Tabby Biddle speaks with Kamala Lopez, the award-winning filmmaker, actress and activist, about her mission to awaken women to their political power and finally get the Equal Rights Amendment added to our U.S. Constitution.
For nearly three decades, Kamala Lopez has been a filmmaker, actress and activist working toward women’s equality and gender justice. Born in New York City to an Indian mother and a Venezuelan father, Kamala attended Yale University and graduated with degrees in Philosophy and Theatre Studies. In 1995, she formed Heroica Films, a production company with the mission to write, direct and produce media for women, about women and utilize women both in front and behind the camera.
Kamala has worked as an actor in over 30 feature films including Born in East L.A., Deep Cover, The Burning Season (winner of 2 Emmys, 3 Golden Globes and the Humanitas Prize), Clear and Present Danger, Lightning Jack, and I Heart Huckabees; and has starred in over 60 television shows including Black Jesus, Medium, 24, Alias, NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, and 21 Jump Street (winner of the Imagen Award). She also hosted the PBS series Wired Science.
Kamala’s feature film debut “A Single Woman” about the life of first US Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin won the 2009 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus. In 2013, her short Spanish-language film “Ese Beso” won the Jury Award at the Senorita Cinema Festival and the Audience Award at the Boyle Heights Latina Film Festival.
In 2016, Kamala’s follow-up feature, Equal Means Equal, won Best U.S. Documentary (Audience Award) at Michael Moore’s TCF Festival and was a New York Times Critics’ Pick. The film began to be used by activists across the country in community screenings, house parties and online to reinvigorate the fight to complete ERA ratification. Then, in March of 2017, after over 35 years of inaction, the Equal Rights Amendment was ratified in Nevada. Then in March of 2018, Illinois ratified, and on January 27th of 2020, Virginia became the 38th state and the ERA was ratified after close to a century of struggle.
Kamala’s work on behalf of women and girls has been recognized by Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors and the Women’s Commission who named her 2015 Woman of the Year (Arts/Media). In 2012 Women’s eNews selected Kamala as one of the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century and the National Women’s Political Caucus named her the 2011 Woman of Courage. In 2016, the State of California awarded her the Latino Spirit Award for Achievement in Advocacy and Entertainment and the national civil rights group Equal Rights Advocates named her Champion of Justice.
Kamala has been the keynote or featured speaker in many venues including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, the United Nations, The National Arts Club, at the YaleWomen Global Conference as well as to “at-risk” girls and other children in L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles schools.
In March of 2019 Kamala received the inaugural YaleWomen Impact Award for Excellence, and the City of West Hollywood’s Women in Leadership Award.
Tabby: Let’s start with your voice. You use your voice in different ways — as an activist, educator, filmmaker, actress, writer and director. In your work and in your life right now, how would you describe where you are with your voice?
Kamala: I’ve become very comfortable with my voice as of late. I think that it’s becoming more and more authentic as I get older, because I am able to not be as concerned. This may just be me — not because I’m older. But I’m really less concerned about other people’s perceptions of who I am, if I feel what I’m saying is correct, especially right now, because I feel that we’re living in an age of extreme bad faith. It’s a very dangerous era for human beings. I feel that there is an obligation and an urgency for people to speak truthfully, cogently and communicate directly and purposefully to other human beings.
It’s unfortunate, but because we [human beings] are so open-spirited and open-hearted, and we’re looking at life and trying to become engaged in it, we’re very easily manipulated by those who have hidden agendas. Nowadays, I feel that most of our society operates in this manner, in bad faith. People that don’t are perceived as naïve, dummies, or unable to work the system as needed to get ahead. I think this entire ideology is incredibly dangerous for the human being, because now we have an entire society that cannot distinguish fact from fiction; that doesn’t really know what they think or feel, because they haven’t taken any time to reflect on it. They’re being constantly told that the truth is a lie, and that the lie is a truth; and that subjective is objective, and objective is subjective. It’s very demoralizing and destabilizing to civilization.
