While reflecting on our anniversary, we were reminded of how many women have come before us, paving the way for straightforward conversations about women’s sexuality. This is the third in a series (read the first and second) launching our sixth year with gratitude to them!
Eve Ensler was an obscure New York playwright until she debuted her one-woman play, The Vagina Monologues. The very title was electrifying. Suddenly, audiences were being asked to say the word “vagina” out loud.
Ensler got the idea for the play when a woman she knew said “really hideous, demeaning things about her vagina.” That spurred her to interview more than 200 women. “It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. People long to talk about their vaginas. It’s like a secret code between women.”
“Once they got going, you couldn’t stop them,” she said in a 2004 TED talk. “No one’s ever asked them before.”
She assembled some of their stories into a series of short monologues, ranging from humor (“Hurry, nurse, bring me the vagina”), to tragedy (gang rape as a weapon of war); from the birth of her own grandchild, to a fake orgasm more stupendous than the one in When Harry Met Sally.
In 1996, The Vagina Monologues won an Obie for best new play. There were other effects that Ensler had never anticipated. “Women would literally line up after the show because they wanted to tell me their story.” She had thought they would want to talk about sex. Instead, many told heart-rending tales of rape, incest, and violence. She found out that the UN estimates 1 in 3 women worldwide are beaten or raped. That number enraged her.
On Valentine’s Day of 1998, she began a new campaign: performances of The Vagina Monologues to raise money to stop the violence. The first year, she enlisted high-profile actresses like Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Glenn Close, and Susan Sarandon. Sony and ABC were corporate sponsors.
The V-Day movement has continued ever since. The money raised has gone to safe houses in Kenya for girls escaping genital mutilation; to the City of Joy in Congo for victims of rape; to Juarez, Mexico, where bones of murdered women were washing up on the beach. Money has gone to Haiti, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Iraq.
Women in the U.S. have also benefited. During the month of February, local productions pay nothing for the rights to the play, provided that all proceeds go to organizations working to stop violence against women.
Eve Ensler herself suffered abuse as a child. “I left my body at a very young age . . . I wasn’t informed by the intelligence of my body.” Living without connection to the body means “we are not living in our full creativity and intelligence.”
Her body received a shattering challenge in the form of stage 3 uterine cancer, but she never lost sight of the suffering of other women. In a 2010 Guardian article, she wrote with fury about the world’s indifference to the plight of women in the Congo, while she herself received excellent, curative care for her cancer. She remained, as the title of her 2013 memoir has it, In the Body of the World.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.