Eve Ensler is an award-winning playwright, poet, activist, and screenwriter. She has a long history of activism on behalf of social justice and women's issues, and is currently working on two new plays: Necessary Targets and Conviction of the New Body. She is the author of The Vagina Monologues which will be opening in both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo April, 2002.
Eve Ensler discusses the relationship between art and activism.
From a talk given at the New York Open Center, 2001.
I'll talk a little bit about how V-Day happened because, to be honest, it's as much a mystery to me as it is to everybody else. I'd like to tell you I had something to do with it. On the physical level, yes, I wrote and performed The Vagina Monologues. But on a bigger level, I think it has much more to do with the moment, the time. There is a spirit and energy that needs to get incarnated right now. The far-reaching abuse of women is basically genocide toward women. The UN recently announced that one out of every three women on this planet will be battered or raped in her lifetime.
I went to 14 countries recently on a tour for the new book I'm working on called The Good Body. In Africa, there is a struggle to stop the ritual removal of women's clitorises. In LA, women are paying to have their labias trimmed and their vulvas tightened because they hate their bodies so much. In Afghanistan, under the Taliban, women are so desecrated, so unbelievably destroyed that they are walking corpses.
And in 12 of those countries you could not swim in the water. It's happening simultaneously. We're raping the forest; we're raping the children. Our lack of honor and respect for life is profound. That's the downside. The upside is that there is a huge movement around the globe of people who honor women and life, who are ready to rise up, organize, stand up and say, "Enough!" We have to reverse the trend of the destruction of the planet.
During my research for The Vagina Monologues, I witnessed and was amazed by the enormous relief women experienced when they began to talk about their vaginas. In the same way we get relief when we begin to talk about how we all know that the human species is going to die out if we don't do something. We walk around every day with that inherent knowledge. But we can't talk about it - the way we don't talk about death, the way we don't talk about sex, the way we don't talk about intimacy, and certainly the way we didn't talk about vaginas.
When I interviewed women, I would suddenly feel this incredible energy and light start coming out of them just to be talking about their vaginas, just to be saying, "Here is story of my vagina," which of course is the story of their life.
I started to perform little monologues and create little pieces, and I would try them out in little clubs downtown (in New York), and every time I did it there would be fantastic reactions. Different reactions than people ever had to my work, so I knew there was a cap lifting off something. A wonderful theater critic named Alexis Green wrote a review of the monologues, and I must say it might be one of the only times I've been encouraged by a critic. Somehow she got what I was doing and that made me decide to turn this into a theater piece - The Vagina Monologues. That was the beginning.
The pieces have incredible life. It's like a great spiral that's moving out. It started in a little theater, then moved into grassroots theaters around the world and off-Broadway, and then it moved into big theaters around the world. And it just keeps expanding.
When I started doing this piece, I had felt very dissociated from myself for most of my life. I am a person who was beaten and raped as a child for a long period of time. I lived my life as a head disconnected from my body. I was disconnected from myself, and I had no idea - on some fundamental level - of what I wanted or what my real spiritual or political ambitions were.
One night, a year or two after I started performing the piece, I was on stage and suddenly it occurred to me that I was in myself, in this body, inhabiting this being. Everything started to shift in my life. I realized at that point that I had never really lived on the earth. I had been disconnected from the earth, and so it was easy to dishonor her because I didn't have a relationship of oneness with her. And it is the same thing about being in my vagina. The longer I've been in my vagina, the more aware I've been of the connectedness of everything. Violence fragments us, dissociates us, so that we aren't able to see our interconnectedness.
I think that when you come to feeling, when you come to truth, you come to a political place. One of the real downsides of America is that we have always kept politics and art separated. I've never seen art and politics as a separate entity. How can we keep creating art and theater and films that don't bring us into our bodies, that don't help us arrive at meaning, at what truly matters?
I have the great privilege of running a writing group at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women right now. There are 15 women in the group, and they're widely varied. Most have murdered someone. There are political prisoners and women who have been raped and have subsequently killed their rapists. The other day we were struggling with a big issue. The exercise was to write to the person you loved most profoundly about why you are in prison. The women struggled over this for weeks and weeks, and the work got deeper and deeper, and the truth got deeper and deeper. And all the things they talked about were political things. They weren't just personal. The fact was that they had grown up in environments where they had little food and people beat them and raped them. No one had ever told them they were worth anything. They had not been educated. They were there because at one point in their lives they believed that revolution was viable and possible, and had pursued that path to the full extent possible. This was, of course, political.
