Free the Nipple founder Lina Esco turns her sights to passing the Equal Rights Amendment


At the same time the Statue of Liberty went dark late Tuesday night, just on the eve of International Women's Day, the sometime leader of the Free the Nipple movement was busy speaking to a reporter about her mission to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

Maybe it was an odd coincidence, or maybe a perfect metaphor for the Wednesday unveiling of Esco's new passion project: the Human Campaign, a 24-month drive to finally update the nation's bedrock document to give men and women the same standing under law.

"One hundred thirty countries around the globe have something in their constitution that states men and women are equal," she said. "We don't have that. And that's really sad."

Esco, an actress, activist and director, is hoping to turn heads — and change minds — as she did in 2012 as leader of Free the Nipple. Through film, art and protest, that campaign used the toplessness of celebrities and everyday people alike to underscore a double standard in the way women and men can bare their bodies in public.

Matthew Brookes

Looking back, it "was funny and quirky and that was the whole point: It was not aggressive. It was engaging," Esco said in an exclusive phone interview. 

"But the Human Campaign," she promised, "is going to be very disruptive."

"Even if it takes getting 100 women outside of Congress topless with the ERA marks on their chests — whatever it takes, I will do," Esco added.

Esco's push to revive the ERA — written by women's rights icon Alice Paul and first introduced in Congress in 1923 — puts her among legions of activists and legislators who have tried to make it law. 

The ERA passed the Senate in 1972. By 1982, a deadline extended from 1979, only 35 of the necessary 38 states had agreed to amend the Constitution to guarantee that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

The amendment has been re-introduced year after year, but to no avail.

The Human Campaign will incorporate some of the same splash and flash as Free the Nipple. But changing public attitudes about waist-up nudity and altering the very blueprint of the republic are worlds apart. 

That's why, Esco and spokeswoman Page Jeter said, the ERA campaign will be a multimillion-dollar effort that pulls in as yet unnamed Washington lobbyists, political strategists, data scientists and ad makers. 

Their efforts will be entwined with a social media push that extends to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And it may re-enlist marquee Free the Nipple supporters from Miley Cyrus to Banksy, Kendall Jenner, Russell Simmons and Chrissy Tiegen.

The Human Campaign

The challenge may be all the steeper, Esco acknowledged, under President Donald Trump, whose crude past statements about women dogged him during the election and whose new proposals on health care have been panned by critics as a threat to reproductive rights in particular.

It may also, she said, be more urgent because of him. 

"It might take 10 years before we get the Equal Rights Amendment in the Constitution," Esco said. "It might take five years. We don't know. But if anything, the only thing I can thank Trump for is the fact that he, in a way, has woken women up by being the most misogynistic piece of shit on the planet."

Trump's election and presidency have seen a revival of activism in the name of women's rights. In January, hundreds of thousands turned out for the Women's March on Washington the day after Trump's inauguration. For International Women's Day on Wednesday, the Women's March organizers are set to stage massive strikes called A Day Without a Woman, with rallies planned all over the country. 

"He, in a way, has woken women up  by being the most misogynistic piece of shit on the planet." 

Esco isn't going it alone: Her partner in steering the Human Campaign is Trevor Neilson, the cofounder and president of Global Philanthropy Group.

Once dubbed the "charity fixer to the stars" by the New York Times, Neilson's experience and connections span the worlds of giving, investing and, of course, politics. Neilson is a veteran of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and helped create what would later become Bono's One Campaign. He also once served in the White House under then-President Bill Clinton.

If the former president's wife, Hillary Clinton, had won the Oval Office, "In terms of women's issues, yes, she would have been helping, and in a big way," Esco said. "Absolutely." But the first woman president was not to be.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ironically, Esco said, Trump's victory may have generated a different but even more powerful incentive to place all people on the same legal plane. 

When President Barack Obama held the White House, Esco said she "was knocking on doors all the time asking people to support gender equality stuff that I was doing and people just weren't aggressive enough, weren't excited enough, weren't driven enough."

On the other hand, Esco said, "When Trump became president, everybody was in survival mode, like, 'What can I do?' Everybody was on edge. So there's no better time to try to get the Equal Rights Amendment in the Constitution than right now."