Patricia Arquette: "We Need to Take Back the Word 'Feminist'"

Patricia Arquette - H 2015
AP Images

Patricia Arquette - H 2015

The Oscar-winning actress continues her campaign for wage equality for women.

It’s been four months since Patricia Arquette made international headlines at the 87th Academy Awards.

But her win for Boyhood didn't cause as much commotion as her Oscar speech. Those remarks rallied audience members at the Dolby Theater including Jennifer Lopez, Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in support of wage equality.

“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” she said. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” Lawmakers including Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Rosa DeLauro tweeted their approval. Hillary Clinton later voiced her support.

Arquette has since continuously leveraged the international attention given to the topic to fight for equal pay for women in America. Her campaigning has recently earned its first victory with a new bill passed in California where people can openly discuss salaries. Other celebrities, including Meryl Streep, have also lent their image to the campaign, rallying Congress to support the equal rights amendment.

At the Taormina Film Fest in Sicily, a festival that has long focused on the issues of women, Arquette was recently honored with the Bulgari Award for Best Actress of the Year. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Arquette to discuss the effects of her equal rights campaigning, her advice to women paying the gender tax and just why the current generation needs to take back the word feminist.

Were you surprised about the reaction your speech caused in Hollywood?

When I was talking at the Oscars, I really wasn't even talking about Hollywood. I was talking about the millions of women in every other occupation. You know, men are paid more than women in 98 percent of all fields. And the fields where women are paid more are pornography, prostitution and modeling. Well, women can't sustain that anymore. One reason is because half of American families are being raised by female breadwinners. So we have 66 million women and children in poverty and 33 million of them would not be if they were getting paid their full dollar. That’s a huge problem.

And we have moms taking second and third jobs to make the same dollar they should have already been paid. They can't be home with their kids after school, and they can't be doing homework with them, and they can't help them get into college. Women are taking their sick days off because their kids are sick and they're not taking care of themselves. We have African American women who are less likely to get breast cancer but more likely to die from it. It’s having ripple effects all across the board.

In Hollywood, it’s always been a problem. There has always been this bias of age. We've just seen this with Maggie Gyllenhaal being told she’s too old at 37 to play opposite a 55-year-old man. We see it with Zoe Saldana almost getting turned down on a job because she’s pregnant. We are the only wealthy nation on earth that doesn't have some sort of paid maternity leave for women, as if we’re supposed to just plop our citizens out and run back to work two seconds later. It’s obscene.

What positive results came out of your speech?

Some lawmakers told me they’ve been working on this for decades. There’ve been activists working on this for so long. And they said that they jumped on that moment to introduce legislation and to try to change policy.

We just passed the first hurdle in one legislative action, SP-345, which will change the law so that in California, it’s no longer illegal for employees to ask each other how much money they make, or have conversations even about salary.

And also, it examines similar works. For instance, a male-dominated field is valet  car parkers  and they get paid more than child care workers, who happen to usually be women. We have to reexamine everything. Why are we valuing our cars more than our kids? This whole system is backwards, and it comes from some leftover nuclear family concept.

I was a single mom. I don't judge single moms. Why relationships aren’t working out, marriages, I don't know, and I don't think we have time to figure that out. What we have to do is make sure that the mothers that are staying are not penalized and that they can feed their kids.

What advice would you give to a woman who knows that her male counterpart is making more money for the same job with the same experience?

I just met this incredible woman with two advanced degrees who was getting paid $20,000 less as a math professor than her male counterpart. I would contact the Equal Rights Advocates, which is an incredible group of women who do legal work for women on these issues. There’s a lot to change, and it really bothers me when people say there will be wage equality in 2058. Because that means we’ll have a whole other generation of young women being penalized because they’re effectively paying a gender-tax.

With the next presidential election looming, what message would you give to potential candidates?

Women are now 51 percent of the population. What I really hope is that women harness their own power to start holding lawmakers accountable. They could start tweeting them, e-mailing them, texting them, calling them. Both the GOP and the DNC, they have to say this is non-partisan issue. I want to know what you’re doing for wage equality. I want know what you’re doing for equal rights for women. I want to see some action. Are you going to be a party that cares for women or not? Because I’m not going to support or give money to any lawmaker that isn't going to make some radical changes fast.

Do you feel a large burden on your shoulders now, that you’ve become the spokesperson for this issue?

You know what? I cry a lot at night thinking about how many women are struggling, how many kids are struggling.

Also, so many women are single moms, so people will say to them, ‘lean in,’ ‘be more assertive,’ or ‘if you are too assertive, you're a bitch, you’re too aggressive.’ Women are being told these mixed messages and we know a lot of women are single moms, so they are not in a great bargaining position to begin with. So I think we need more clarity on why people are hiring and what are starting positions in various jobs. It shouldn't matter if you’re Mexican. It shouldn't matter if you’re African-American. It shouldn't matter if you’re a woman, or if you’re an African-American woman, or a Latino woman, God forbid. This should not be happening in 2015. And we just continue a systemic subjugation of people.

A friend of mine, Kamala Lopez is finishing up this incredible documentary called Equal Means Equal that examines many of the components that effect women when we don't have equal rights.

What would you tell to the CEOs who say, "Well, I can't afford to raise salaries"?

Then you can‘t afford to run your business. I think you have to change the way you look at things. We know the GDP will go up 3-5 percent if women are making more money. It’s all a stupid argument because we know that women are responsible for 87 percent of all purchasing decisions. So women will buy more if they’re making more. And we know that they spend money on their families. So it’s good all round, it would be good for the economy.

It’s a bad argument to explain why you should be able to make second, third and fourth class citizens. It’s a stupid argument. And also, our transgender sisters, and I do consider them women, are having a difficult time even getting a job. And our lesbian sisters, many of whom are supporting families and children, that couple makes, on average, $20,000 less per year. That’s a lot of money over a lifetime. When you are allowing an LGBT family to be economically suppressed, you are inflicting and allowing that kind of suppression on their children also. They’re being penalized for having lesbian moms, economically. We can't allow this anymore.

And I do have to say that there are some companies that are really coming to the table in really fascinating ways. This man, Marc Benioff is incredibly interesting. He decided he didn't want to do that to women with his company, Salesforce, which is a gigantic corporation. So, I think companies can do their own corporate audits.

Do you think the future is looking bright?

I think we can activate our friends. And I think the bright future is this, that everyone has a Twitter account, a Facebook, or some way to contact people, by e-mail, and they can start waking each other up and talking about this.

The other thing that I think we really need to do, because 72 percent of our college girls do not identify as feminists, we need to take back this concept. We need to take back the word feminist. We’re still dealing with some outmoded concept of feminism from the '70s that women are men-haters or some insanity like that. You know, that was such a bad spin.

The truth is, feminism, although there are many different kinds of feminists, where they do have the same concept, is that all women should have the same equal rights as men. What’s so confusing about that? So, I think we need to reclaim the word feminism, the concept of feminism, and we need to be willing to band together because and join feminist organizations, and start letting lawmakers know, oh, there’s 20 million people in this movement. If we disband, if we disassociate from each other, if we fight each other, we will not have a cohesive movement where we can apply pressure and get what we need done.