While traveling with an earlier piece, Ensler noticed a growing void in the world. Women removed vaginas during mutilation rituals. Soldiers thrust hostile guns into the fragile openings. Vaginas around the world shrank at the thought of touch, dried up, crumbled, and became basements where women stored their shame. These organs of pleasure and life adopted a cloak of invisibility. The word itself disappeared from the lips of civilization. (Ensler, iv)
The vulva began as one of the most coveted objects in the human sphere. Many native cultures viewed the earth as a feminine spirit, a womb for the creation of life. Most major religions contain a female power--the goddess Kali, Islamic fana, or the cult of the Virgin Mary. Tantric Buddhism teaches that enlightenment rests in the vulva. Early Europeans even exalted Virgo-Astraea, an adaptation of the Greek goddess; often represented with a horn of plenty bursting between her legs. (Evans-Wentz, 493)
Industrialization, Reformation, the Holy Wars--time eroded the primal power of the vagina. Men gradually viewed female genitalia as a threat to evolving power structures. Social conventions tamed feminine energy, channeling it into a rigid monogamy based on humiliation. The Puritans locked women in stockades for adultery, allowing the passing community to spit or throw refuse at the prisoners. In contemporary society, women live in fear of date rape, incest, and forced supplication to spouses. The vagina, the very center of womanhood, cries out for safety and protection. (Richardson, 152)
The very words to express feminine power escape contemporary language. Basic terms remain devoid of dignity, twisted with clinical or pejorative values. "Vagina" began as a Latin noun meaning "sheath" or "scabbard." Modern science placed an original sexual connotation on the word, immediately conjuring images of brutality--a sword roughly and rightfully penetrating its cover. Ensler notes that the word continues to bear a cold, sterile undertone. "Cunt" once shared a base root with "kin" and "country," evoking a feeling of warmth and invitation. The multiplicity of the phrase, the openness of the concept created an association with multiple partners and loose morality. Today, the word carries a tone of stinging retribution. Similarly, "pussy" derived from the Old Norse puss--a pocket or pouch. Modern society transformed the term into a lewd taunt. Women adopted a language of evasive coloquialismss and coy euphamisms to address this lack of socially acceptable terminology. The rarely tapped "vulva" became "down there," "little girl," or "wee wee." Every phrase trivializes the size, scope, and importance of the organ. The vagina escaped underground, into hiding. (Richardson, 128)
Words represent the most powerful objects in society. They define reality, express abstract concepts, and provide a means of communication. Without words, objects become relegated to the pictographic or symbolic. Lacking proper terminology, the vagina transformed into the ovular or flower motifs of Indian and Asian art. The vulva developed into Western "heart" shape--a remnant of the Nordic representation for female genitalia. Seen in such a base and secular context, vaginas lost all social relevance and power. They became small, common things easily dealt with and dismissed. (Ensler, ix)
As the vagina faded from prominence, women became unable to identify its abuse and misrepresentation. According to Gloria Steinem, Christian temples often incorporate a vaginal structure. The inner and outer entrances serve as the labia majora and labia minora. A central passage leads to the alter, consisting of two ovarian structures on either side and a sacred center or womb. Here, males give birth through the life-altering rituals of consecration, marriage, and death. Secular monuments, like the Mall in Washington, D.C., reflect similar imagery. Society dubbed these structures with the polite, benign term "womb"--masking a deeper institutional desire to shove life-giving properties into a masculine realm and further debase female reproductive powers. (Ensler, xii)
The words for recognition and protest simply failed to rise from the global cultural lexicon. Women remained unable to identify the re-appropriation of vaginal imagery to patriarchal structures. Along with this institutional oppression, the absence of a positive vocabulary created a further sense of shame and embarrassment surrounding the vagina. As a result, women sank into a pattern of hegemony, or internalized oppression. Even during the modern period, men consider menstrual cycles vulgar and unclean--despite medical evidence that likens the process to ejaculation. In South American cultures, women often shave their pubic hair to fit the shape of bikinis, facilitating infections and inflammations. Douche replaces a natural vaginal odor but creates cyclical irregularities. Women perform these actions under the guise of making their genitalia more acceptable for men. Through these rituals, they learn to revile the natural elements of hair, odor, color, and shape--creating an inner disgust to reinforce external pressures. As Ensler discusses, these dual pressures lead women to reconcile and even condone daily vaginal abuses from dry tampons to rape. After a period of crusading for women in war zones, Ensler began a mission to resurrect the vagina. She focused primarily on the cessation of abuses and the restoration of dignity. The desire and energy of the journey fused to create the "Vagina Monologues." The play fluctuates between humorous and painful, tranquil and enraged. It touches on the many facets of womanhood, from aging to Bosnian rape camps. The history and universality of the vagina emerges through the testimonials. Ensler toured almost relentlessly for a year, bringing the piece to many cultures addressed in the "Monologues."
