By Megan Reback
Like many women, discovering The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler, and V-Day changed my life. A close friend told me about the Monologues, which I read cover to cover on Valentines Day of 2007. I was sixteen years old, a disempowered witness in a household plagued by violence. Privy to the pressures that young women face from the media, from men, from billboards, from magazines, and from a patriarchal society, combined with watching the physical and emotional abuse against women in my family, I had never considered the power of my femininity or of my vagina. After reading The Vagina Monologues, my reality was different: my role in the world had changed, my position as a young woman changed, and my perception of myself as an activist -- an empowered, smart, capable, woman. It saved me.
Two friends and I were shaken to life by the Monologues on rape as a tactic of war, a male savior called Bob, and especially a monologue called “My Short Skirt,” which asserts, “I declare these streets, any streets, my vagina’s country.” We decided to perform the monologue at an open-mic night at our high school, but were told to omit the stanza that said the word "vagina." As a 16 year old, I had yet to develop my feminist consciousness or truly understand the systemic roots of gender inequity; I had realized, however, that this was some kind of injustice -- that it was right to perform the monologue in its entirety against the wishes of our school’s administration.
For that insubordinate act, as the administration called it, I was suspended from school.
In the ensuing months and years, I met Eve Ensler, discussed the whole ordeal on The Today Show, and attended the tenth anniversary of V-Day in New Orleans. I went on to study at Connecticut College, where I applied a gendered lens to my liberal arts education, exploring the question “Where are the women?” in everything I studied. I acted -- as an actor and activist -- in four years of The Vagina Monologues, and produced the show my senior year with a cast of 90 intelligent, complex, passionate, and compassionate women. The show and all of its implications has been the guiding light in what could have been a very dark world for me. Finding V-day and developing a feminist consciousness brought purpose to my life, and framed my existence in a way that was meaningful for the first time.
Now I can add Ensler's new project, One Billion Rising, to my list of major life influences.
What started 15 years ago as a one-woman, off-Broadway play called The Vagina Monologues has today inspired the One Billion Rising global movement. The name represents the number of women in the world who will be beaten or raped in her lifetime. The idea is that on February 14, 2013, one billion people will rise, dance, and revolt in 202 countries around the world to demand the end of violence against women and girls.
Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues after interviewing a diverse group of women about their vaginas and everything that having a vagina encapsulates: experiencing rape, experiencing pleasure, and wrestling with the very unique experience of what it means to be a woman in Westchester, Congo, New Orleans, and Bosnia. After first performing The Vagina Monologues at the Here Arts Centre in downtown New York, dozens of women shared their own stories of sexual violence with Ensler, bringing to light the very real and global issue of violence against women. Herself a survivor of sexual violence, Ensler knew the impact of being silenced, degraded, and disempowered firsthand; understanding the scope of sexual violence moved her to action.
On Valentine's Day 1998, Ensler and several activist friends gathered in her living room and established V-Day, an international movement to end violence against women and girls. The first gala performance of The Vagina Monologues took place at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, raising $250,000 in a single evening.
In a recent press briefing, Ensler said, “The Vagina Monologues has been used as a tool to break taboos, to end silences, to bring women into leadership positions, to change laws and create laws, to do all kinds of very positive things which we’ve been very successful at.”
Ensler added that although V-Day has had many victories, it has not ended violence against women. According to a UN statistic, one out of three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. “And when I did the math, that’s over one billion women," she said. "The whole idea was to end violence, and what were we going to do to escalate our efforts, expand our efforts, intensify our efforts, so that violence against women was never marginalized again and became the mother issue, became an undeniable issue that we actually had to address and end.”
V-Day has worked tirelessly to organize risings in hundreds of countries around the world, encouraging activists to rise, organize flash mobs, and dance.
“One of the things that the women of Congo have taught me … is that the way they channel their pain to power, their suffering to leadership, their agony to vision is through dancing, and I’ve seen the power of dance," said Ensler. "It isn’t violent but it is a little dangerous. It doesn’t involve guns and it doesn’t involve killing, but it involves women taking up space, expanding the cage that we live in through patriarchy, which is always determining where we can go, how we can go, what we can wear, how we can behave, how we can move; and dancing breaks us out of that cage. So we started thinking what would it be like if a billion women and all the men who love them danced on the same day on the planet, and that’s how we got to One Billion Rising.”
From 8:00 pm to midnight this Thursday, in the final hours of One Billion Rising, activists will meet, dance, and celebrate at Hammerstein Ballroom where Eve Ensler first performed 15 years ago. In many ways, the movement has come full circle, ending where it began; however, the movement is far from over, and One Billion Rising is really the beginning of something much bigger than anyone could have anticipated. Ensler says, “I think we’re going to have a dance revolution that is going to actually lift the spirit and bring about the energy that will inform and create a will in the world to bring violence against women into the center of everybody’s hearts and souls and minds.
Megan Reback is the Assistant to the Group Publisher/SVP of the Atlantic & Quartz . A former news intern for Talking Points Memo, she graduated from Connecticut College cum laude in May 2012 with a B.A. in English and Government. Prior to joining TPM, Reback wrote for her college's newspaper and interned with Planned Parenthood. In addition to her full-time job, she writes for various publications on women's issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.