Kicking the Can Down the Road Towards Parity

The year 2020 will see the 100th anniversary of the hard-won passing of the 19th Amendment which granted all women the right to vote. Yet even with this landmark anniversary looming, the proverbial “can” continues to be kicked down the road for women in the fight for equal pay for equal work, as well as equal application of the law under the Constitution. In the American theatre, women have been in a long, laborious fight for parity, not just for themselves, but for all women artists.

I am confident that women theatre artists are doing what they can. In the past year or so, many efforts have sprung up and are finding their way into mainstream media and social networking: an equality parade through Manhattan’s Theatre District complete with a namesake anthem entitled Women Stage the World, a Meet-up group called Works by Women, The Lilly Awards, The Kilroys, WE EXIST, a new study called Women Hired Off-Broadway 2010-2014, a reading series of plays written by women throughout history called On Her Shoulders, the New Play Map, Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, 365 Women a Year, Women’s Voices Theatre Festival in Washington, DC, as well as a host of other festivals, conferences, workshops, think tanks, advocacy groups, blogs, and Twitter hashtags that have emerged across the nation.

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I too have thrown my hat into the ring, launching a petition calling for new legislation mandating that nonprofit arts organizations and institutions receiving tax-payer dollars must allocate an equitable portion of that funding to women artists. The creation of the petition was inspired by my work as an activist and producing artist—I’ve married grassroots civic action with artistic action to help advance issue-based campaigns representing the will and common good of the American people.

Becoming an artist was simultaneous with becoming an activist, but my activism really kicked into high gear with the reelection of President Barack Obama. Wanting to be a part of history, I volunteered, and have been volunteering ever since. As a Senior Fellow with Organizing for Action, I have the opportunity to advocate for for the issues I am passionate about, like gun violence prevention, pay equity, and raising the minimum wage.

In 2015, women continue to find themselves at the children’s table, sitting on chairs too small, eating from mix-matched dishes and drinking from plastic cups. The petition is simple and straightforward. With only initials and perhaps states as identifying markers, all are welcome to sign.

In the case of this equitable funding for women artists petition, I am acting as a private citizen, taking the larger issue of women’s equality in the workplace and making it more specific to the fight for parity in the American theatre. This petition is one way to create a seat at the table of artistic opportunity. In 2015, women continue to find themselves at the children’s table, sitting on chairs too small, eating from mix-matched dishes and drinking from plastic cups. The petition is simple and straightforward. With only initials and perhaps states as identifying markers, all are welcome to sign. If the petition receives 100,000 signatures by February 6, 2015, an official response from the White House will be issued.

Social and political activist Gloria Steinem supports the petition not only by signing it, but by proposing other avenues to explore as well. One such avenue is that since federal funding is involved, women artists could pursue a pioneering lawsuit under the existing 1964 Civil Rights Act which made it illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of gender. Following a precedent set by women magazine writers at Newsweek, Time Inc., Reader’s Digest, and The New York Times, women artists could also demand equal opportunity by pursuing a class-action lawsuit.

Another avenue Steinem suggests to explore would be Title IX, aka the Equal Opportunity in Education Act. Though not applicable in this situation, it might serve as a parallel example of how an arts initiative might be applied. Title IX was most famously associated with equal opportunity for women in sports. It states in part: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of gender, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

It has become increasingly clear to me that the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment could have cleared up a whole lot of issues still on the table nearly 100 years after guaranteeing women’s suffrage. The ERA states in part: Equality of rights under the law should not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. With just three states short of the required number needed in order for ERA to be fully ratified, “equal application of the Constitution to all persons” continues to elude us. Women have to keep up the fight for every inch that gets us a little further down the road toward economic justice.

In Barack Obama, women have a president who has our back in the fight for economic equality; who has made women’s issues a part of the national conversation with his call for “equal pay for equal work” and raising the minimum wage. For women artists, it is not only about economic justice but equal access and opportunity. That is why now is the time to strike; to take action to bolster our rights and our opportunities as we countdown the years, months, and days until the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

Back in 2010, here in New York, we set goals for that momentous anniversary with the birth of a grassroots movement called 50/50 in 2020. There are some key moments leading up to this movement when the conversation about parity in the American theatre moved forward, inching us a little farther down the road.

In 2002 a groundbreaking study commissioned by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), co-authored by Susan Jonas DFA and Suzanne Bennett, entitled, Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement? asked if the many successes of women directors, playwrights, and producers at that time were the exception, rather than the rule. The study proved the former—that, “Women are still largely operating in the margins of prominence and power.” In spite of this report, disparity in opportunities for women in theatre persisted.

Six years later, the conversation was again moved forward by playwrights Julia Jordan and Sarah Schulman, who were appalled by the fact that less than thirteen percent of theatrical productions planned by the major nonprofit subscription-based New York theatres were written by women. They called a Town Hall at New Dramatists and the response was overwhelming.