Tabby: Where do you feel the most natural and most powerful using your voice?
Kamala: Well, I can say that I am enjoying doing acting and comedy more than anything else. When the Equal Rights Amendment was ratified in January of 2020 [legislation in Congress and lawsuits in the courts are pending surrounding the standing of the original deadline assigned to the ERA], as a gift to myself, I decided to go back into what I love, which is acting. I have been fully enmeshed in doing comedy since the pandemic started, essentially. It’s very freeing, and it works into the other stuff, too, because there’s a level of obfuscation that walks hand-in-hand with seriousness. It’s misleading to people because people think that if you’re very serious, and you use lots of big words, and you can speak academically about policy, that we should be intimidated by that, or we should think that it’s hierarchically better, when in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s designed to confuse you. It’s designed to alienate you from what you’re trying to do.
For example, let’s say the goal of the policy is to make the environment safer. By the time anybody gets to vote on that 500-page bill with all the numbers, heretofores, pork and whatnot, the distance from that bill to the environment that they’re trying to protect is so far, that the human being really can’t keep the thread. That’s what’s happened with women’s rights. We are now fighting about theoretical things and constructs that we’ve invented and created, and that are sort of intellectually addictive. But substantively, we are just in the hole. We are in a very degraded, substantive reality for women; a reality of poverty and domestic abuse, of extreme violence and extreme discrimination and oppression — all normalized and essentially invisiblized. Not just all over the world in developing nations, but in this, the richest country, where there is a very clear agenda to disempower women as quickly and as substantively as possible through laws.
Because we women are undereducated about our history and our rights, because we’re so easily manipulated, and because there’s no reign on the propaganda and what can and cannot be sold to us as truth, women are operating against their own best interests en masse.
“The situation for the Equal Rights Amendment is such that we may literally have to go back 100 years. In the next month or so we will discover whether all the work we’ve done over the past 97 years is just going to be summarily dismissed by a bunch of powerful white men.”
Kamala: Now we’re just going to be told to go ahead and do it all over again. What’s worse is that we’re going to try and do that. If people like myself and others do not really put their feet down on the matter and say…
“Hey, ladies, I don’t know about you. But I’m not willing to defer equal pay and equal protection under the law for another 100 years. I’m not willing to let five women die every single day for another 100 years. And the fact that you are, tells me something’s very, very, very wrong with our movement. That our movement has been co-opted by the establishment forces that are literally paid off by either party, generally by Democrats.”
The women’s parties are owned by Democrats, by the Democratic establishment, which has no real desire to provide women with substantive legal equality. Neither party does, which is why our attorney Wendy Murphy believes that the only way out for American women is through the formation of a Women’s Party — a party that is dedicated and focused solely on equality for women.
What we see right now with the Equality Act is the conflagration of sex and gender. What that does on a legal level is so dangerous, because it essentially eliminates us as a suspect class that deserves strict scrutiny, because now we’re no longer immutable. Our being female, femaleness itself, is now being categorized as somehow fluid and mutable. You can’t make strong law to protect women as a class, if we somehow have mutable characteristics, which is why I’ve been speaking for a decade on the fact that sex is a biological classification that covers all ways the human beings present.
The Supreme Court reinforced that point of view with the Bostock case that Equal Means Equal supported by filing an amicus brief in last year saying — yes, sex as a biological classification covers all genders, all gender identities. But when you take gender identity, which is subjective — maybe one year you feel more on this side of the spectrum than the other — and you legally mix that with something that is not fluid, you create a blurred line. And you have suddenly eliminated us from being able to have strict scrutiny as a class. Again, we’re undermining our own power as a huge political power block by allowing ourselves to be pitted against one another; parsed into smaller and smaller slices that have narrower and narrower agendas.
They did this during suffrage using race. Now they’re doing it with the ERA using gender, and we’re falling for it all over again. I’m sitting here pulling my hair out wondering, How can I get a megaphone big enough? But that begs the question itself because voices that do not substantiate the prevailing point of view, which is based solely on money and profit, are not going to reach the large megaphone.
