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My “One Thing”

Achieving Gender Parity through Legislation

This week on HowlRound, we continue the conversation on gender parity, which has been gaining momentum this year through studies, articles, forums, one-on-one discussions, and seasons and festivals focused on women. As Co-President of the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition and VP of Programming for the League of Professional Theatre Women, I have the pleasure of working with, coordinating, contributing to, and raising awareness about many of these local, national, and international efforts. This series explores what needs to happen right now—in this precipitous moment—in order to profoundly, permanently expand the theatrical community's views and visions of women, both onstage and in every aspect of production.—Shellen Lubin

In the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of The Dramatist entitled, "The Count: Who is Getting Produced in the US?", I reported on the Equity in Theatre Symposium that took place in April of this year in Canada called “Equity in Theatre Symposium in Canada Welcomes Women Theatre Artists from America.” I counted myself lucky to be included in the band of American women who made the trip in solidarity to support our Canadian sisters whose plight is not unlike our own.

The symposium was followed by an International Summit on Gender Parity in Theatre, at the closing of which Martha Richards, Executive Director of Women Arts and Co-Founder of SWAN Day, posed the question: “If we had $5 million [recently increased to $10 million] to advance gender parity, what would we spend it on?” This question spurred ideas for next-steps and a round robin sharing of the “one thing” each of us would focus on upon our return to the States. The assembly knew of a petition I had created to move the conversation on the issue of parity in the American theatre forward.

If we had $10 million to advance gender parity, what would we spend it on?—Martha Richards

two women smiling and posing for a photo
Martha Richards and Yvette Heyliger in Canada at the International Summit on Gender Parity in Theatre.

Additionally, I had chronicled the parity journey in New York, as well as the creation of the petition in an article I wrote for HowlRound, Kicking the Can Down the Road Towards Parity. In it I mention some suggestions made by social and political activist Gloria Steinem, who not only supported the petition by signing it, but who also recalled precedents and pro-active measures taken in the past to help inspire our parity efforts, specifically Title IX, which is most often associated with equal opportunity for women in school sports. I also contributed Affirmative Action as a precedent to ensure equal opportunity for women artists of color. I am pleased to share my discovery of a new precedent regarding enforcement of civil rights laws (well, new to me anyway) with the HowlRound audience in this update.

At the Summit, I stated that the “one thing” I would focus on upon my return to the US would be to craft another petition, and to identify precedents and legislative remedies to the issue of parity in the American theatre. The goal remained the same—to insure that all women artists receive an equitable portion of the distribution of the federal, state, and city arts funding dollars that their hard-earned taxes pay for. It was a realistic goal, as I did have some initial success with the first petition—716 signatures from all fifty states—upon which I could build.

As it was my first time authoring a petition on whitehouse.gov, I did not know that I only had one month to collect 100,000 signatures in order for the petition to receive an official response from the White House. That threshold was not met, but with the help of members of the League of Professional Theatre Women and others, we moved the conversation forward in terms of leveling the playing field for all women artists. It was a simple idea whose time had come, and may come again.

Undaunted by the lack of receiving an “official response” to our efforts, I wrote a letter to President Obama about what the petition proposed. Much to my surprise and delight, I did receive a response from him not only outlining the achievements his administration had made in the fight for full equality for women, but the work that lies ahead as well, (which I hope will be embraced and built upon by our next president). The letter said in part:

“From reaching for the ballot box to breaking barriers in boardrooms and on battlefields, American women have stood resolute in the face of adversity and overcome many obstacles to realize success. However, we have more to do to advance opportunity for women, and I appreciate your message…Thank you, again, for writing. America must be a level playing field, a fair race where anybody who’s willing to work hard has a chance to get ahead. Restoring opportunity for every American—especially for women—will remain a driving focus for our country.”

The petition was not perfect and was not without its share of criticism. One woman even refused to sign the petition stating that her “biggest issue is that [the petition] is completely ignoring and actually further oppressing an entire group of people: the transgender community and the many people in the arts community that do not identify as either male or female.” She suggested changing the wording in a future version of the petition to say:

“Legislation should be enacted whereby any arts organization or institution that is receiving city, state, or federal funding should be mandated to allocate an equitable portion of that funding to women and transgender artists, thereby ensuring that they receive grants and/or employment opportunities that are traditionally denied them...”

So this is what I am proposing: Any arts organization or institution that is receiving city, state, or federal funding should be mandated to allocate an equitable portion of that funding to women artists, or risk losing government funding.

