Artists

‘If I Am Not Offending People, There Is Something Wrong’: Artist Natalie White on Using Her Art to Fight for the Equal Rights Amendment

Natalie White, Lady Liberty, 2016.

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Natalie White knows that one reason why protest signs reading “We need a woman’s heartbeat law” are still necessary to defend women’s access to our constitutional rights in the United States is because women are not considered equal to men in the Constitution. As a longstanding campion for the Equal Rights Amendment, White has been fighting tirelessly to finally get equal rights for all people, regardless of sex or gender, recognized by the federal government. In an era when women’s bodies remain battlegrounds and women’s lives are increasingly in danger from discriminatory legislation, few people are aware of the ERA, its history, its promise, and its urgent necessity. While the ERA, which has been awaited ratification for decades, will not ensure that Roe v. Wade remains uncontested, the current lack of constitutional equality means that women remain vulnerable to dehumanizing legislation. White, an artist, model, and activist, is determined to make legislators and the Constitution recognize women as people, under the law.

Exercising her ownership over her body is central to White’s own work as an artist and acclaimed model. She was raised in frugal, devout Christian home in Fairmont, West Virginia. While such a background is often associated with restrictive social and political policies, she credits the tough, independent, competent, resilient women of West Virginia for her inherent grit, pluck, and inner fire. When she moved to Manhattan, these qualities and her Amazonian body garnered significant attention from artists, making her a sought-after model. “Who Shot Natalie White,” a 2013 exhibition at Rox gallery, featured artwork celebrating her by Peter Beard, Sean Lennon, Spencer Tunick, and Olivier Zahm. Other artists to depict her include Will Cotton, Max Snow, and George Condo.

White, at right, with her work Sister of Liberty (2016) in her 2016 show at Wallplay in New York.

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In recent years, White’s become her own muse, putting her body and beauty in service of her fight for the ERA. White’s work for the amendment started with “American Girl in a Box” at the Hole’s Wallplay gallery—White posed naked, on a rumpled American flag, in its window. In 2016, she staged “Natalie White for Equal Rights” at White Box Gallery, presented nude self-portraits, including a life-sized bronze sculpture of her naked but for combat boots, holding an American flag high. Another massive American flag was comprised of photographic panels of her naked body in white, laying like Gaia, between the red and blue. In recent years, she’s been focusing her artistic energies on large-scale Polaroids. Using this endangered medium (only three cameras of this type still exist), she creates ethereal self-portraits recalling Maya Deren’s surreal cinematography, to fund her fight for the ERA. These Polaroids are on view in her solo show “Introspection” at Arts & Leisure gallery in New York through July 7.

Originally written and introduced to Congress in 1923, the ERA earned bipartisan support in the late 1970s with Presidents Carter, Ford, and Nixon endorsing it, before Phyllis Schlafly and fellow female conservatives fear-mongered about women being drafted, leading the legislation to stall. The official deadline to ratify ended in 1982, and the ERA has been languishing since. In her fight to revive the feminist fight for equality, by pushing states to sign on to the amendment, White has enlisted committed aid from activist actors and lawmakers like Alyssa Milano, Patricia Arquette, Lizzy Jagger, and civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby while regularly risking fines and jail for (often hilarious) public protests.

For this interview, I visited White in her Manhattan home. My father, a lifelong feminist ally and an attorney who championed gender equality in the armed services during his term as General Counsel of the Navy in the Clinton Administration, introduced us and made a great match. We curled up on her sofa, looked at her art, drank tea, and talked for a few hours about the history, present, and future of her work and the ERA.

Ana Finel Honigman: You started fighting for the ERA long before 2016. Has this lack of support changed since there is now constant attention on activism and social-justice issues?

Natalie White: I didn’t start working for the ERA because of a Trump presidency. It wasn’t like Trump motivated me more. I was already fully into it. I started in the summer of 2015. I knew it didn’t matter whether Hilary or Trump were elected. We would still be fighting for this. The fight was going to be uphill, regardless. It would probably be more difficult if Hilary Clinton was president. Not that I am glad Trump was elected, but I remember people constantly saying there was no problem with racism in America during Obama’s presidency. People like me, and you, always knew there was a problem with women’s rights in the United States, but the nation in general had no clue. How can it be radical to think women and men are equal? How radical is that?

Natalie White, Examine, 2018.

