Medea Benjamin

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Lafayette Park sprawls directly across the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. The open green space, named for a Revolutionary War hero and dominated by a statue of another famous solider, Andrew Jackson, has played host to many a demonstration–from anti-Vietnam War to anti-abortion; from anti-globalization to pro-fundamental Christianity.

Now comes a new chapter in the park’s history.

It is here that women from across the country have united in protest against an impending war with Iraq. Dubbed “Code Pink”–a play on the President’s “Code Red” terrorist alert system–the Women’s Peace Vigil began in November, and continues daily, to culminate on International Women’s Day in March with a massive women’s peace rally. From a park bench in the shadow of Andrew Jackson on horseback, the pink-clad activists distribute briefing papers, chat withpassers-by, pose for tourists, collect signatures of women in support of the cause and plan their next steps.

“War is a women’s issue,” says Code Pink organizer Medea Benjamin, adding that talk of war has been dominated by “testosterone-poisoned rhetoric.” During a war, she says, women become widows, left with the burden of caring for families. Often, they fall further into poverty as a result. In addition, “militarism engenders a culture of aggression that encourages domestic violence,” says Code Pink spokesperson Kristi Laughlin.

“Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, George Bush–they use violence against violence, and we are saying that there is a better way,” she says. “It is time for women’s voices to be heard.”

Vigil participants say that amidst the planning for an impending war, no one is considering the consequences of military action. “We are so ready to send these boys off to war. Does anyone stop to think about the fact that they could die?” asks Diane Wilson, a founding member of the activist group UnReasonable Women for the Earth, part of the Code Pink coalition.

To highlight the cause, Wilson has embarked on a 40-day hunger strike, a technique she honed while protesting the environmental policies of chemical companies in her native Texas. Each day she takes her place on the park bench, wearing a hot pink fleece overcoat, struggling to keep warm in the sometimes bitter cold. According to Wilson, critics of her tactics have accused her of willingly putting her life in danger. But she says that her fasts have been successful in drawing attention to issues such as the continuing plight of residents of Bhopal, India 18 years after a gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant killed more than 14,000 people and contaminated the environment.

“The fast shows a level of commitment. This is my call to arms,” Wilson says.

Adds Laughlin: “We have got to find different ways to de-escalate this situation, and if women were permitted to sit down at the table and put their heads together, we could come up with a better strategy.” For example, she says that the U.S. should approach weapons inspections in Iraq with the intent of letting them work, instead of claiming skepticism before the fact.

Other Code Pink participants, including Philadelphia restaurant owner Judy Wicks and New York attorney Nina Reznick, took time from work to spend a few days in the park with their fellow activists. Wicks rented a van to bring in a group of employees and restaurant patrons to be a part of the vigil. She has publicized the vigil at her restaurant, the White Dog Cafe, and is encouraging others to take responsibility for a shift. Reznick, a member of ACT-UP, took a three-day shift, and plans to return for another stint soon.

Recent Polls Indicate Women Less Likely to Support Military Action

Recent polls reflect that views about war tend to influenced by gender. A mid-December 2002 Los Angeles Times poll revealed that with 58 percent of respondents favoring a decision to order ground troops in a war with Iraq, only 52 percent of women supported the action, while 64 percent of men favored a ground war.

Although the polls suggest that many Americans continue to support military action against Iraq, that support may be eroding. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Dec. 18 found that 42 percent of those surveyed favor U.S. military action against Iraq while 52 percent oppose such action. The data did not break down by gender.

A CBS/New York Times poll conducted in late November showed that 70 percent of Americans favor military action to remove Sadaam Hussein from office–a decline of 12 percentage points in less than a month. If casualties occur, the number favoring action drops to 51 percent, and falls further–to 48 percent–if the war drags on.

The peace activists are part of Women United for Peace, which mobilized following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America.

“We felt the need to speak out to stop the rise in hate crimes following Sept. 11, and to uphold our civil liberties,” Benjamin says.

The loose-knit coalition of individuals and more than 80 organizations decided on the Washington action following the October passage of the joint House-Senate Resolution authorizing use of U.S. armed forces against Iraq.

“We are stepping up to show the world that there is no consensus among the American people for a war in Iraq. There is no consensus for spending on bombs and weapons of mass destruction,” says Laughlin.

Such funds should be spent on more important domestic priorities, she says. “If we can produce billions of dollars to go to war, we can surely produce enough so that the 20 million uninsured people in this country can get health coverage.”

Organizers: War on Terrorism Could Strengthen Resolve of U.S. Opponents

While acknowledging that the country must pay attention to the threat of terrorism, organizers believe that a war would strengthen the resolve of those opposed to U.S. policies, possibly exacerbating the terrorist threat.

“Security comes when people are happy and healthy. Security comes when people around the world don’t hate us for our foreign policy,” says Benjamin. “This type of bullying will only provoke more anti-American sentiment.” She adds that the vigil has received support from September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of people who lost loved ones on Sept. 11. Members of the organization took a shift over Thanksgiving weekend and will be back again at Christmas.

Organizers hope that local women’s groups and grassroots organizations will sign up for four-day shifts at the vigil, so that a presence in the park will continue through March. In addition, they say that the vigil has created a domino effect, with communities across the country organizing local peace vigils and fasts that are linked to Code Pink. They plan to gather a million signatures on a women’s peace petition, “Listen to the Women,” to be presented to members of Congress during International Women’s weekend in March.

Ann Moline is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.

For more information:

CODE PINK–Women’s Pre-Emptive Strike for Peace:

UnReasonable Women for the Earth:

United for Peace:

Women in New York State Fast for Peace

ALBANY, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–A growing number of women in New York’s capital, concerned that women’s voices are not being heard as the United States appears to move toward war with Iraq, have pledged to carry a rolling fast into March.

So far, 90 upstate women have promised to fast for 24 hours each as part of the grassroots anti-war group, “Women against War.” The group formed two months ago.

The fasts began Dec. 5, the final day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and are slated to continue through March 8, International Women’s Day. Several buses will carry participants to a Jan. 18 anti-war rally in Washington.

Organizers say they will have more than enough volunteers to reach their March 8 goal.

“It just mushroomed,” said Judith Fetterley, a distinguished teaching professor of English and women’s studies at the State University of New York in Albany. “My current mantra is, ‘You better sign up quick if you want to fast.'”

The fasting women have been outspoken against members of the New York congressional delegation who voted for the October resolution that authorized military force against Iraq. New York’s senators, Democrats Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, supported the resolution, as did 20 of the state’s 31 representatives.

Schumer’s office declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Clinton said a representative of Clinton’s office recently met with Women against War to explain the junior senator’s position.

The fasts are conducted at the Women’s Building in Albany, a nonprofit organization housing feminist agencies and resources. The fasters are a diverse group of activists and first-time protestors, mothers and grandmothers, state employees, clergy and homemakers.

“I felt I wanted to make more of a commitment than going to a rally or writing a letter,” said participant Nadya Lawson. “I’ve been an activist since I was a teen-ager. This feels quite consistent with my life.”

Darryl McGrath is a journalist in Albany, N.Y., who writes often on politics and child welfare issues.