Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, November 18, 2021

Thursday, November 18, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Ordinary Equality

Gibbs Smith: Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment by Kate Kelly, illustrated by Nicole Larue

Gibbs Smith: Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment by Kate Kelly, illustrated by Nicole Larue

Gibbs Smith: Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment by Kate Kelly, illustrated by Nicole Larue

Gibbs Smith: Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment by Kate Kelly, illustrated by Nicole Larue

Ordinary Equality

by Kate Kelly, illus. by Nicole Larue

Activist and lawyer Kate Kelly turns her keen eye to the history of the United States Constitution and Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment. Kelly's passionate and personal take on the ERA's history serves to ground Ordinary Equality, reiterating that the Constitution and the ERA are not stale, irrelevant pieces of paper, but rather living, breathing documents that hold sway over the everyday lives of millions of people in the United States. From the beginnings of America to her own growing obsession with the ERA, Kelly explores the history of both charters within the context of the many women and queer folk who influenced the documents themselves as much as the political, social and cultural climate in which they were conceived.

The 35 men who drafted the Declaration of Independence "intentionally excluded the people around them," notes Kelly, focusing instead on the rights of white, land-owning males (estimated at that time to be just 5% of the population of the colonies that would become the United States). By refocusing her history on women and queer people--many of whom are also people of color--Kelly sheds light not only on the ways that the rights of these groups were purposefully left out of the Constitution, but how the stories told about the Constitution's drafting and adoption--and about the role of the ERA in its more recent history--have continued to ignore and overlook women, queer people and people of color. In the 12 chapters in Ordinary Equality, Kelly weaves together stories of Indigenous leaders like Iroquois Molly Brant and Cherokee Nancy Good, whom the Constitution's authors ignored; enslaved African women like Phillis Wheatley who spoke and wrote about equality and freedom; Abigail Adams, who fashioned herself "Mrs. President"; suffragettes who fought for women's right to vote; those like Crystal Eastman and Alice Paul, who went on to draft the original ERA; and political figures like Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman to serve in the Texas State Senate, and Pat Spearman, the first openly lesbian legislator in Nevada's history, both of whom are known as staunch advocates for equality throughout their political careers. The list of "visionaries" included here is, Kelly notes, by no means exclusive, but rather a sampling of stories that "should be celebrated, not erased."

Though not formally included in the book's table of contents, one of the many stories of the ERA that can--and should--be celebrated is Kelly's own: she recounts her gradual change of heart, coming from a staunchly anti-ERA Mormon family to become one of the amendment's strongest advocates as it continues its journey to ratification. "I went to my first ERA rally at the US Capitol in 2012," she recalls, "right as I was graduating law school, and I became ERA-obsessed. I wanted to find women like me, throughout history, who felt the same way. Women who believed passionately that equality had to be cemented into our most foundational legal document and wanted to make the country better--from the inside."

This is where Kelly's narrative skill ("I'm not a historian, I'm a storyteller," she writes in her introduction) comes into play; as co-host of the Ordinary Equality podcast and across every page of this book, Kelly breathes life into the history of women's fight for equality under the law, highlighting the larger-than-life figures who led with intention and passion in their own lifetimes.

With stunning page layouts and bold, colorful designs by graphic designer Nicole LaRue, Ordinary Equality is an antithesis to the dry, academic tone most often associated with constitutional law and history texts. This stylized approach, layering Kelly's words with historical graphics and highlighted pull quotes throughout, captures the out-loud spirit of the ERA itself, as well as that of the trailblazers who helped it along the way. Congress met in 2019 to discuss the ERA again for the first time in 36 years, nearly 100 years after the amendment was first drafted in 1923. While the history of the ERA is still a work in progress, Kelly insists that "we cannot allow one more generation to pass before we get the legal recognition we deserve in our country's blueprint." In that vein, Ordinary Equality is as much an invitation as it is a celebration, informing new generations of leaders about a past too often overlooked, and what that past can teach us about the future of the ERA--and beyond--as the "distinguished list" of those helping to frame the United States' legal system continues to expand. --Kerry McHugh

Gibbs Smith, $27.99, hardcover, 256p., 9781423658726, April 2022

Gibbs Smith: Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment by Kate Kelly, illustrated by Nicole Larue

Kate Kelly: Correcting History as a Revolutionary Act

(photo: Cat Palmer)

Kate Kelly is a feminist, activist and human rights lawyer. The founder of Ordain Women, a group that advocates for gender equality in the Mormon church, Kelly is also a staunch advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and co-host of a podcast that explores the current state of the amendment, Ordinary Equality. Her book of the same title (Gibbs Smith, March 1, 2022) explores the history of the ERA via the stories of the women and queer people who helped to shape it.