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AFH: It’s like using an atomic bomb as an alarm clock, but it’s still nice people woke with Trump. Maybe I am making stereotypical assumptions, but is the idea of gender equality radical in the community where you were raised? Aren’t you from a pretty conservative environment?

NW: I had a real conversation with a real state representative in Virginia, not West Virginia, after we lost a vote to get the ERA to the floor in Richmond where I asked whether I can count on his vote. He said that he wishes the amendment were worded differently because the Bible says that “women are a fragile vessel.” You’re right, but I grew up in West Virginia, which is a really interesting place. West Virginia ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. Where I am from, women and men all have to work. There is no choice. Women can’t stay home and take care of kids. I don’t know a single person whose mother didn’t work. That wasn’t an option.

But was there equality and equity in the home, as a norm?

Growing up in West Virginia, there were commercials threatening domestic abusers with having their guns taken away. Apparently, that helped lower the rates of domestic violence. But there was another side too, where women were equal and tough. Because there was so much poverty, everyone was raised in a village. That was just how the world was. There was no disproportion of wealth. There were some power struggles but nothing like looking out a window and seeing the projects and a billionaire’s home.

The lack of equal rights is a war against women but most of all poor women. Intersectionality must be among the biggest challenges to the ERA. The amendment’s history has Phyllis Schlafly, a female constitutional lawyer and staunch anti-feminist, destroy its original trajectory into the Constitution. Women who benefit from the status quo, or perceive themselves benefiting, must still be among your biggest adversaries.

Yes! There was a documentary recently on TV about the ERA. I was so excited because I thought it was finally getting the attention it deserved, but all they talked about was the ‘70s. They didn’t mention the work after 1982, which was mostly spearheaded by women of color. Senator Pat Spearman in Nevada is an African-American, lesbian, military veteran state senator, and she resurrected the resolution and she wasn’t in the documentary. It was about white women only.

What are the other biggest hurdles you’re encountering with the ERA?

The biggest is that one knows about the ERA. Everyone cares about equal pay. They say equal rights, but no one knows that women don’t have equality of rights under the law. Once you tell people, they are so confused. You’re right that some women think they’re superior to men and they don’t get it. Women think they’re fine and then something else pops up on TV and they forget about it all. But, besides no one knowing about it, the most frustrating thing is that people are not funding this fight, at all. I am the vice president of Equal Means Equal. We are made up of 12 people. We are all volunteers. We are doing all of the work on the ground, alongside sister organizations in all the unratified states. It is really hard because we are the people working on it and I’ve learned that organizations can either go out and raise a lot of money or they can get a lot done within the communities. You can either focus on raising money or focus on getting things done. We’ve been really successful with only a shoestring budget. We’ve been able to ratify Nevada and Illinois on less than $50,000.

Are you able to sustain yourself?

A lot of the ways we’ve been funding our fight is through the sale of my artwork.

That’s a lot of pressure on you. Do you still think of yourself primarily as an artist? How did starting this fight connect with you being an artist?

I don’t do anything else but make art. That’s what I do every day. Sometimes the art is political. Sometimes the politics are artistic. And then, sometimes, things are just art and just politics.

How is nudity political for you?

I’ve gone to visit with politicians, spoken at rallies and panel, but the only time someone mentioned nudity might be an issue was when I was lecturing at a college. She warned me that someone might be against it, but no one was. But Sister Leona, my partner in a reenactment protest, was arrested in Virginia, without bond for three days, for baring a breast. We were reenacting the state seal of Virginia, with the goddess of virtue overthrowing the tyrannical king, played by me, and she bared one breast. It was their state seal and flag! Sister Leona taught a class on the ERA while inside the jail. I am just not afraid of offending anyone. If I am not offending people, then there is something wrong. I don’t want to just be offensive, but if people just looked at my art and thought it was cute, or nice, or pretty, then it would be meaningless.

From my perspective, you’re using your body to represent all women, born cis-female or otherwise. Your self-portraits are meaningful because they’re examples of you exercising your ownership over your body, so all women can have that right.

It is a lot of pressure to sell, but it has to happen. We are effective. I have a letter from the Majority Leader in Illinois saying if it wasn’t for me, then Illinois would never ratified, but what it really meant was the work of Equal Means Equal and our many sister organizations on the ground are making real change. That is the real motivating factor.

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