Performing a lesson in equality

By John Pixley

Last Friday was February 14. That meant it was Valentine’s Day. It meant a day of celebrating love and romance. It meant long-stemmed roses and romantic dinners for two, red and pink cards and secret, and not-so-secret, admirers. The day was about sweet candies and sweet nothings.

The day was also about women and girls getting raped and abused. It also meant women in Africa, the Middle East and other places were having their genitalia mutilated, their legs and arms pulled out from their sockets, their faces burned with acid. It was also a day for all the women who don’t get candy and sweet nothings but who get cut, tortured and damaged—because they are women.

Last Friday, February 14, was also about the one in three American women who are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and about the 300,000 female students at colleges and universities in the US who are raped and harassed each year.

That’s because February 14 is also V Day, a day to remember, support and stand for women and girls who are victims of violence. It was a reminder on Valentine’s Day that all is not sweets and red roses for far too many women and girls, simply because they are women and girls and not only in far-off countries.

All this should have particular resonance in Claremont, with all of its colleges and its significant population of maturing students for most of the year. And it was, indeed, appropriate that all this was part of Eve Ensler’s message when she spoke at the Atheneaum at Claremont McKenna College earlier this month. Ms. Ensler should know about all this; she started V Day 15 years ago.

That was a few years after she wrote The Vagina Monologues in 1996. The Vagina Monologues is arguably what Ms. Ensler is most known for, with the series of monologues celebrating femininity having been performed by hundreds of famous actresses and countless college students over the years.

Many of the performances and readings of this seminal work have taken place on or around V Day, no doubt pleasing Ms. Ensler, who is recognized as an activist as well as a playwright, performer and author. At the after-lunch talk, coming on the heels of the publication of her newest book, In the Body of the World: A Memoir, she discussed her work as an activist, using her writing and her connections in the theater world to raise awareness of and get support to women and girls who have been abused and violated.

This work has included going to Africa to sit with and hold women who were bloodied and wounded, if not broken, by gender violence. It has included raising funds, often through performances of The Vagina Monologues, for hospitals that help these women.

Furthermore, this work, as Ms. Ensler shared with the large audience at CMC, stemmed from being abused as a child and was boosted by a frightening and painful bout with cancer. She noted that when one’s body has been violated and hurt, it is all too easy to separate not only from oneself but also from others and their pain. Her work is her effort to fight this.

But it definitely hasn’t been all pain and work for Ms. Ensler. She spoke of being thrilled about how people reacted to The Vagina Monologues and then rallied behind V Day. She talked about how happy she is that there are places like House of Ruth and Crossroads here in Claremont and about how excited she is about her recent project, One Billion Rising, getting people around the world to dance and march on V Day. Her presentation ended with a remarkably moving short video featuring a montage of images from last year’s One Billion Rising (check it out on YouTube).

There is still work to be done. Ms. Ensler acknowledged this in answering a question from a young woman who said she is bothered by men like Troy Perry and Jackson Katz, who have both spoken at The Colleges in recent years and have perfectly good intentions, saying that violence against women is a men’s problem, with men needing to stand up and speak out against it. She agreed that this is a “human problem” and that the notion of a “womens’ problem” and a “men’s problem,” although all too natural, might not be helpful.

When Ms. Ensler began her talk, she asked if there were any “vagina activists” in the audience. There was a big cheer from the many women present. When she asked if there were “supporters of vagina activists,” there was weak applause from the men scattered among the tables.

“Come on!” Ms. Ensler chided. “We have some work to do.”

When it comes to men and women, things are still out of balance. Indeed, I noticed I was the only man waiting in the line to get in after lunch. (Two other guys came in later.) I also noticed, while waiting in the line, a young woman wearing a T-shirt saying “I (heart) my vagina.” Yes, it was provocative, but I wondered how much more provocative, if not crazy and obscene, it would be if a man wore a T-shirt that said, “I (heart) my penis.”


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