“They did this during suffrage using race. Now they’re doing it with the ERA using gender, and we’re falling for it all over again. I’m sitting here pulling my hair out wondering, How can I get a megaphone big enough?”
Tabby: We know that leadership for so long has been defined by the male lens, male standard, and male values. This doesn’t work for most women. How would you describe yourself as a leader and what do you value in leadership?
Kamala: I wonder about my style as a leader because I am somewhat intransigent. I’m autocratic and dictatorial. But that is because I have attempted throughout my life to work in a different manner, in a more inclusive, democratic way with large groups of women. What I’ve found is that I’m fighting so much misinformation and propaganda; and this culture of embracing busy work — this culture of politesse, politeness, inclusivity. These are all great qualities, were we on a level playing field already. These are qualities that women will bring to the table in spades, once we achieve political and social equity. But right now, I see them as a disadvantage because we’re on a rugby field, and we’ve got ladies in petticoats playing badminton with blindfolds on. I’m playing rugby here because I want to win, and because I love to watch ladies play badminton in petticoats, and I want them to be able to do that safely. I want the ones that want to play tennis to be able to do that. And those of us that are willing to play rugby without any protective equipment to do that, too.
But the support for this way of thinking is extremely low. It’s not because there are not people that are angry, and women that recognize what’s going on. It’s because… I feel that we’ve been lied to in the United States and told that we have a just system that we should trust and work through.
For example, Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution says that, “Upon achieving 38 states, an amendment shall be adopted.” But that’s not what happened. Virginia became the 38th state on January 27th of 2021 and Attorney General William Barr sent the U.S. Archivist a memorandum opinion letter ordering him not to publish it. When a person that’s Black is pulled over, for a taillight being broken, you would think they would get a fix-it ticket. But that’s not what happens. They could lose their lives. Right? I’m just no longer willing to work within a system that is designed for me to fail, unless I allow myself to be co-opted, lie to other women and become part of the problem.
“I’m just no longer willing to work within a system that is designed for me to fail, unless I allow myself to be co-opted, lie to other women and become part of the problem.”
Tabby: You have been working for over a decade in leading the movement to secure the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment so that it’s part of our U.S. Constitution. What has been the evolution of this movement over the last 10 years?
Kamala: I would say that the movement really has come to life, and I’m really happy to say that there is momentum now. Even though, as I said initially, this is an entire exercise in bad faith with all the people in power knowing full well that this is a wank, or whatever. But nonetheless, the concept of ‘equal rights for women under the law’ has started bubbling into the collective consciousness enough for me to feel like we have been effective to some degree. The evolution for me personally has been one that started with shock, surprise and dismay, and moved quickly to extreme hope and optimism, thinking that this was a very easily solvable matter. Over the course of the past 10 years, my journey has been one of growing recognition that there are very few powerful people that want to see the ERA actually happen. That, in fact, it is much more worthwhile to maintain the possibility of ERA as a carrot; to get different people elected to different parties, to raise money to keep certain things in place, institutions and so forth. I have been deeply disillusioned with all quarters of our society: from our state legislators, to our federal legislators, from our women’s establishment movements, to our media pundits, prominent lawyers, judges and our courts. The only people that have not disappointed me have been the women themselves, who have been incredible in their commitment and hard work.
“I feel like the journey has led me to feel greatly disappointed in people with power and money, and very sad about the cancer of human greed. At the same time, I’m retaining optimism that the solution lies in women, in our very essence of fairness and wanting to share with one another, both responsibility and opportunity.”
Kamala: That’s what really hurts me the most is that you’ve got all these women of good faith, with incredible competence, energy, intelligence, and ingenuity that are trapped in a rigged system. So, the way it is presently designed, there’s no getting out. I keep wondering, Why do women think that if they keep going to the wolf for keys to the hen house, he’s going to give them to them? To what benefit for the wolves? Why are we so naïve?
