When Patricia Arquette won the best supporting actress Oscar for Boyhood, she gave an acceptance speech that roused a cheering Meryl Streep and an equally effusive Jennifer Lopez. Arquette had used her moment to catapult gender equality and the wage gap between men and women to the forefront of the media landscape.
“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.”
Those remarks touched off a debate that advocacy groups hope will rally the public to their cause and will put pressure on legislators, particularly at the federal level, to pass laws designed to end income discrimination. They note that women on average make 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, and the gap widens with age and extends to nearly every industry.
“We were very pleased to see her use the bully pulpit to take a stand on that issue,” said Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women. “That's a huge audience. The only thing that could do more to get the issue of gender pay equality in front of the whole country is if she had given her speech during the Super Bowl half-time show.”
Arquette's remarks inspired loud applause at the Academy Awards, and instantly went viral as the millions of people watching the telecast at home weighed in.
Women's groups say that the only times they have seen more buzz around the topic of income disparity was when Lilly Ledbetter, the activist who sued Goodyear for paying her less than male counterparts, addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and 2012, and when President Obama took up the mantle of equal pay in this year's State of the Union address.
Initially, Maatz said the Twitter and social-media buzz around Arquette's comments was largely positive, but remarks the actress made backstage at the Oscars press room, during which she implied that gay people and people of colour should throw their weight behind the issue because of women's past support for civil rights issues, struck many as tone deaf.
The resulting backlash has been intense.
Slate's Amanda Marcotte wrote that Arquette's comments ignored the fact that lesbians and women of colour also struggle with the issue of pay inequality.
“That's a troubling message to send at any point, but it's particularly disturbing right now, when some of the ugliest attacks on women's rights, particularly when it comes to reproductive health care access, are aimed at low-income women who are disproportionately women of colour,” wrote Marcotte.
The Nation's Dave Zirin also faulted the Oscar winner for getting her history wrong. “Saying ‘we fought for you, now you fight for us’ implies that battles against racism, anti-LGBT bigotry and other forms of oppression owe a massive debt to the heroism of straight white, middle- and upper-class women,” he wrote.
Activists hope that the furore over Arquette's subsequent comments won't drown out her message.
“Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished,” said Maatz. “There was a lot of truth and passion behind her statement. She's not an expert, she's not a policy wonk who lives and breaths the ins and outs of this issue. She said what she felt, even though she may not have articulated it perfectly.”
Arquette has also tried to clarify her remarks, taking to Twitter to argue she had not meant to be exclusionary. “I have long been an advocate for the rights of the LBGT community. The question is: why aren't you an advocate for equality for ALL women?,” she tweeted, adding, “Wage equality will help ALL women of all races in America. It will also help their children and society.”
Pay equality hasn't been an issue that's been widely discussed at awards shows and on red carpets, but it's one that has the entertainment industry's attention after leaked Sony Pictures e-mails revealed that actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams earned less than their male co-stars.
“I don't know if the speech would have happened had there not been the leaks of those e-mails highlighting that Hollywood is paying women less,” said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Centre. “One of the things that's hard about fighting pay discrimination is it's difficult to get hard numbers.”
In the aftermath of Arquette's speech, groups such as the American Association of University Women have used social-media platforms to draw attention to her comments while simultaneously offering statistics about the pay gap.
Not everyone has been receptive. There have been snarky commentaries, such as one Washington Examiner op-ed entitled Female millionaire claims American women don't have equal rights that imply that Arquette's wealth nullifies her message.
Maatz vehemently disagrees with that logic. “People should get paid the same wages for the same work,” she said. “Even women who are making millions of dollars, are making millions of dollars less than their male counterparts.” – Reuters