GAME CHANGER

Patricia Arquette on Her Incendiary Oscars Speech and the Fight for Equal Pay

One year later, the Oscar winner looks back at the historic speech that helped bring gender pay inequality into the national debate.

02.27.16 9:25 AM ET

This time last year, Patricia Arquette was plotting how she’d bring the fight for gender equality to the Academy Awards stage if she won the Oscar.

She did win. And then she delivered the most impactful half-minute speech of her career, one that helped propel gender wage inequality into the national debate and led to the passage of the California Fair Pay Act, which took effect last month.

“I didn’t write that blurb until they were putting on my makeup,” Arquette told The Daily Beast Friday, flashing back to the incendiary 2015 Oscars speech blasting the fact that women in this country are paid substantially less than men for no reason, a systemic discrepancy many don’t realize has major economic and social ramifications beyond the payroll. “But I knew I was going to talk about pay equality and equal rights.”

This year, again on the eve of Hollywood’s biggest night, Arquette is back championing gender equality — and she’s got many, many more friends. Thursday night in Los Angeles she co-hosted the first Dinner for Equality, gathering luminaries from entertainment, politics, and business to rally around the cause.

Present alongside Elon Musk, Reese Witherspoon, and Stevie Wonder at the inaugural dinner was Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence, the biggest female movie star in Hollywood, who last October penned a letter questioning why she was paid less than her male co-stars. At Thursday’s event — held days before the 2016 Oscars, where she’s nominated for her performance in Joy — Lawrence spoke of the support that flooded her way but also the intense scrutiny that followed both publicly and privately, including from the Republican relatives who “told me my career was effectively over.”

Arquette can sympathize; that history-making Oscars speech lost her jobs, she told Variety’s David S. Cohen.

“I feel really bad for [Lawrence] because she came out and talked about recognizing that she’d been paid less,” Arquette said Friday, shortly after launching a Change.org petition to push a long-needed Equal Rights Amendment through the American legal system. “What we were watching was any young girl discovering that she’d been paid less, discovering that there’s a gender pay gap. It’s not about being an actor, or how many zeroes are behind the number. What it is about is that this is in 98 percent of all businesses.”

“Standing behind Jennifer Lawrence, while they seem totally unrelated to this big movie star who makes a lot of money, are 33 million women and kids who are seriously suffering because their mom’s not paid her full dollar,” she continued. “To diminish that argument and make it about actresses or wealthy actresses is really a stupid argument because the reality is it’s in all businesses and we need to talk about it.”

Arquette is hoping to get people talking with Equal Means Equal, a new documentary she executive produced and appears in alongside an impressive coalition of national advocacy and activist leaders. Directed by actress and filmmaker Kamala Lopez, the film’s goal is to wake America up to the gendered discrimination and inequality enabled by the country’s lack of protective laws for women.

Equal Means Equal unites typically segmented women’s advocacy groups and connects the dots to illuminate the alarming web of causality that links them together. Blending shocking statistics and heartbreaking personal stories with interviews, news reports, and narration by Lopez, the doc dives into social ailments including female poverty, poor domestic violence protections for women, increasingly limited reproductive rights, sex trafficking, and female incarceration, and argues that they share a central root — the lack of basic gender equality laws for women.

“This isn’t a movie to go see, like, ‘Let’s go see a fun movie!’ This is a college crash course [lasting] 90 minutes,” said Arquette. “It’s a blistering, nightmarish state of the union examination of women in the United States of America. This is not a pretty picture. This is living, breathing, real American history happening right now.”

The film mounts a convincing case, arguing how any one of these issues is far from an isolated issue, but rather creates devastating ripple effects unto the lives of women and families of all walks of life, whether they know it or not. That’s how the story of one artist who details her own harrowing rape—and her subsequent walk home, through crowds that didn’t bother to ask if she was okay—finds echoes in the high profile case of a public figure like Kesha, for example.

“God!” Arquette exclaimed, commenting on Kesha’s public battle to sever ties from music producer Dr. Luke, whom she alleges drugged and raped her. “When in the history of the world have we seen this before? Where someone could own someone’s work, tell them what to do and when, silence their voice, and rape them at will?”

Ultimately, the Equal Means Equal group has an even loftier goal than public awareness: Ratify the Equal Rights Act first introduced in 1923, which too few Americans realize never actually passed.

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Equal rights begins with economic equality, they argue. After seeing Arquette’s impassioned Oscars speech last year, California state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson authored the bill that would toughen existing pay equity laws. Prior to its signing, women in the state were paid 84 cents for every dollar a man made working a comparable job.

“It’s a life and death situation for multiple millions of people,” said Arquette. “We have 33 million women and kids that are in poverty in America with full time working moms.  If those moms were paid their full working dollar, it’s not that they’d be wealthy, but they would not be in poverty. That’s a big difference. That’s food. That’s groceries.”

A recurring figure of opposition in the film is the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, whose vocal influence on several influential decisions that failed to protect women’s rights set major precedents for the women of today.  

“Scalia had said the way he interpreted the Constitution, women did not have equal rights,” Arquette said, emphasizing the need to make constitutional changes that will no longer leave the rights of American women up to interpretation. “If you have a Supreme Court justice telling you that you don’t have equal rights, you’d better damn well do something about it and make sure they put in your equal rights, once and for all. You can’t be at the will and the mercy of whoever’s standing wearing that robe, and whoever’s making laws state to state.”

And while she admits to having “strong political feelings” about the 2016 Presidential candidates whose campaigns fall in sharp contrast to the best interests of women everywhere, Arquette says the Equal Rights Amendment movement must remain nonpartisan if it is to have a shot at passing – and so must she.

“I’m trying to really work on passing the ERA,” she said, declining to comment on any specific Presidential candidates. “When Senator Hanna-Beth Jackson made the speech I said, ‘We’ve got to make [the California Fair Pay Act] nonpartisan.’ She was like, ‘That’s going to be really hard.’ But they got almost unanimous bipartisan support and then the governor signed it, and that’s really what we need. We won’t pass the Equal Rights Amendment without nonpartisan support.”

They need the support of the entertainment community as well, Arquette urged—even if some content distributors have told her they’ve already filled their quota of female-centric fare for the time being. “We need this movie to understand what's happening in our country, because this isn’t the story we’re learning in the news, and this isn’t the lesson we’re learning in the classrooms. We need to see what the hell is going on in America.”