The Heart and Soul of JoAnn Evansgardner

JoAnn Evansgardner stood less than five feet tall, but she was a giant in women’s history and in my personal journey.

I first met her when I was 22 and new to all this feminist stuff. I wandered into a board meeting of the newly created Pennsylvania NOW and stood at the door trying to get my bearings. I neither knew nor recognized anyone. But a short woman with a long ponytail and a beautiful smile walked up to me and said, “You must be new. Come sit with me.” And so it began.

By the end of the meeting I had been transformed. With JoAnn’s encouragement and gentle guidance, by the end of the meeting I was making motions , including one naming the corporate Catholic Church as the primary enemy of women’s reproductive rights. Before you knew it, I was named co-chair of the first ever national abortion rights march, the 1975 “Mother’s Day of Outrage,” held at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C.

It was an extraordinary time, and Pennsylvania (particularly my hometown, Pittsburgh) was an extraordinary place. Besides JoAnn and Gerry Gardner–JoAnn’s husband and a fellow NOW activist–there was the incomparable Ellie Smeal, back when the media called her the “housewife from Pittsburgh.” Others not as well known, but just as important, included Phyllis Wetherby, Kathy Wilson, Mary Grace Fitzgerald, Alma Speed Fox, Carol McCullough, Judi Seibel, Greg Dillensnyder, Carol Wharton Titus and Tim Sullivan.

Together, we were nearly unstoppable. Working in Pittsburgh, across the state and across the nation with other feminists, we forced the Little League to allow girls’ participation. We also forced school sports to allow young women to compete, raising money by selling buttons and flying saucers that said, “We don’t need balls to play.” We changed public policy so that rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters and abortion and birth control services were funded and available. From the media, we  demanded fair and balanced coverage (before that term was hijacked). We passed the state Equal Rights Amendment. We took on Anita Bryant and her homophobic hate squad. We opened our own progressive child-care facility. With Gerry’s analysis and JoAnn’s persistence, we attacked the practice of listing employment ads in the newspaper by gender (the female jobs were nursing, teaching, housekeeping and secretarial; everything else, particularly if it paid a decent salary, was listed as a male job).

JoAnn was our heart and soul. She taught us all to be fearless, just as she was. She never backed down, and neither did we.

JoAnn also was key to our endless late-night discussions of how the world should and could work. She taught me  to fight all discrimination, and not just with lip service. The Pittsburgh NOW community was one of the few that was significantly race-integrated in the early years because of JoAnn’s real-action-not-lip-service credo. Pittsburgh civil rights icon Alma Speed Fox joined our/her fight, just as we joined hers/ours.

JoAnn didn’t just work in NOW: She was a founder and first president of the Association of Women in Psychology, a founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, a cofounder of KNOW, a Pittsburgh feminist press. KNOW published much of the material used in early women’s studies programs.

In retirement, JoAnn and Gerry took on Pittsburgh’s mayor when he tried to force her neighborhood to “host” a high polluting coke-making facility (baked coal used for fuel). The poor guy never knew what hit him, and no coke plant was built.

My beloved friend and mentor–ardent feminist, civil rights activist, environmentalist and self-described “proselytizing atheist”–died on February 16, just seven months after the death of Gerry, her partner in life and activism for 59 years. I hope others will chime in with stories about her, and recount the impact she had on them. There are so many stories, but I think the Internet is just about big enough to handle all of them.

ABOVE: JoAnn Evansgardner and her partner, Gerry Gardner; photo courtesy of Barbara Evans Fleischauer.

Comments

  1. Jeanne’s encounters with JoAnn were similar to my own, though mine were a few years later. I remember spending many evenings at JoAnn and Gerry’s, writing letters to the editors, helping with mailings. When I ran into them at a feminist conference in 1996, I was happy to introduce them to Activists from around the country. JoAnn and Gerry were always capital-A Activists, and we’ll miss their influence.

  2. Pamela Macklin says:

    I first met JoAnn at the Pittsburgh Women’s Political Caucas in the early 70′s, a fiesty opinionated woman I thought. Before I knew it I was putting mailings and information together at her James St home where I first met quiet Gerry. Greater Pittsburgh NOW backed “Shirley Chisholm for President” and JoAnn (NOW & NAACP) and Alma Fox (NAACP & NOW)were organizing her campaign in Pittsburgh. We had a great event at the Carnegie Music Hall. Shirley Chisolm returned many years later to meet with Alma, JoAnn and many of us. I will always remember JoAnn carrying her NOW card with her with her definition of a feminist on the back which she shared with all the new initiates!

  3. Judi Seibel says:

    Speaking of the Mother’s Day of Outrage, I remember that there were four anti-abortion crazies, men dressed in women’s dresses carrying large picket signs, heckling and following us as we circle the street in front of the Vatican embassy. Soon the police came and arrested these men. Apparently one of them had spit on Joanne. I thought it odd that he would single her out for such abuse, as there were thousands of us marching that day. Afterwards I asked Joanne how that came to happen. She smiled her biggest grin and said confidentially “because I kicked him first”. This story makes me smile, even as I write it today. Joanne introduced me to the concept of “good cop, bad cop”. She was always willing to play the bad cop so the rest of us could be the good cops. They just don’t make them like Joanne Evansgardner anymore.

  4. Elena Ortiz says:

    During the 1977 National Women’s Conference, I was a teenager in Houston, Texas witnessing from the sidelines the power of woman being generated. I tried unsuccessfully to join the ranks but I was not a delegate and yet had not mastered being a troublemaker. So I watched what I could on my family’s black and white television and listened carefully to the words of the very lucky delegates. For the first time I heard and saw words on buttons that would later define me in life – feminist, lesbian, and activist.

    A few years later as a student at the University of Houston at an informational fair for new students, I came across a familiar image. At a distance I watched a woman standing at a folded card table passing out flyers, wearing many buttons with messages like 59 cents, prochoice and ERA YES. She caught me looking, walked up to me and invited me to a NOW meeting on campus. I said sure and walked away with flyer in hand. That woman was JoAnn Evansgardner.

    I did attend and became a campus activist during the second wave of feminism. JoAnn Evansgardner was my feminist mentor and friend. She believed in my abilities before I did and provided nurturing that enabled me to be an active contributor to the advancement of all women. JoAnn gave her life to civil rights causes and encouraged many of us to create our own path that would benefit the welfare of all and I did. All I have done, all that I do is because of JoAnn, she is the voice I hear, she is the reason the world has changed.

  5. Jeanne Clark says:

    We are having a long overdue memorial to JoAnn and her husband and NOW activist Gerry Gardner on Saturday, May 5 at 5 p.m. at the Friends Meeting House on Ellsworth Avenue in Pittsburgh. If you cannot attend, please send your memories to pwetherby [at] aol

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