I remember how Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for the rights of “Negroes,” yet the fruits of his work are felt today in other communities. Not only does one movement build and fortify another, a success in one movement sets a precedent that future movements can stand on. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 laid the groundwork for all that is happening now with regards to marriage equality, women’s rights, transgender rights, as well as the disability laws. It is all a process in the long march towards equality for all. Even with its perceived faults, the petition did bring attention to the plight of women artists. 

This brings me to my discovery: comply or lose funding! Had I not recently become a full-time drama teacher in New York City public schools and a student pursuing a Masters of Arts in Educational Theatre, I would not have made this discovery. The dawning of the twenty-first century saw a mandate that made it compulsory for all students be educated in America’s public schools. Push back to this mandate came in the form of IQ tests, which were slanted against Native Americans and “Negroes,” and relegated girls to an education that prepared them to be homemakers. Looking back, Plessy v. Ferguson spouted a “separate but equal” doctrine, which was the law of the land until 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education overturned it. A separate, but clearly unequal education was against the law, but the passing of legislation did not change people’s long-held beliefs on who was worthy of a good education.

So where did children with disabilities fit in to this equation? In Jan Valle and David Connor’s book Rethinking Disability, we learn that, “The Civil Rights movement broadened its focus to other citizens, including the disabled.” The Education for the Handicapped Act (EHA) of 1975 addressed the education of disabled children, which then became The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990. Essentially, students with disabilities now have equal access to a “free and appropriate public education” and schools had to comply with the law, or risk losing government funding.

“Comply or lose funding”—How did I not know about this consequence that was put in place to ensure enforcing hard-won civil rights? Probably because it is rarely enforced, but I doubt that any theatre company or arts organization receiving monies from taxpayers could survive the scrutiny of the press. We should emphasize this type of enforcement to buoy our noble cause. So this is what I am proposing: Any arts organization or institution that is receiving city, state, or federal funding should be mandated to allocate an equitable portion of that funding to women artists, or risk losing government funding. It is as simple as that.

Martha Richards adds more on this issue:

“The National Endowment for the Arts already does this…when an organization gets an NEA grant, they have to sign documents saying that they will comply with all relevant federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX. So if an arts organization got a grant for an educational program and they discriminated against women and girls in that program, they could theoretically lose their funding in violation of Title IX…The difficulty is that the Equal Rights Amendment has not passed yet, and women are partially covered by a patchwork of federal laws…Women are only protected in educational programs because of Title IX. You are basically asking that women [and transgender people] be added to the list of protected groups.”

I have also received suggestions from playwright, lawyer, and member of the League of Professional Theatre Women, Cynthia Cooper; she proposes an improved strategy to issuing another petition. Cooper notes that launching a new petition may not be the way to go, but if we do move forward with it, we should:

  • Get a Senator, or member of the House to sign on and support it.
  • Get a state, or city to pass such a measure.
  • Add this measure to arts funding contracts and union contracts.
  • Appeal to various civil rights organizations to add the measure.
  • Add it to federal government contracts and grants.
  • Hold hearings on the subject and launch an investigation into how much money is going to theatres without parity.
  • And finally, convene a legal think tank.

To this list I would add (whether it is a federal law or not):

  • Challenge granting and re-granting organizations to adopt an internal administrative policy of treating women fairly.

We are four years, nine months and twenty-three days away from August 26, 2020, Women’s Equality Day—the day given to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Let’s make every day count. Women earn 78 cents to a man’s dollar, and those few pennies shrink to somewhere around 44 cents when it comes to what women of color earn in comparison to white women. Recently, the California Fair Pay Act was amended, making it the nation’s strongest equal pay protection law. Clearly state-by-state is the way to go, as we have seen. Hopefully, other states will follow suit, but let us be clear—women theatre artists are not just fighting for equal pay for equal work, we are fighting for equal opportunity as well.

I now realize that solely collecting signatures from the choir (as in “preaching to the choir”) may not be enough. We need to adopt a strategy for moving forward that presses into service all that has been learned about community organizing in this new millennium, and each do “one thing” to advance gender parity in the American theatre. Whether it is protecting existing laws, bringing forth new ones, or amending the Constitution to ensure civil rights for all, organizing for action around the issues that we care about is the way to go, and I stand ready to serve.  

#parity2020 #imagine2020

Thoughts from the curator

A discussion and response to the call for better gender parity in theatre.

Gender Parity


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Legislating change is not always a popular idea, but if the necessary change isn't happening on its own, then sometimes it's necessary to take more drastic measures to make it happen. I fully support this idea!