We are not willing to confront the reality of our continued oppression because it’s extremely painful. But by the same token, by not doing so, we’re selling our daughter’s lives down the river. We need an influx of bravery, of courage, from all of us.
I think the Internet has made that worse for us. Even for me, I’ll admit I run scared that one thing I say, passionately, to try to make a point, will be extracted and presented out of context to turn me into some kind of an “ism” or a “phobe” of some sort. There are strange bedfellows being created all over this new landscape because we’re in a culture where truth and lies are so confused, that all people can do is blame and point and yell.
In the case of gender and sex, we have a real issue that all of us should look at together to make sure that we’re not being fooled; because the fact that all of a sudden, an incredibly marginalized group in our society, one that suffers discrimination at a rate tenfold of that of any other class, suddenly now has all this political capital, much more than 51% of the population. So much political capital in fact, that the first thing the new administration did was to pass this Act that now blurs the legal lines between sex and gender.
I feel like the journey has led me to feel greatly disappointed in people with power and money, and very sad about the cancer of human greed. At the same time, I’m retaining optimism that the solution lies in women, in our very essence of fairness and wanting to share with one another, both responsibility and opportunity. I’m just hoping that I can get enough people, enough women, to see through the veil of this two-party game that’s being foisted on us, and see beyond that, and to take matters into our own hands.
Kamala: Whether it’s a national strike, or whether it’s going to the International Court in The Hague, which is definitely something I’m planning to do on behalf of American women and girls, to take our situation to the world and say: You know what? This country is violating the civil and human rights of half its population. We have no way of seeking redress. The Supreme Court has shown they’re in bad faith. We look to the rest of the world for help.
Even if the United States refuses to recognize the authority of any international body, including the United Nations, it will still be embarrassing, because we purport to be the number one greatest, feminist nation, when in fact we’re tied with Syria as the third most dangerous country in the world for sexual violence.
So maybe what we have to do is rip off the veil and reveal the truth of our nation further, so that it drops further in the estimation of the world; so that it understands that its systems are rotten, and need to be addressed as systems. We’re not interested in BandAids, and we’re not interested in an ERA start-over bill.
Tabby: When you think about your feminine legacy, what do you see?
Kamala: I hope that my legacy is being part of that mosaic that Alice Paul, and those before her, started that will ultimately lead to parity, justice and equality for all people, and a more humane world. I would like, 200 years from now, when the world is more like Star Trek, and there are wise counsel women, AI beings and other sentient creatures sitting around great round tables — I hope that they will say: “Our great foremothers had to fight an endemic misogyny that was invisible-ized by the dominant culture to the point where those suffering didn’t even recognize it as the source of their pain. Kamala was one of the people that exposed the fact that women were being treated poorly all over the world, and that it needed to stop because otherwise the planet couldn’t survive.”
Tabby: Speaking of foremothers, as you know, so many female voices and stories and accomplishments have been omitted from the history books, and many of us have little record of our female lineage and ancestors be because of that. What do you know about your female ancestors? And if you do know things, how do you know them?
Kamala: I had pretty incredible female ancestors on both sides of my family. I heard about them through word of mouth. My father’s side of the family was from Venezuela. My grandmother, Maria Emilia Lares Echeverria, was the daughter of a prominent Venezuelan diplomat, intellectual and the first Latin American member of the Royal Spanish Academy, Rafael María Baralt. My grandfather was Carlos Arturo Lopez Bustamante, a Venezuelan journalist whose fierce opposition to the dictator Juan Vicente Gomez got him thrown in jail. He spent nine months in chains, with shackles and bolts on his feet, and living in subhuman conditions. He survived several attempts of poisoning by prison guards and finally managed to escape into exile in the United States. My grandfather’s long exile made him one of the leading voices in the struggle against Gómez overseas. For nearly twenty years he was one of the leading figures of the resistance in exile.