If we artists don't start making these links between art and politics, then basically, we wind up creating work that only asks an audience to be entertained. An audience member would then go to the theater to escape for two hours; to forget who she is; to go somewhere else and enjoy the dissociation. They're let off the hook. I think people need to be on the hook. I think people need to be responsible. We don't wake up and we're not made to be responsible if we're not made to feel uncomfortable, squeamish, and guilty.
And I feel fortunate. I've had an incredibly difficult career in the sense that the American theater has certainly not embraced my work over the last 20 years. There is probably not a theater in this city that did not reject The Vagina Monologues. All of those systems are under the large umbrella of making money. There are very few venues anymore for artists in this country where it's not about making money. But who cares? We've got to figure out ways to do it anyway. If you want to keep going as an artist in this culture, you must finally learn that you can't wait for them to embrace you, because they're not going to.
In 1996, I had been doing a grassroots tour of The Vagina Monologues. I went to Jerusalem. I went to Oklahoma City. I went to all these wildly different places. Places that had a lot of censorship. And women in these cities found all kinds of subversive ways to advertise the piece. In Oklahoma City, for example, they wouldn't put it in any of the papers because all the papers are Christian run, and we know Christians don't have vaginas. But women got together and went around to beauty salons and supermarkets and handed out flyers, and women came. I performed in a warehouse way downtown. By the third night, women were literally pulling up in pickup trucks with their own chairs. And that happened everywhere I went.
At the end of performances women would line up to tell me how they had been raped, beaten, mutilated, or incested. Literally lined up. Or they would faint after the Bosnia piece, and we would stop the show and a woman would announce that she had been raped by her stepfather and had never told anyone. It got to be that I had this feeling that photographers have when they are in war-torn countries and they are photographing people being murdered but they don't intervene on their behalf.
So a group of incredible women got together and we decided to do something with The Vagina Monologues to stop violence. In 1997, we created V-Day which is an anti-violence day, a vagina day, a victory day - on Valentine's Day. We decided to take the romance out of Valentine's Day and put the vagina back in, because we all know how much violence has been done in the name of so-called romance.
We got all these fantastic women - Gloria Steinem, Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, Whoopi Goldberg, and Lily Tomlin - and we produced a huge event at the Hammerstein Ballroom where they performed The Vagina Monologues. It was amazing. And I have to tell you we had no idea what we were doing. I took $5,000 out of the bank, which we put down on a reservation. It held 2,500 people. Two weeks before the event we had only sold two hundred tickets, so we took an ad out on a credit card in the New York Times for $20,000, and in two weeks the whole place sold out - a vagina miracle.
After that night this whole movement got launched. We raised thousands of dollars, and people realized there was a window opening. It was as if all these women raced to the window and stuck their feet through to keep it open.
The next year we did it in London with all these amazing English stars. Over the last two years, The Vagina Monologues spread worldwide in places like Mexico City, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Norway, Holland, Spain, and Portugal. It is opening in Bulgaria and Serbia. It ran in Manila. It's in Hong Kong. And all those productions have linked up with local groups who are working to stop violence against women.
It is spawning all these wonderful connections. This year I am proud to say that The Vagina Monologues is going to be performed in 50 cities around the world in places like Cameroon, Bulgaria (with women from Kosovo), and we are doing it with Palestinian and Israeli women in Tel Aviv. We're supporting the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) who are literally fighting for their lives. We just opened the first rape crisis center in the Balkans. All kinds of amazing things are being done with the money and the more money we raise, the more we can do.
There is a worldwide movement. We've had an alliance with an organization called Equality Now since the beginning in which we tried to bring groups together and join resources. We started this thing called the Worldwide Gathering. We hired 12 women from every region of the world, brought them together to create a worldwide vision of ending violence, and came up with this idea to do an international "stop rape" contest.
For the last year, women from all over the world have been soliciting ideas from girls and women on how to end violence, and then they chose 60 women who presented their ideas and action plans. Three were awarded grants to implement their ideas in their own countries. I cannot tell you how utterly exciting this process has been. To sit at a table with women from Zimbabwe, and the Philippines, and the woman who started the movement in Jordan to end honor killings. To just go around a table with women from India and South America and Eastern Europe and to look at how violence has impacted women in all those countries. Although the cultural manifestations are different in each country, the impact is exactly the same, and to see all these women sitting at a table shows a world-wide movement is absolutely essential and possible.
Reprinted with permission from the author and Lapis magazine, from which her speech at the New York Open Center was published.