I respect the work you are doing, but I'm a writer, and a female, and it makes me very uncomfortable to receive funding because I am female, rather than due to the merit of my work or its appropriateness to the mission of the arts organization. I don't want to see inferior work by women being produced or published. That only gives credence to the mistaken and biased idea that women are not as good.This is not like hiring a middle manager for a tech company. Artistic work should be judged for itself only, not for the gender, race, age, nationality, political persuasion, etc. of its author.

I think the question of "inferior work" is already so layered with patriarchal, white European male theories on what is good. Artistic work is never judged for itself only--it is judged by its times, taste, and those in control of what is appreciated and what is not. I talk about this in my first piece in this series--would welcome your thoughts on it.

Thank you for your response, Shellen.

We don’t change someone’s taste by forcing things on them. AndI do not believe that there is “one” standard or one type of work that’sconsidered superior anymore. Audiences know what they like: work thataffects them, work that has meaning, or work that is just really funny, right? Theatercompanies have to sell tickets.

There are trends of course – it’s trendy to write topical (ripped from theheadlines!) or sensational. And yet, “The Flick” by Annie Baker is neither. There are many other similar examples.

If we say “comply or lose funding” we are basically saying “Produce this work or fund this artist, even if you think her work is not up to your standards.” Wow. I do NOT want that for my work.

It starts with us - women must focus on their own work and strive to be thebest. Boycott theaters or festivals or competitions who don't use a blindsubmission policy. Use initials instead of our first names. Whatever it takes.And submit! Women submit less than men! Let us throw all our darts. But let'smakes sure they are sharp.

I’m sorry I’m not using my name, but I’m shell-shocked from abad experience online.

Thank you for your response. It makes me sad how deeply we take on the prevailing culture's hierarchy and criteria for what is "good" and not. I truly believe (and discuss in my piece in this series) that the criteria is warped, and therefore deeply flawed. Perhaps if you re-read or produce a work that you thought sub-standard, you will discover its beauty and possibility. That has certainly happened in my experience.

I think the idea of legislation is a fine one, however this petition seems to ignore that there are already laws against employment discrimination against female workers (and others) that simply need to be enforced and rules about government funding and contracts that support equity. Perhaps the language could fill a gap and be more specific about non-profit theater companies whose missions are not demographic related. The effort is admirable, but for me, it underscores the importance of not leaving lawyers out of the conversations as so often happens in entertainment EEO advocacy. Every summit, symposium, and conference needs to include attorneys just like every other successful movement in U.S. history. gettingplayed.homestead.com

Yvette I am so glad to see your words in this series! So many avenues for change on this issue. I applaud you for looking for solutions and avenues to change via the legal system. As a regional Actors' Equity member, I have been told by producers who are working on contracts that don't require them to use 100% Equity members in their shows that they 'can't afford' to use a contract for the role I'm right for. In the study I co-authored this spring (Not Even: A Study of Gender Parity in Bay Area Theaters) we found that not only were women less employed than men, but that they were employed even less at the higher pay tiers in the region. Clearly, change is needed. For those who want to see the study, it's here: http://www.womenarts.org/no...

Rather than burden arts organizations with yet more paperwork (extremely stressful paperwork no less, due to the possible dire consequences of a mistake), and create yet another bureaucracy (at taxpayer expense) that tries to make sure money is divided up evenly (a task which I suspect is impossible), how about this: no taxpayer support of theater at all? Let people spend their money how they like!

(Bonus: This would prevent another group from insisting [as the transgender community did] that it isn't getting its fair share of taxpayer money.)

If you don't want to do this, but are in favor of the above law, then what you're saying is that it is fine to force (via taxation) people to support theater they don't want to... just so long as woman receive an equal share of the loot.

Hardly a laudable moral position.

I just noticed that the proposed legislation doesn't say "equal", but "equitable... thereby ensuring that they receive grants and/or employment opportunities that are traditionally denied them...”

OMG! This definition is so vague as to make it impossible for an arts organization to know if it has complied with the law! Inviting lawsuits by those who don't get cast (or whatever), saying that the organization hasn't done enough!

Another problem: In certain areas there may be an abundance of qualified women, while in other places not so much. But this legislation doesn't look at averages; any organization that doesn't meet the (hopelessly vague) "equitable" criteria one year could permanently lose funding, even if it is because other theaters in the area have (temporarily) soaked up the talent they wanted to hire!

The bottom line is that this law, overall, would only benefit bureacrats and lawyers.