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Vagina Costumes at the RNC: How CODEPINK Is Confronting the GOP's War on Women

“Giant Vaginas Descend On Republican National Convention in Tampa” reads like the title of some cheesy ‘50s science fiction movie — but it isn’t. It’s a protest organized by CODEPINK happening now at the Republican National Convention. Though puppets may have been banned, no one has said anything yet about the vagina costumes, which CODEPINK is using as a “more fun and silly” tactic to draw attention to their cause: the “war on women” and creating a “counternarrative” to the RNC espousing freedoms, rights, and equality for all.

I spoke with Rae Abileah of CODEPINK on the phone on Monday, while she rested briefly at Café Hey, an impromptu space for activists at the RNC outside the well-patrolled convention event zone. Although most of the speeches and events that the RNC had planned for Monday were cancelled, activists carried on with their protests. Abileah observed that the protestors were incredibly diverse, highlighting issues like health care, jobs and labor rights, anti-war and pro-peace causes, and reproductive rights.

“The Republicans decided to hide in their homes under the threat of bad weather,” she said, “but the storm can’t drown us out. We are here with a message, and we want to show that message loud and clear. I know turnout was less than expected, but in a way it worked to our advantage. We got to pre-empt the convention with messages that the majority of Americans agree with.”

The message that CODEPINK decided to bring to the convention was “Take Your Vagina to the RNC.”

Protestors dressed in vagina costumes, many of them made by former Hollywood prop man Tighe Barry, and carried vagina artwork and signs proclaiming “Read My Lips: End War on Women,” “Vagina: Can’t Say It? Don’t Legislate It,” “Make Love, Not War,” and ‘Hands Off My Vagina.”

The vaginas are scheduled to make multiple appearances at the convention. On Tuesday, CODEPINK and Art 2 Action will host an open mic to respond live to Ann Romney’s comments on the opening night of the RNC.  On Wednesday afternoon, the “vaginas bloc” will join the Planned Parenthood Action Fund “Women Are Watching” rally in Tampa. Abileah told me that CODEPINK is working on planning an action at the hotel where the Missouri delegates are staying in order to respond directly to Todd Akin. Next year, CODEPINK will be part of One Billion Rising, a global women’s strike-slash-dance party planned by activist and writer Eve Ensler.

Abileah explained that the idea to dress as vaginas came in the wake of aggressive Republican attacks on women’s reproductive rights in the past few months. In June, Rep. Lisa Brown from Michigan was banned from the Michigan House of Representatives after she told the Speaker of the House, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.’” Todd Akin’s recent ill-informed comments about women’s reproductive anatomy convinced CODEPINK that their message was a timely one.  

“We decided we needed to speak out on the war on women, and that we would creatively bring our vaginas to the RNC to do so—pardon the pun, but to expose the elephant in the room,” Abileah remarked.

Asked about the vagina costumes, she chuckled. “They’re really fun to wear, and actually super comfortable. It’s a liberating costume.”

CODEPINK is a “women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement” which began in 2002, when Medea Benjamin and about 100 other women set up a four month all-day vigil in front of the White House. An issue which aligns CODEPINK with other organizations protesting at the RNC is an economic one: getting big money out of politics, and restoring power to the people.  Medea Benjamin told the Daily Beast that CODEPINK felt that addressing the “war on women” was a logical outgrowth of the group’s anti-war mission.

Abileah agrees. “When we say war on women, we also mean that women need to have a place at the negotiation table. It’s the notion that with more women’s leadership and feminist values, we can have a shift towards justice and equality … When we talk about the war on women, war is literally being fought through women’s bodies in the Congo, through military violence in the Middle East and rape and military sexual assault. All these issues are interlinked.”

Although some have reacted negatively to the vaginas’ presence at the RNC—one blog calls the planned protests “a form of domestic terrorism,” and Abileah reports that CODEPINK has gotten some nasty Tweets—overall,  people have responded positively. CODEPINK spent Monday handing out stickers which read “Make Out, Not War,” which people at the RNC protests couldn’t get enough of. The tone of the protest is vibrant, energetic, and happy. Counter to negative media hype about the protests, Abileah observed that they have been peaceful and positive, with a “solutionary approach.”

The best part of the protest for Abileah is watching other women find their political voice. She told me that earlier on Monday morning, a shy young woman not affiliated with CODEPINK came over to see what the protest was about, and decided to join in. During an open mic later in the day with other protestors and organization, CODEPINK allowed multiple women to speak for their allotted time. The young woman took the podium, much to Abileah’s delight. She and the other CODEPINK activists are excited to see more women speak out politically throughout the rest of the convention. Abileah hopes that CODEPINK can continue to build a progressive people’s movement by inspiring people to take action, to do something online or in their cities.

“We are the 51% of the 99%,” Abileah concluded. “We’re representing the majority opinion.”

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