This Is How Nipples Started a Real Dialogue About Gender Equality

Denise Vasi DESIGN: Haobin Ye

On Women's Equality Day, we take the time to commemorate the 1920 adoption of the 19th Amendment and also to recognize and celebrate all that's being done in the continued fight for equality for women and girls. This fight is underway every day, motivated by the women before us and sustained by the women who continue to work toward a better future. One such inspiring individual who has helped make huge strides for gender equality is actress, filmmaker, and activist Lina Esco. Five years ago, Esco founded the Free the Nipple movement and directed the film of the same name. She recently started the Human Campaign, which is working to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

Read on to see what Lina Esco has to say about her mission, what's been accomplished, and what is left to be done.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

MYDOMAINE: You have said that "nipples are a Trojan horse to talk about equality." What are some of the broader issues of the mission?

LINA ESCO: The main reason was to start a dialogue about gender equality around 2012, at a time when feminism wasn't mainstream, or a time where mainstream media wasn't really supporting or giving the proper voice and platform to women. The nipple was the seed, and then everything started from there. The feature film, which I thought was going to be released much sooner and trigger the bigger mission, ended up coming out after the movement caught fire. Ultimately the movement was meant to be louder and more important than the film, and I am glad it worked that way.

Since 2012, FTN is still part of the normalization aspect of the so-called nipple, and I think after five years, it has changed a few things. In the summer of 2014, Facebook and Instagram reversed their photo policies because of the amount of momentum behind FTN. At the time we had just launched an FTN campaign called "Everybody's Gotta Eat" about breastfeeding. It was loud enough for Facebook to pay attention to this ridiculous issue and give breastfeeding women the right to post and share pictures of them breastfeeding their babies.

MD: Can you please tell us how the Free the Nipple campaign started, what's at work now, and what's to come?

LE: FTN started in 2011 as a feature film I wanted to direct about women challenging the censorship laws in America by going topless for equality. I needed to do something disruptive to start a real dialogue about equality. We raised one million dollars in 2012, and we were in pre-production in New York City the summer of 2012. The easiest thing that came was the funds. Everything else was nearly impossible. The movement started at the end of 2012, and it really kicked off mid-2013 with the help of Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham, and Scout Willis to name a few.

MD: You also recently started the Human Campaign. Can you speak more about the ERA and your work to get it passed?

LE: The Human Campaign is the most important thing I will ever do. I think there is no other way to achieve gender equality in America than having an amendment in our Constitution protecting us on a federal level. 130 countries have language in their constitution that states men and women are equal. We don't. If that doesn't infuriate us or makes us want to all come together for this cause, then I don't know what will. It's about women and men coming together. Stop pointing fingers. Or blaming men. Women are part of the biggest problem. We continue to make excuses and find reasons we don't think this is important enough. It is the most important thing we can do for one another.

MD: What have been some of the biggest challenges you've faced during your activism?

LE: When I started entertaining the idea of Free the Nipple in 2011, there were so many people around me telling me to not do it. They said that FTN was the biggest waste of time, that women have rights, that there is no war against women-it was all bullshit. The more I dove into the history of "women's rights," the more inspired I got to do something about it. That's when I learned about Alice Paul, the author of the ERA, which was first written in 1923. Yes, women have made a lot of progress, and yes we have come a long way, but we are nowhere close to where we need to be. The Human Campaign is next. Even if it takes me a lifetime, I will not stop.

MD: Can you give us a timeline of the Human Campaign?


  • The ERA was first introduced into Congress by Alice Paul in 1923 and is the 28th proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • The amendment ensures the rights guaranteed by the Constitution apply equally to all persons, regardless of sex.
  • In 1972, Congress finally passed the ERA and sent it to all 50 states for ratification. The ERA was only ratified by 35 of the 38 required states to officially pass an amendment to our Constitution, and the ERA was defeated in 1982.
  • In 2017, a few of the 15 states that did not ratify the amendment between 1972 to 1982 (including Virginia, Illinois, North Carolina, Arizona, Utah, and Florida) introduced legislation to ratify the ERA. This is where the Human Campaign started. The Human Campaign is a universal platform to unite all gender equality organizations for one mission: To pass the ERA.

MD: What are some of the ways our readers can get involved?

LE: Right now we are focusing on hiring top lobbyists, lawyers, and campaign managers for a 24-month campaign to pass the ERA; we will soon start fundraising. Help spread the word about this story, this amendment, and Alice Paul. I didn't know about the ERA until I did research for the FTN film.

MD: What are the major changes regarding women's rights and gender equality that you hope to see realized over the next five years?

LE: In five years, I hope that the ERA will be passed as our 28th Amendment in our Constitution.

Next, see what 14 women have to say about empowerment.