My grandmother bore twelve live children. All the daughters, while brilliant women, were not allowed to pursue their education. They had to serve the men. They were each assigned one of the male children and had to do everything for them. They had to stand there and feed them before they could eat. They had to make their bed and dress them. The guys all went to school. They all went to MIT — except for my dad who was an artist. None of the girls were allowed to go to college. But nonetheless, my aunts were brilliant.
My Aunt Blanca, the eldest of the Lopez clan, was a theologian who fell in love with a magician. Half my aunts were extremely conservative Catholics; the other half were extremely progressive Catholics. The men in the family were all lapsed Catholics. Bottom line, everyone was very Catholic. But it was within that structure that the Lopez women got their power — through philosophy and community, church and that sort of thing.
Kamala: On my mother’s side, who is from Tamil Nadu in South India, my mother’s lineage was one of educators. Members of the scholar/farmer class of the South — eschewing the entrepreneurial industry of the North and the warring nature of those Indians in colder climes. My mother suffered the loss of her own mother when she was just nine years old and was sent to live with her grandparents and then to a British boarding school, while her father coped with the grief and chaos caused by the loss of his beloved and young wife. When my mother learned about America and American history in boarding school, it struck a nerve. The caste system in India, was the opposite of equal. It’s like, you’re stuck. That’s where you’re going to be. My mother did not like that. It offended her on principle. She was a young 14 year-old girl and she had the self-possession and comprehension to say to her grandpa, “I want to go to that country, where they believe those things.”
I find it so moving that she knew that this country and what it believes in, what it stands for, is the right thing. Amazingly, her grandfather did send her to the United States on the Queen Elizabeth II when she was 15 years old, to study in the United States. Eventually, she met my dad and so forth. But just the idea that the principles that this country is built on are like a magnet for good people is so powerful; it’s our job to make sure that it’s not a lie.
Tabby: Your mom works with you in leading of the Equal Means Equal movement, right?
Kamala: She had been, but lately, it’s really a lot of work for her. She’ll be turning 82 this year. So does my husband and partner of over 20 years, Joel Marshall. As you know, not only did we make the whole film, Equal Means Equal, as a family, which took many, many years. But then we used the film to get the last three states ratified. We’ve been all over the country. And then we’ve just been fighting and fighting and lawsuits. So it has been sort of all consuming. I think when we finally got to 38, it was a moment for all of us like, “Okay, I’ve got to take a little time, for myself.”
Tabby: You’ve been so outspoken as a leader in this movement for our equal rights. There are a lot of women who want to use their voice and leadership for equality – whether for racial equality, gender equality, or to remedy other social inequalities. What would be your advice to support them in increasing their impact, while at the same time not burning out in the process?
Kamala: I don’t think I’m a good person to give advice on not burning out, because I’ve had multiple health problems based on that very thing. One of my favorite people, Jo Mellicker, who, along with his wife Judy Scheuer has supported Equal Means Equal the whole way, says, “Kamala, you’re a sprinter that’s been running a marathon.” So I’m not the right person to ask about not burning out. But I am the right person to ask if you have something that’s important to you, and you have no idea how to talk about it.
What I did was first was to learn about it, a lot. I really looked at it. When I stepped into ERA, everybody told me that nobody needed an Equal Rights Amendment, and that’s why we didn’t have one. Nobody was trying to get those states or do anything, because we already had the Equal Pay Act, the Violence Against Women Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. They said we didn’t need it. So then I started to look at that. Is that true? Turned out it was not at all true — in fact, the opposite.
So whatever the thing is that you care about, I think the more you look at it, and really try to understand it from every direction, the more easily you can: number one, communicate that problem to others; and number two, refute what must be a bunch of lies and misinformation that are around it, because otherwise it wouldn’t still be like that. For you to be able to do that, you’ve got to really look at it and see who’s lying about it, or who wants it to stay the way it still is. Who are those people? And then who or what do those people care about?
