ERA Coalition Delivers Star-Studded Gala in Pivotal Year for Law

The Living Equality Gala, an event organized by the ERA Coalition, started with Broadway singer Rebecca Naomi Jones singing a rousing rendition of “Ain’t it Good.”

“It is in fact really good,” said Caroline Clarke, who, along with Debra Messing, co-hosted the event. “We are all gathered here tonight to celebrate that for the first time in 99 years, our congress has unflinchingly declared that women’s equality is a priority in the United States of America.”

Honorees and hosts as well as audience members sang “Happy Birthday” to Dolores Huerta as part of the Living Equality Gala festivities. (Image Credit: ERA Coalition)

Both Messing and Clarke discussed the pivotal year we are in for the landmark Equal Rights Amendment, with 2021 being seen as the year that the Amendment will finally be added to the U.S. Constitution.

Interspersed with performances by some of Broadway’s biggest stars, the event was also a stunning line-up of the powerful leaders who are pressing for the passage of ERA in the U.S. both in our government and in our social justice movements.

President and CEO of the ERA Coalition, Carol Jenkins, thanked the audience for making time for the event and provided a round of acknowledgements to the many people and organizations making the event possible. She noted that more than 120 organizations partner with the ERA Coalition across the country in order to work on passage of the national ERA law.

Kimberly Peeler-Allen, Board Chair of the ERA Coalition, kicked things off by unveiling the first-ever Lifetime Equal Rights Award.

“I’m so proud to introduce our Lifetime Equal Rights Award,” said Peeler-Allen, “The essence of award lies in the relentless pursuit of gender equality, and in the courage and tenacity needed to keep standing up to discrimination, repression, and even violence. It is about the love of humanity and feminism, to always see the path forward no matter the odds because when we win freedom, we are fulfilling our purpose in life.”

“The late great Ruth Bader Ginsburg walked the walk of equality,” said Peeler-Allen, presenting Supreme Court Justice with the Lifetime Equal Rights Award posthumously for her “lifetime of service and advocacy.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s granddaughter, Clara Spera, civil rights attorney and advocate, accepted the award for her grandmother.

“It is a great honor to accept this posthumous bestowal on my grandmother, my Bubbe, of the ERA Coalition’s lifetime equal rights award. As you have heard and know, my grandmother dedicated much of her legal advocacy” to efforts at equal rights for women.

“It is particularly special for me, one of her three granddaughters, to accept this award given that, in her later years, she linked her wish to see an ERA to younger generations.”

Spera quotes Ruth Bader Ginsburg as saying, “I would like to see my granddaughters, when they pick up the constitution, to see the notion that women and men are persons of equal stature. I’d like them to see that as a basic principle of our society.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw Honored with First Ruth Bader Ginsburg Award

Kimberlé Crenshaw accepts the ERA Coalition’s first Ruth Bader Ginsburg Award. (Image Credit: ERA Coalition)

Spera then bestowed the ERA Coalition’s first Ruth Bader Ginsburg Award on Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Crenshaw, the inventor of the term “intersectionality,” has been an unyielding force for gender and racial equality for her entire career. Spera noted that Crenshaw also co-founded Center for Intersectionality at Columbia University and the African American Policy Forum, and more recently launched the #Sayhername hashtag to recognize women of color who have lost their lives to police violence.

Crenshaw is currently a Distinguished Professor at UCLA Law School and Columbia Law School. Spera described Crenshaw as “a veritable icon” whom she had the experience of knowing about earlier in her life because of her mother also being a professor at Columbia Law School. “My mom had cool friends,” said Spera.

Crenshaw accepted the award with grace and a fiery call to duty. “I’m so moved to receive this honor from the ERA Coalition, but to receive it during a period in which the stakes in equal rights are this high — it’s so much more meaningful,” she said.

“Intersectionality and critical race theory have now been labeled as Un-American by a President, as Un-Godly by conservative Evangelicals, and worthy of derision, misinformation, and cancellation by those who claim to oppose cancel culture,” said Crenshaw.

With all this going on, said Crenshaw, to be honored by the ERA Coalition is “a gift worth more than its weight in gold. “

“I consider it a full suit of emotional armor fortified by the fierce will of Justice Ginsburg and a squad of legal sheroes that include Pauli Murray, Flo Kennedy, Mary Eastwood, Shirley Chisholm.” Crenshaw also recognized a host of legal and social activists who have contributed to equal rights for women including Carol Jenkins, Gloria Steinem, and Catherine MacKinnon.

“I’ve read your work,” Crenshaw remembers Ruth Bader Ginsburg saying to her upon their first time meeting, a comment which Crenshaw said sent a surge of adrenaline through her body and got her questioning whether her work and the work of her generation was living up to the ideals espoused by RBG.

“I was stuck staring into the piercing intellect of a legal genius,” said Crenshaw. “I tried to maintain my composure, I don’t really think I was successful.”

Crenshaw said the questions that rose up in her upon meeting Ruth Bader Ginsburg have stuck with her. “In the face of the threats to the core of our democracy, when the suppression of votes and the suppression of ideas seem to go hand-in-hand,” said Crenshaw, “Are we repairing our society? Are we doing everything we can in true allyship?”

“We are all heirs and stewards of the challenges that she took up, the tools she worked to craft, and the humble way she went about moving mountains,” she added.

Carol Jenkins Introduces the Alice Paul Award

Speaking of the leader for whom the Alice Paul Award award is named, Carol Jenkins told of how Paul organized over 8,000 activists on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1913, demanding the vote for women. She then presented the first Alice Paul Awards to the lead legislative champions of the ERA: Senators Lisa Murkowski and Ben Cardin in the Senate, and Representatives Jackie Speier and Carolyn Maloney in the House.

