In a packed room on Broadway in the heart of Manhattan on Super Bowl Sunday, Jane Fonda—actress, activist and compère for the night—brought together some big names of comedy and others to raise laughs and awareness for gender equality.

Joined for “A Night of Comedy with Jane Fonda” at the Carolines on Broadway comedy club by feminist icon Gloria Steinem, comedians Rosie O’Donnell, Judah Friedlander, Sasheer Zamata, Wyatt Cenac and others, Fonda was promoting the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA is a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would expressly prohibit discrimination against girls and women on the basis of sex.

Contrary to what many might believe, the U.S. is one of only a handful of countries that does not have a constitutional provision guaranteeing equal rights for women under the law, except for the right to vote. In fact, “[Eighty] percent of Americans think women already have equal rights under the law; 95 percent of all Americans think we should, but the fact is that we don’t,” said Jessica Neuwirth, president and director of the evening’s host organization, ERA Coalition/Fund for Women’s Equality.

READ: Meryl Streep Decries Income Inequality in Hollywood, Obliquely Identifies as a Feminist

“I think the ERA is a very important issue,” Fonda told me. “You become a feminist based on issues you really feel in your gut. It can be saying what you really mean to your lover, or your boyfriend. It can mean asking for a raise. … It can mean not caring so much about how you look. It depends on your particular context, but in the political arena, having a woman president is important, just as it’s important [to have] women [movie] directors. When women are telling the story, or running the company, or running the country, it’s just different, and it’s important because [the ERA] would help young women especially, but also older women, know that they matter and they’re not second-class citizens.”

Setting up the night ahead, Fonda told the audience, “When you’re laughing, your guard is down and things that you may have been scared of or have … censored will rise up in you.”

Fonda, 78, said she embraced feminism as a late bloomer. Although she had considered herself a feminist for years, things shifted for her as she was watching Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” when she was 62 years old.

“I could feel it happening in my body,” Fonda recalled, “and I know it was during the laughter part when my guard was down that my feminism dropped from my head and metabolized in my body, and I’ve never gone back.”

Before that, she said, “I couldn’t be an embodied feminist in my blood and bones till I left behind my inauthentic relationships with men. My father, my husbands, my lovers. How can one be an embodied feminist if, behind closed doors, you’re leaving the authentic part of yourself behind in order to please, in order to be a good girl?”

READ: Dear Hillary, Madeleine and Gloria: Feminism Demands We Say No to America’s Deadly Imperial Wars

Steinem—who just hours before the show issued a Facebook apology under public pressure for having commented on Bill Maher’s cable program that young women who back Bernie Sanders for president are just doing it to meet “boys”—leveled her ire Sunday night at the GOP’s misogynistic presidential front-runner. “It is hard for any of us to surpass Donald Trump trying to be funny … and I hope there will soon be a group of rich people to explain that he’s disgracing the name of rich people. He’s not really a successful businessman. He’s a successful con artist,” she said during her presentation. “Can you surpass that for surrealism and humor? It’s very, very difficult.”

During his set, Friedlander offered a novel way of dealing with Trump. “I think we should build a wall—around Donald Trump,” he joked. “Put mirrors on the inside. That way he’s happy, and I think when Mexico hears about this, they’ll be like, ‘We’d like to pay for this.’ “

Trump jokes aside, the event’s message couldn’t have been more significant: Passage of the ERA would put women in the Constitution once and for all.

Watch a conversation on the ERA with activists Agunda Okeyo, Gloria Steinem, Carol Robles Román, Ai-jen Poo, Jennifer Pozner, Jamia Wilson and Elizabeth Deutsch:

Wait, before you go…

If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface.  We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.

Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.

Support Truthdig