This piece was published by Ms. magazine.
Feminists in Los Angeles Monday celebrated the growing momentum for women’s equality worldwide, from the menstrual equity movement taking shape across the globe to the re-invigorated push for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment sweeping the U.S., at the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 14th annual Global Women’s Rights Awards.
“Each year at our Global Women’s Rights Awards, we salute individuals who have contributed significantly to advancing the rights of women and girls and increasing awareness of the injustices women face on account of their gender,” FMF Executive Director and Ms. Executive Editor Katherine Spillar told attendees from the stage at the Pacific Design Center’s SilverScreen Theater. “The Awards are a moment to stop and celebrate the progress we’ve made and reflect on the work that lies ahead.”
This year’s event honored actor and ERA activist Patricia Arquette, alongside Virginia Delegates Hala Ayala and Jennifer Carrol Foy, as well as the transnational team behind the Oscar-winning short documentary Period. End of Sentence.
“Every time I turn around,” Arquette told Ms. on the red carpet before the event, “there’s some new thing to get angry and energized about.” Inside the theater, the FMF board and leadership and the night’s honorees also offered up new reasons for optimism.
The Girls Learn International activists from Oakwood school who launched the Pad Project; producers Melissa Berton, Guneet Monga and Lisa Taback; director Rayka Zehtabchi; and Action India Chair Gouri Choudhury took the stage first, and told their story of how Period. got made and where The Pad Project started.
“I remember those days at our GLI club meetings when we dreamed about how we could make a real difference by purchasing the pad-making machinery for the girls and women of Action India,” Oakwood GLI alum Avery Siegel said on the stage. “In addition to making affordable sanitary pads, we discussed how the machinery could be the basis of a self-sustaining enterprise.”
Siegel also recalled the scrappy fundraising strategies that made the film possible, from bake sales to yoga-thons. “We became quite good at asking everyone we knew,” she joked. “Thank you, mom and dad and grandma—and thank you to all the Oakwood parents here tonight and to everyone who supported our dream!”
Maggie Brown, a current student at Oakwood and GLI activist, also noted that the Pad Project—and the larger fight for menstrual equity—didn’t end on the Oscars stage.
“In getting deeply involved in the Pad Project for Action India, we began to realize that we didn’t have to go halfway around the world to make an impact on this critical issue for women and girls,” she explained. “We discovered that 20 percent of girls in the U.S. missed one or more days of school because of not having access to affordable menstrual protection. I was shell shocked when I found that out.”
Together with other GLI clubs, the Oakwood chapter successfully pushed for a California law mandating free sanitary products for girls in high school bathrooms, which went into effect in January. In the coming weeks the club is heading to Washington, D.C. to meet with Rep. Grace Meng, who is fighting to pass the Menstrual Equity for All Act. When asked on the red carpet what she learned from The Pad Project, Brown offered only optimism: ““When strong women put their minds together,” she said, “anything is possible.”
Berton, who is both a producer of the film and the teacher who heads up the GLI chapter at Oakwood, described the years of work her students have dedicated to making those changes possible as a “wonderful, inspiring ride” to Ms. before the event. Inside the theater, she beamed with pride as past and present students from the chapter took the stage.
“People often ask me why this issue became so important to me,” Berton said. “The answer has something to do with being a high school teacher—where it is my privilege every day to witness the simultaneous beauty of my students’ physical growth into womanhood on the one hand and their intellectual growth that informs the kind of women they will become. I believe it is at this tender and transitional moment that education must be nurtured—and never, ever stopped.”
Choudhury shares that pride. Action India, which was founded in 1976 to advance women’s equality in the region, was among the first GLI partners overseas. Her daughters were among the first GLI leaders in India.
“I am seeing changes throughout India that I never thought I would, as the menstrual equity movement sweeps across the country,” Choudhury explained, recounting the work it took to make The Pad Project and Period. possible and all that’s come since the installation of a pad machine in Hapur. “I can tell you tonight: the Period. End of Sentence. documentary is accelerating the demand for change all across India. It has broken the silence around the topic of menstruation creating conversation at all levels of society between women and men too. This Oscar shot the topic to the sky—there is no question about it.”