Can you share a bit about your own story and work around the Equal Rights Amendment?

My entrée into the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment began on the opposite side of the battle. I was raised Mormon, and my mother and grandmother were assigned by the church to fight the ERA in Arizona in the 1970s. I was born into a family where even the women virulently opposed equal rights in the Constitution. It wasn't until much later in life, when I started a movement in the Mormon church for gender justice and for Mormon women to get what's called the priesthood, that I started rethinking a lot of history.

Then I went to law school, and I realized that not only was I not part of the Constitution, but my own mother and grandmother were part of the reason why. It helped me understand the other side and why there would be women who would oppose our own equality, and who those women are. Because I know them, and I love them.

Because I was raised Mormon, I am also a trained missionary. My proselytizing background translates to my new life, where I'm essentially an ERA missionary. I think it's important for people of all backgrounds to be engaged in a struggle, especially a struggle as important as fundamental equality and constitutional equity. I've learned a lot of skills that not a lot of people have, especially on the left: how to approach people, how to build on common beliefs, and how to subtly convert people to your mission. That's what we need.

You have a very specific way of framing your conversation around the Equal Rights Amendment that feels like it's part of this approach you have around common beliefs and converting people to your mission.

It's important to acknowledge that women are equal, and to frame it in that way. We're not groveling, we're not begging, we're not trying to push our way into something we're not part of. Women are already equal and have always been an integral part of building this country and this Constitution from the very beginning. But our contributions and our existence have been erased. All we are asking is for our equality and human dignity, which we all possess, to be enshrined in the Constitution. I think there is a way to demand rights and equality from a position of dignity and strength, and that is what I have tried to show in the stories of these women and queer people. They were incredible pioneers, incredible people. They were not only ahead of their times, but they were ahead of our time, in their thinking and in their actions. I'm trying to help people understand who they were, and who we are. We already are equal, we just demand that it be recognized.

This is a really stunning and bold book in terms of design. Where did the idea for that style originate and what was the thinking behind that approach?

I pitched the book to a lot of publishers and got a lot of interest, but that interest was for a more academic tome, 300 pages long, lots of footnotes and the like. That is never what I wanted for this book. I wanted it to be very approachable, to have this visual element. I wanted the characters to come alive. They were alive, and some still are. That was always my approach for the book, so when Gibbs Smith said they'd not only publish the book but go with my vision for a very rich imagery for the text, I was thrilled.

I wanted something that many people can feel drawn into and a part of. I hope that people can see themselves in this movement. Because it's not over. I want people to see photographs and illustrations of the actual people, and see themselves in the text.

People tend to think of the ERA as that thing in the 1970s, with lots of hippies marching in the streets. It's a very dated image of the amendment, so I wanted something now, something new. We need people to understand that this is still happening now.

I know Nicole LaRue, the illustrator, personally; she's a friend and also ex-Mormon. I knew she would be a perfect match, both ideologically and in the illustrations. It was very exciting to work with her. I'd be texting at midnight, sending a random picture of a statue or a historical photo of Mary Church Terrell, and Nicole then turned it into a beautiful product that I think appeals to a lot of people.

You also co-host a podcast with the same title, Ordinary Equality. How do the two fit together?

In the book, I wanted to give us a grounding in who brought us to this point. The podcast brings listeners up to date with where we are today as things continue to shift. So the book does not reflect the podcast in content, even if it does in spirit.

How did you go about selecting which stories to include in Ordinary Equality?

I'm not a trained historian, I'm a lawyer. And a storyteller. And what I wanted to accomplish is not a legal or procedural analysis of the Equal Rights Amendment, which you can look up on Wikipedia, but for people to understand the richness and diversity of the people shaping the ERA and changing the Constitution. That's what I had in mind when I was drafting this book and doing the research. I built the list, too, with an eye on diversity. As a queer person myself, it was important to me to remember that queer people have always been engaged in the fight for equality, and queer people are always on the forefront of pioneering thought, pioneering actions. And, of course, women of color have also been the pioneers of our history.

I want to tell a different version of the story of the people who came before us. They weren't just white, they weren't just straight, and they weren't just men. I wanted to retell a more accurate picture of what happened in our history and who America is at its core. Of course a world didn't exist where women weren't there; that is a false world, an untrue narrative. So to do the reverse and actively make women part of this history is not only corrective, it's also revolutionary. --Kerry McHugh

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