Senator Cardin of Maryland joined the gala and thanked the ERA Coalition for all they are doing to bring gender equality to our country. “It’s a great honor to be with you here tonight,” he said. He repeated a quote from RBG about the lack of equal rights protections for women in the U.S: “Every constitution since WWII contains a provision for gender equality. Ours does not.”

“We need the ERA for so many reasons,” said Cardin. “We need it as the leader of the free world. 2021 should be the year of the ERA.”

The other legislative leaders joined in throughout the gala to accept their awards and add words of support for the passage of ERA in 2021.

Letitia James Presents the Shirley Chisholm Award

Honorable Letitia James, Attorney General of New York, was introduced by Kimberly Peeler-Allen so that she could present the Shirley Chisholm Award. “Since being sworn into office in 2019 as the first African-American woman to hold statewide office, Letitia James has taken on the NRA and taken action on gun violence,” said Peeler-Allen, and added several other areas of advocacy that James has taken on since assuming her state-wide leadership role.

The recipients of the Shirley Chisholm Award were recognized for their protection of the right to vote and their on-the-ground advocacy efforts to get voters to the polls. “This is part of a strategy that creates power in African-American communities,” said James.

James then announced the recipients of the first Shirley Chisholm Awards: Nseabasi Enobong Ufot, CEO of the The New Georgia Project, and LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Fund.

“I’m here to tell you tonight, yes I dare to say, I’m going to run for the presidency,” said Ufot. “Regardless of the outcome, they will have to remember that a little hundred pound woman, Shirley Chisholm shook things up.”

Ufot discussed how Chisholm’s advocacy decades ago made her work today possible. She described how the New Georgia Project has “helped over 500,000 people register to vote,” while also doing groundbreaking work to improve digital literacy for voters and combat voter disinformation. The organization she led increased participation with thousands of rides to the polls and other actions. They have also gotten Georgia’s corporations to support fair elections.

Co-Founder of Black Voters Matter LaTosha Brown raised her voice in song as she received the award.

“Well the first thing I did right, was the day I started to fight, keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on, hold on.”

Brown spoke about the importance of those who work on the frontlines to ensure justice. “If we’re uplifting the rights of women, then in fact, we’re changing the world.” She spoke to how so many women have paved the way to her work. She spoke to the women leaders whose names we don’t often know, who were pivotal to the changes toward equality in our country. She spoke of Amelia Boynton who was a key figure in the American civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama, in the 1960’s, but who received little credit for her leadership.

“My sister Ense Ufot, who has literally done the work and continues to do the work,” said Brown. “Her spirit, her brilliance, her innovation, I’m so incredibly proud and really honored to be in the space and walk on this earth with you, my sister.”

“This is our moment, this is our time,” said Brown. “Not because someone has given us permission, but because we are certain and we are firm in ourselves, that we are to take our rightful place. The men have had long enough, right, we saw what they came up with.”

“The world needs us. It needs our voice. It needs our vision,” said Brown in closing.

Gloria Steinem Awards Tina Tchen and Michelle Kidd Lee the Living Equality Award

“I believe Ellie Smeal and I have been at this longer than anyone else, and I have never been more moved and impressed and knocked out,” said Steinem as she introduced the Living Equality Awards. “This is what movements are all about. They are communities, they are chosen families.”

“I am so proud to be any kind of preface to these two fan-fucking-tastic women,” said Steinem.

In accepting her Living Equality Award, Tina Tchen spoke to the imprint that Gloria Steinem made on her life as a young girl.

“As a young girl growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, a Chinese American girl growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, where there was no one around who looked like me,” said Tchen. “Gloria Steinem taught me what feminism was before I knew what that meant, or before I knew what I was feeling as a young girl of color, because that wasn’t even a term back then.”

Tchen considered what makes the movement so powerful. “It’s sisterhood. Michelle Kidd Lee embodies that sisterhood.”

Billie Jean King Toasts to Thinking Big

Legendary tennis star and founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation Billie Jean King joined the festivities to offer a toast.

“Women and girls are always asked to settle for less,” said King of the predicaments that present barriers to equality for women. “We want the cake, the icing, and the cherry on top.”

“This is our moment to think big. Here’s to continuing to push through those barriers,” she said, raising a glass in toast.

Mona Sinha Presents Pauli Murray Award

Named for the gender-fluid queer feminist activist and lawyer, the Pauli Murray Award was presented by Mona Sinha, Board Chair of the Fund for Women’s Equality. Sinha began by honoring Pauli Murray for her writings and activism and for being the first African-American person to join the clergy of the Episcopal Church in the mid-1940’s. She spoke of how Murray helped found both the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942 and the National Organization for Women in 1966.

Sinha presented Ellie Smeal and Delores Huerta with the honor of being the inaugural recipients of the Pauli Murray Award.

“When you receive an award, it makes you think of all the people you work with,” said Ellie Smeal as she accepted the Pauli Murray Award. “Our work constantly with the civil rights movement, with the women’s rights movement, with the LGBTQIA movement — we’re all in this together, we’re trying to make the world a better place.”

“We are here for our lives because we know that winning the ERA will help countless millions of women, especially women of color and marginalized women,” said Smeal. “We are so close. We just need the senate vote now. I want to salute the leadership of Carol Jenkins and Bettina Hager and all of us working together. It has been hard work, but it has been fun, too. “

Dolores Huerta spoke of the next steps we must take to ensure passage of the ERA. “We have to do a national campaign, to be sure to put a lot of heat on those senators who might not understand why it’s important for women to have equal rights. It’s up to us, we know we can do it. Si se puede!” said Huerta.

The party closed with the singing of “Happy Birthday” to Dolores Huerta from the ERA Coalition leaders, honorees and audience. Huerta celebrated her 91st birthday on April 10th, 2021.


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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