“I think the single most important thing that we can do as female changemakers is to unite right now, because we are stove-piped into our separate issues and causes. We’re not making the best use of our vast amount of power.”
Kamala: Like with our legislators, it’s their funders they care about. It’s people that give them money. Who knows who it will be with your issue? Look at it, and then you can start to pull it apart and write about it. Start writing about it — articles, op-eds, stories, get the word out that this is a thing. Then other people will become attracted by the truth of what you are saying. You’ll see as soon as you start to do anything, the universe will start throwing everything at you about that thing. But you have to take the first step.
It’s best to get a lay of the land first, because I’ve often also gone off half-cocked without knowing what I’m doing. “Oh my God, there’s this horrible fire…! Let me run over there and pour water on it. Oh, water wasn’t the thing? Made it worse, huh?” So, at this ripe old age, what I now say is: don’t park until you pass the address you’re going to. This is essential advice for actors in LA, when you get an address for your audition. That took me five years to learn because in New York, you just get out of the subway and walk to your audition. You park in LA before seeing your final destination in the flesh, you could be walking five miles. It could be three numbers away, but it could be twenty blocks. So just get the lay of the land first before you dive in headfirst. Understand what’s going on, and then just proceed calmly and don’t overwhelm yourself. Do one thing at a time.
Tabby: That’s great advice. If you had a loudspeaker that could reach the ears and hearts of women and girls around the world, what message is it that you’d want to impart?
Kamala: I would want them to understand and believe that they are equal to men. That they are not inferior in any way. In fact, there are areas in which they’re superior to men. That if they could just believe in their own competence, down to their very soul, then we would all be in a much better place. That our own insecurities from centuries of being told certain things and treated certain ways, and that our own buying into that, is not helping us move forward. So, believe that you are as competent as you are, because you actually are.
Tabby: Is there any last wisdom or parting message that you want to share with the readers? Anything that we didn’t touch on that you want to make sure they know?
Kamala: I think the single most important thing that we can do as female changemakers is to unite right now, because we are stove-piped into our separate issues and causes and are not able to see the connections that exist — the web of inequality that binds us inextricably to one another. We’re not making the best use of our vast amount of power. I would like to suggest we should all come together around the issue of legal equality, as it will, in fact, improve every single other issue we are working on by giving women a bedrock to stand on in our law, that is presently absent.
I would like to see American women leaders working with global leaders; going to them for advice and guidance on how to deal with a government that is operating as a criminal enterprise. And what can we do to get this started? I’m all about setting a date for an international conference for all women leaders, to come together and figure out how we are going to wrest control from this small group of sadistic, psychotic, sociopathic, greedy, white men and a few of their allies. We’re going have to take over the world. We will do it gracefully. We will do it kindly and humanely, but we need to start planning for that now.
Tabby: That’s powerful.
Kamala: We can set the date. We can raise money from some smart companies that want to work with us. There are 13 female heads of state in the world right now. My dream would be… to fly in these leaders: Angela Merkel from Germany, Jacinda Arden from New Zealand, to fly in some of the awesome people from Iceland I worked with at the U.N, to fly in some of the Mexican feminists that are in the street right now, the Liberian women who overthrew a sexist regime without bloodshed. We identify leaders across the world and in the United States, and bring them together for a two-week retreat if it’s in the real world, or a series of workshops if it has to be virtual. The goal would be to come out of there with a five-year plan to save the planet and save the men from themselves. Women have to start looking at ourselves as all on one team: Team Competent (and not crazy). The future depends on us coming together now.
This interview first appeared on tabbybiddle.com.
Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed. works at the intersection of women’s leadership, feminine spirituality and social change. She is the co-founder of 50 Women Can Change the World in Media & Entertainment, the bestselling author of Find Your Voice: A Woman’s Call to Action, and an internationally celebrated women’s leadership coach, educator, strategist, and group facilitator for her unique approach to activating women’s leadership. Learn more.