A year later, in 2009, a paper by Princeton University student Emily Glassberg Sands was released, Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theatre. Sands’ paper accelerated the conversation, and in response a Town Hall was held at the Women’s Project. Melody Brooks, the Artistic Director of New Perspectives Theatre Company, Susan Jonas, former arts analyst for NYSCA and board member of the League of Professional Theatre Women, and Julie Crosby, who was the Producing Artistic Director of Women’s Project at the time called the meeting. This meeting not only moved the conversation forward, but emboldened women theatre artists to take action. With intention to see that action bear fruit, the women set their sights on the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, as their target for achieving parity in the American theatre.

The goal of 50/50 in 2020 is to raise awareness of the contributions of women in theatre, to achieve employment parity for women theatre artists, and to conduct ongoing research tracking American theatre employment practices and progress toward parity. It encompasses all theatre disciplines and does not have entertainment union requirements—all are welcome to join the fight. 50/50 in 2020 joined in solidarity with the Women’s Initiative (made up of members of the Dramatists Guild) which identifies and addresses the challenges facing American women dramatists and develops and implements action steps to advance and sustain fairness, equality and gender parity for all dramatists. Also in solidarity with 50/50 in 2020 is the League of Professional Theatre Women, which promotes visibility and increases opportunities for women in the professional theatre. 50/50 in 2020 vows to encourage, empower and support members of all theatrical unions, guilds and associations in the creation of initiatives within their own organizations to address parity issues in the American theatre.

I have been a member of or served in leadership capacities in all of these organizations, but in spite of this—or because of it—I have struggled to create a seat for myself at the table of the parity movement. It has been my experience that women of color find themselves fighting for inclusion and visibility in the fight for parity, much like during the fight for women’s suffrage. Not only do we have the issue of gender to worry about, but we have race as well—and as we get older—age. I have heard loud and clear the well-touted statistic that women get less than twenty percent of production opportunities nationwide with women of color getting even less than half of that. In light of this, I would add to Ms. Steinem’s list another avenue to explore: Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action policies in business have provided minorities and women many opportunities to employment in fields previously enjoyed predominantly by white males and would be an avenue theatres and arts institutions might utilize. 

In her book, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King writes that while King was traveling the country making speeches, raising funds and moral support, she supported his efforts by giving concerts (she was a classically trained singer) and making speeches herself, all while caring for their growing family. In 1966, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, her husband was working on a plan to bring about racial justice in Chicago. King’s intention was to present Mayor Richard Daley with a list of demands after a rally and march to City Hall. Of course when they arrived the Mayor was long gone and the doors to City Hall locked. What Mrs. King recounts next is prophetic: “Martin was prepared, and in a magnificent symbolic gesture that rang down the centuries from his namesake, he nailed his demands to the closed door of the City Hall as Martin Luther had nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door at Wittenberg.”

Mayor Daley rejected King’s list of demands, setting off violence and riots in the city as news of his response spread. In order to help move the Mayor off of his stance, it was proposed that 100 women sign a telegram to him in support of King’s demands for racial justice in Chicago, but some women were afraid to sign it. Mrs. King supposed it might be the women were concerned it might cost their husbands jobs. But the fight for equality had already cost African Americans dearly, having been subjected to attack dogs, fire hoses, bombings, jailings, beatings, and worse. She asked, “What are you afraid of? The time comes when we have to make a decision and we have to make a choice.” 

And the women made a choice; they signed.

What is the cost to our country when women do not have equal access and employment while men continue to enjoy the lion’s share of production opportunities nationwide? What is the cost to women longing to create art and feed their families? Recently, the “CRomnibus Bill” was passed by the House of Representatives, approving $146 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities each; $30 million for the Office of Museum Services; and $25 million for the U.S. Department of Education’s Arts in Education program. What would equitable distribution of these funds mean for women artists nationally? Everything.

We are four years, six months and twenty-four days away from August 26, 2020, also known as Women’s Equality Day, the day given to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment. At the close of his 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama went off script proposing, “Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.” What would the American theatre be like if women truly had an equal voice—not just a select few, but all women? Imagine.

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Caption: The 2013 Women Stage the World Parade in Manhattan’s Theatre District (Yvette Heyliger kneeling far left). Photo by Jeff Colen Photography. 

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Reading this for the first time the day before Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the opportunity to support and be part of 50/50 in 2020. Well done and bring it on!

Tried to access the petition but the website states it is no longer available as it did not meet the signature amount needed ..... did not know about this til now, apologies for not being there to help before ... let me know if there is anything to do to bring the initiative back to the petition status, move ahead the cause, support ERA.

Thank you! This is such an important discussion and I hope the conversation of remedies within the law begins to open the frontier and bring about actual, in-fact, changes for equal inclusion of women in the arts. It's time!