Make Equality Reality Gala Honors Feminist Activism and Artists

Jane Fonda -Gloria Steinem -Lily Tomlin -Equality Now's Gala-Getty-H 2016
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Equality Now

“When it started, the human rights movement didn’t include women,” Gloria Steinem told THR about the cultural impact of Equality Now. “What happened to men was political, but what happened to women was cultural.”

Gloria Steinem, a board member of Equality Now, joined donors and supporters of the organization to honor actress and activist Jane Fonda, political activist Jaha Dukureh, and producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter Parkes. The third annual Make Equality Reality fundraising gala at Montage Beverly Hills celebrated the accomplishments of these four individuals in their efforts to promote equal rights around the world.

Equality Now is an international human rights organization dedicated to fighting for equal rights under the law for men and women around the world. Combining grass-roots activism with legal advocacy, it fights to end violence and discrimination against women by changing laws around the world. In addition to advocating for legal equality and justice for girls, the organization's efforts focus on ending female genital mutilation, sex trafficking and sexual violence. Its annual gala sought to raise money for these efforts, as well as to honor the work of four great “powerhouses for change” in 2016.

Guests included Maria Bello, Lily Tomlin, Joss Whedon, Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, Mae Whitman, Kathy Griffin, Ruby Rose, Maggie Grace, Melanie Griffith and civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred. Guests and honorees walked the red carpet at the Montage Hotel Beverly Hills on Monday night.

Actress Bello, who studied international women’s rights at university, says Equality Now’s legal advocacy efforts are what attracted her to the organization. “When you change the law, you change the country, you start to change the society,” she says. 

Wende Zomnir, founding partner of Urban Decay makeup who partnered with Equality Now on the event, echoed these sentiments, telling THR, “You can change minds all day long, but changing the law is what really is going to change women’s lives.... The women’s empowerment landscape is very broad and diverse, but I do think that what Equality Now is doing with changing the actual laws is probably the most important thing we can do because then we have a legal footing to stand on.”

Director Whedon has been a supporter of Equality Now since its early days — one of its founders, Jessica Neuwirth, was a former student of his mother’s and a member of her high school chapter of Amnesty International. Whedon stressed the importance of Equality Now’s efforts in our current political climate, saying, “The climate of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct that came to light when Trump was running...that sort of sexual violence and that kind of day-to-day micro-aggressive intrusion is going to be the thing that needs to be pushed back against.”

Steinem, an integral force in the women’s movement and second wave feminism, told THR that she is encouraged by how many people actively support feminist causes today. “In my generation, it was like, 12 crazy women, now it’s a majority. I mean, we have Beyonce putting feminism in a song.” Given this, she says the question that irks her the most is when reporters ask, “How is the women’s movement doing and where is it going?” “It’s like asking, ‘describe the universe and give two examples,’ ” she says. “They wouldn’t say that about the Civil Rights movement, or the Peace Movement, but it’s like we’re just one thing.”

The event, hosted by Matt McCoy, featured a series of tributes to the honorees and remarks from the guests of honor. The evening also included two dramatic performances from Jean and Lola Blackman, members of the GoodCapp Arts/The Cappiello Studio ensemble. The performances addressed experiences of female genital mutilation and cyberbullying/sexual harassment.

Actress and comedian Tomlin introduced longtime friend and collaborator Jane Fonda, saying, “We still have work to do taking out the sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigots out there. And we are all so lucky to have Jane on the job." Tomlin first worked with Fonda on 1980’s 9 to 5, which tackled female equality in the workplace.

Fonda earned a raucous standing ovation and garnered further applause when she noted she had caught a cold at Standing Rock, demonstrating the tireless nature of her political activism. Fonda is an advisory board member for Equality Now’s Adolescent Girls’ Legal Defense Fund. She described her experiences with a community in Egypt and how education and career opportunities positively altered their society. Fonda praised the “hands-on, flexible, culturally sensitive, and economically astute” work of Equality Now and concluded with a call to action, saying, “In this very challenging time, when we all feel we have a shroud of disbelief and despair hanging over us, you get active and you lift the veil.”

Steinem took the stage to introduce honoree Dukureh, founder of Safe Hands for Girls and a female genital mutilation survivor and activist. Steinem spoke to the role of reproduction freedom and bodily integrity in ensuring equality and true democracy. She joked about efforts to control the female body, quipping, “I think if Marx and Engels would have started out saying, ‘We’re going to seize control and the means of reproduction,’ they would’ve gotten further.”

Dukureh, who was also honored this year as one of the 2016 Time 100, spoke about her life as a survivor of female genital mutilation and child marriage. Equality Now saved her when she was 15, and she has worked with the organization since then to fight to end female genital mutilation around the world within a generation. She credits Equality Now with helping her find a voice as an activist, joining her in her efforts to organize the first-ever U.S. summit on female genital mutilation and study its practice here in the U.S. She told THR, “Your voice is bigger than you can ever imagine. They can take everything away from you, but no one can ever take your voice away from you, so use it. Shout!”

Malala Yousafzai joined the proceedings with a pre-recorded video segment to honor MacDonald and Parkes, who produced the documentary He Named Me Malala, about her life and activist efforts for female education. She said, “I’m hopeful and sure you will inspire many more people around the world, and you will lead this fight for women and girls.” Debbie Allen, who co-produced Amistad (1997) with MacDonald and Parkes, then took the stage to introduce them in person and speak about their ability to give voice to people who have been silenced through their films.

MacDonald closed out the night by pointing to Malala and Equality Now as examples of how we can all fight for equality, saying, “It can seem so daunting and impossible to promote change in a world which seems, more than ever, to be careening out of control. But women like Malala, and organizations like Equality Now, teach us that it all begins with something within all of our grasp. It begins with speaking up.”

The 1980s pop rock band The Bangles closed out the evening with an acoustic medley of some of its greatest hits: “Manic Monday,” “Hazy Shade of Winter” and “Walk Like an Egyptian.”