CODEPINK co-founder Jodie Evans on women in activism
North America's leading female activist says women are "first responders" when it comes to standing up for peace and justice.
Jodie Evans learned early that activism is a full time job. It’s one she’s been doing for decades.
“I was a maid working in a hotel in Las Vegas in 1970, and I was organized to march for a living wage -- we won.”
The then-maid went on to become the founder of CODEPINK, an international women-led movement for peace and social justice.
“I found my voice, and maids got a living wage, which was amazing.”
In November 2002, she joined her friends Medea Benjamin, Diane Wilson and about 100 other women on Capitol Hill to begin a four-month vigil to protest the war in Iraq. By March 8, 2003—International Women’s Day—they had captured the country’s attention, and that day they gathered over 10,000 pink-clad demonstrators to encircle the White House.
It was the beginning of what was to become an international women's movement, CODEPINK. Co-founded by Evans and Benjamin, the organization has grown from a small group of women with hot pink signs to a worldwide movement taking on a number of a number of urgent issues.
Nine years after that first Women’s Day march, Evans is constantly on the go, planning protests, speaking at conferences and putting high-profile politicians on the spot.
After her march for the living wage, Evans’ early experience was as an anti-war activist, a role she took up after having lost two friends in Vietnam. She joined the campaign for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, whose platform advocated for an end to the war. And despite his loss in the election, Evans says the experience led to substantial progress and tangible outcomes—like earning 18-year-olds the right to vote.
“We didn’t disappear, and we didn’t give up. Instead we made it happen. So many good things came out of the activists from McGovern,” she said.
Code Yellow, Code Orange, Code Red…
Fast forward to the Bush Administration in 2002, when U.S. Congress was about to hear the Iraq War resolution authorizing a preemptive strike on the Middle Eastern country. Evans and her colleagues knew they had to do something to try to stop this, and to spread their message of peace.
They were already part of an activist group called Unreasonable Women for the Earth, which had been calling “Code Hot Pink” to get ladies more engaged in environmental issues. They decided it would be the perfect slogan for their anti-war efforts, but came across a little roadblock when they tried to set up a website.
“We found out that Code Hot Pink was a sex site, so we had to switch it to CODEPINK,” laughed Evans.
“It was definitely to play off of Bush’s attempts at frightening the country, with his Code Orange and Code Red and Code Yellow. It was to call “Code Pink” for peace,” she said.
Ever since their highly visible stunts at the White House—at one point they stripped down to their bras in front of TV cameras to reveal hot pink doves they’d painted on—the women of CODEPINK have continued to keep the pressure on American policymakers. They have chased down officials guilty of war crimes, confronted politicians at private dinners and in Congress, and even convinced the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass an anti-war resolution.
But despite their successes and creative tactics, Evans says she still feels like it’s never enough.
“What I’ve learned is that we never speak loud enough. We never are as aggressive with our truth as they are with their lies,” she said.
Just recently, Evans disrupted a fundraiser for President Barack Obama, urging him to use his leadership to ensure that the country does not go to war with Iran. Obama’s reply, according to Evans, was dismissive and sexist.
“He said, ‘Aren’t you jumping the gun, young lady?’ But it’s exactly then that you end wars. As we can see, once you start the getting out part is incredibly hard,” she said.
“So yes, jumping the gun is what I continue to do. I think it’s what activism is. It’s like being the canary in the coal mine.”
Sometimes, “jumping the gun” to stand up for one’s beliefs takes a lot of courage—particularly when it involves public confrontations like the ones CODEPINK is known for. Sharing an example, Evans recalls trembling as she and Benjamin prepared for a planned disruption during Sarah Palin’s speech at the 2008 Republican Convention.
In spite of the nerves, the two women pulled out their banner and shouted until they were dragged out by security. Though that particular event didn’t result in charges, Evans says she’s been arrested over 70 times (a number she says is normal for a career activist). With that much experience under her belt, she doesn’t let the fear get to her.
“When you’re doing it, it would take courage not to do what you’re doing, because you know what would happen without it,” she explained.
Women pay the price
One of the reasons Evans and her friends started CODEPINK was to encourage more women to get involved in activism. In addition to their high-profile political actions, the group takes pains to help foster a new generation of female demonstrators and agents of change.
“CODEPINK is an activist school itself. The women across the world and across the country that do CODEPINK actions weekly and daily in their communities learn how to do that by doing,” Evans explained.
She and the other staff do their best to make time for small-scale community protests in various places they visit, and for three years CODEPINK even had a house in Washington D.C. where women could learn and take part in daily actions.
Evans explains why she feels it’s so important for an organization like theirs to exist, and to keep empowering women to create positive change.
“It’s not that women are better,” said Evans.
“It’s that men have been [the ones] who take us to war. We felt it was going to be the women’s voices that could end the war.”
And while women at home in North America are taking on the challenge, it’s equally important to consider women in other places—many of whom are victims of war.
“Women and children are who pay the price of war. And in Afghanistan, they were even using women as the reason we were going to war, but not doing anything for them. We know from experience that through rape, violence, poverty, PTSD…that war is on the bodies and backs of women,” Evans said.
Despite Obama’s recent suggestion that the U.S. should transition out of the war in Afghanistan, CODEPINK’s work is far from over. In addition to pushing for peace, the network has also joined forces with other ongoing movements like Occupy Wall Street, creating a female-focused offshoot called Women Occupy.
This Thursday for International Women’s Day, CODEPINK and Women Occupy supporters across America are engaging in a “Bust Up Bank of America” protest against economic injustices. CODEPINK is also part of an intensive “spring training” session for up to 10,000 people in the Occupy movement, happening in March and April.
Apart from these types of events, Evans said the organization doesn’t tend to plan too far ahead. Instead, they keep a close watch on Washington, and are ready to spring into action whenever the need arises.
“We call ourselves first responders,” Evans explained.
“We’re there, like women and like mothers who see the danger before it hits. And I think it’s so important…it’s not allowing these things to happen in the first place that women understand. Because they see the consequences, they know the consequences and we’ve experienced them in so many ways. That’s what we understand as women, and that’s what we understand as CODEPINK.”