Monga agreed. “The film has put the conversation about menstruation on the map in India,” she explained. “On the ground at Hapur, these young women are now icons reflecting what we know to be true that the combined effect of education, exposure and conversation is empowerment. As filmmakers, we talk about changing the world, about telling stories that have a real impact and make the world a better place. With this film, I have seen the needle move in this way.”
Zehtabchi has also had a close-up view to the impact of The Pad Project in India, having visited Hapur before the machine was installed and then again to witness changes in its wake.“Here we are now, two and a half years later—thousands of pads made and sold, a second machine installed for Action India, an Academy Award and a permanent home for our film at Netlix for millions of people to view,” she said from the stage. “Our hope is that this documentary will continue to amplify the global menstrual equity movement, and break the silence that has kept women all around the world—and throughout history—shamed and sequestered.”
Taback, whose daughter also produced the film and was a GLI activist involved in the inception of the Project, knows best how impactful an Oscar can be. “People ask me: How do you go from having an idea to fund a pad machine, to making a movie, to winning an Oscar and then opening the floodgates to a conversation about a subject no one wanted to talk about?”
She revealed the answer: “Controlling the narrative.”
“These girls were not interested in a nice piece in the New York Times,” Taback explained. “They didn’t want their 6 minutes on The Today Show sitting with Hoda. They wanted to change the world by telling their truth and shining a light on injustice for young women and girls around the world—and as [FMF Board Chair] Peg Yorkin would say, they fucking did it!”
The movement for menstrual equity showcased in Period. is rooted in cultural change—but that shift isn’t possible without policy to support it. That’s where the renewed fight for the ERA entered the discussion on stage.
“The need for a federal Equal Rights Amendment could not be clearer,” Spillar declared on stage, “in light of widespread violence against women, the under-representation of women in elected office, the continuing gender pay gap and the escalating attacks on birth control and abortion.”
The ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923, but didn’t pass out of the House and Senate until 1972. Despite widespread popular support, it wasn’t ratified by 1982—an arbitrary deadline imposed by Congress—and the movement to advance women’s constitutional equality fell largely dormant. But in 2017, Nevada’s legislature ratified; in 2018, Illinois followed suit. Now, the measure needs only one state to meet the majority for ratification.
Delegates Ayala and Carroll Foy, two fearless women of color legislators, made it their mission decades later to bring the ERA to a vote on the floor of the Virginia legislature for the first time in 42 years after their elections in 2017. In doing so, they became the first women of color to demand a vote on the Amendment.
“Moved to outrage, then action, after Trump was elected president, the founder of Prince William County NOW, Hala Ayala, organized a delegation of 14,000 women to join the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017,” FMF board member Dolores Huerta explained from the stage. “Shortly after, she made the life-changing decision to quit her job as a cybersecurity specialist for the Department of Homeland Security in order to run for office—among the first of what became a wave of hundreds of women across the U.S. running for office.”
Ayala wasn’t alone. “Another first-time candidate in Virginia in 2017, Jennifer Carroll Foy,” Huerta recalled, “was inspired to run for a seat long held by a Republican. But just three weeks after launching her campaign, Jennifer found out she was pregnant with twins. Undaunted, she plowed ahead—and after giving birth prematurely, Jennifer and her husband spent their days campaigning and their nights in the neo-natal intensive care unit with their twin boys. So of course, the twins were in their arms as she took her oath of office in early 2018.”
The effort to ratify the ERA in Virginia ultimately fell short—but by only one vote. In the process, Ayala and Carroll Foy put the issue of the ERA back on the ballot: By forcing a vote by their colleagues on the floor, they made it possible for voters to hold lawmakers who opposed the measure accountable at the polls.
“We need to make sure everyone in Virginia and the country knows there is only one way to spell equality,” Carroll Foy told Ms. on the red carpet before the event, “and that’s E-R-A.”
Ayala—who is Afro-Latina, Lebanese and Irish—also told Ms. on the carpet that the ERA means a lot to her personally, as well as politically. “It means I am now dignified,” she declared. “I have representation in the Constitution. I have a seat at the table. I’m not on the menu.”
Spillar told Ms. before the event that when the ERA wasn’t ratified in the eighties, she was shocked. “I realized it was time for me to get involved,” she explained, “for all of us to get involved.”
The same call was clear throughout the FMF’s program Monday. Whether it’s a matter of menstrual equity or Constitutional equality, it’s time for feminists around the world to continue rising up—and claiming victories that change women’s lives.