as images of powerful, confident women holding protest signs or the torch of freedom. Many of these are limited editions of 20 to 150 copies. Sperry launched on March 6, and his prints have sold out — but the public will be able to see the full collection at an exhibit in Oakland, California, on March 19.
Fairey is releasing 600 works for $100 each. His posters feature his signature stencil style, centering on a young girl surrounded by circles and light to make her the focal point. This woman is neither all nor all — “a young female activist pushing for equal rights for women, which is what we all need,” Fairey said.
His posters are filled with historic references to the feminist movement, from a newspaper clip that reads “Future Equality” to a 1972 announcement of an impending vote to ratify a constitutional amendment. “My approach is to look at some powerful images in the history of motion and give cumulative weight to the moment we’re in now,” he said. “I like the saying, ‘The future is equal,’ but I hope it’s not necessary.”
Ultimately, Fairey hopes his work will resonate. “We all want to know that we can live in a society that treats us equally, regardless of the race, class or gender we were born with,” he said. “Empathy is an important emotion that needs to be reminded of this principle.”
After the Oakland show, it will tour the country, starting in Los Angeles. Vote Equality also has a fleet of “radical voters” that will be wrapped in Sperry’s art and travel to colleges across the country, delivering more than 1,000 of his prints to people and helping people register to vote, Lawless said . “We’re a nonpartisan organization, but ultimately we want to reach young people and re-engage them,” Lawless said. “It’s just beginning the conversation. Art has the power to help evoke something in people.”