As most everyone knows by now, Patricia Arquette issued a very blunt call for equal pay and gender equality during her recent Oscar acceptance speech. After thanking her family, friends, colleagues, and others who have helped her along the way, Arquette stated that she wanted to say thank you “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation. We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” In a backstage interview following her speech, Arquette reportedly elaborated on her call to action:
It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. . . . . So, the truth is, even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface, there are huge issues that are applied that really do affect women. And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.
Arquette’s initial comments were met with raucous applause (as documented in this GIF of Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez that has gone viral), but a significant number of feminist advocates and social commentators voiced their dismay with Arquette’s backstage remarks. For example, Slate contributor and feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte denounced Arquette’s comments for ignoring that many gay people and people of color are women who have long fought for equal pay and that race is often times as much a determining factor in pay discrimination as gender. According to Marcotte, this sort of class-based myopia plays into the familiar stereotype that feminism is “about little more than some privileged white women trying to become more privileged.”
The criticisms leveled by Marcotte and many others are likely as accurate as they are unhelpful. Although Arquette’s choice of words implies a false distinction between women, gay people, and people of color, her comments were focused on calling attention to persistent, gender-based pay disparities and calling for equality where there has long-been discrimination. It’s hard for me to imagine that shifting the public’s focus away from Arquette’s call for justice and placing it on the class-based undertones of her later comments was helpful to anyone, especially to feminists. Instead, those of us who support equal rights should create a space where advocates from all backgrounds feel comfortable contributing their voices to the public debate without concern that they’ll be unnecessarily criticized by other advocates. This openness toward voices from all walks of life is necessary because pushing forward toward equality will continue to require a broad base of supporters. At bottom, equal rights is about treating all groups fairly, and if we can’t get past that some advocates will be wealthy while others will not, or that they will be of different races, national origins, and sexual orientations, then the future of our equality is dim.