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.
Learn more about women’s history here.