The following year, the play inspired a movement. Vagina Day officially launched on 14 February 1998. For the first event, twenty-five hundred people crowded into the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. Celebrities including Susan Sarandon, Rosie Perez, and Calista Flockhart joined the performance, raising over $100,000 to continue to V-day festivities. In 1999, the event moved to the Old Vic in London. The celebration attracted such well-respected English actresses as Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet. By the millennium, the movement blossomed in Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Sarasota, Aspen, and Chicago. National funds support RAWA, an organization opposing the atrocities in Afghanistan, and the Center for Women War Victims in Croatia. Today, V-day initiatives occur at over three hundred universities, with performances staged by students and faculty. Washington University joined the movement in 2000, with Webster following the next year. All proceeds benefit local groups for the assistance of battered women. (www.v-day.org)
A poignant line from the V-day mission statement proclaims that "women should spend their lives creating and thriving rather than surviving or recovering from terrible atrocities." The movement founders sought to harness the romantic energy of St. Valentine's Day for a revolutionary social force. V-day participants continually re-assert the event-based nature of the celebration and reject the idea of an organization. The festivities maintain only one headquarters--the Internet. Each year, the women of Feminist.com volunteer their services to the movement. To date, Willa Shalit serves as executive director; Sally Fischer as head of the World Wide Initiative, and Karen Obel as head of the College Initiative. These women work in conjunction with the Tides Center, an organization that provides fiscal sponsorship and management services to non-profit programs. The Center assists more that 300 projects in forty states and twelve countries. (www.v-day.org)
The 2001 national V-day initiative contained two defined parts, both of which occurred on 10 February at Madison Square Garden. The Gathering to End Violence offered daytime workshops and empowerment sessions. The V-day Event revolved around a series of rallies and a final performance of the "Vagina Monologues." Julia Stiles, Oprah Winfrey, and Winona Ryder counted among the participants. (Feminist.com)
With a scope covering much of North America, the College Initiative represents an integral part of the V-day mission. Smaller university functions lack the cohesive national structure and yield a wider variety of festivities. Due to this flexibility, initiative leaders look to these campaigns as a source of local awareness and a chance to disseminate information. Covered extensively by the media, the millennium events across Canada and the United States introduced more than 65,000 people to the movement. The same year, Planned Parenthood provided funding for a special event--the Empowerment Workshop. On 6 November, students traveled to New York for a seminar with Ensler. Here, they learned the management and marketing techniques to complete their productions. (Ensler, 125)
During the initial stages, many students met with administrative resistance and moved their productions off campus grounds. Cornell nearly dropped the program before receiving a swell of community support. These schools often stage intimate readings with little discussion or promotion. At other universities, the staff fosters a safe and culturally diverse environment, encouraging students to provide extravagant social and theatrical gatherings. Several colleges invite sexual-assault counselors to attend the initiatives and speak with students in need of assistance. Among other notable accomplishments, Arizona State University constructed a forty-foot inflatable vagina for the entrance to its venue. Washington University displayed the Clothesline Project, an initiative that encourages women to recount their stories of abuse on t-shirts. Students then hang the articles from a line, displaying the national "dirty laundry" for the public. Webster University staged a moderate-sized production including food and festivities. (Ensler, 136)
During these celebrations, both students and adults find a way to reclaim lost voices. The piece forces the audience to hear vagina and say cunt until social barriers crumble and the words become familiar, comfortable expressions. Women often overwhelm Ensler with stories of sexual abuse, words they remained unable to produce until viewing the "Monologues." Students frequently write Obel to describe feelings of safety and empowerment. They express a renewed bond with peers, possess fresh organizational knowledge, and maintain a hope for the future. With each passing year, participation grows, raising both funds and awareness. Anti-violence organizations coalesce and gather strength around a central focus of the initiative. The movement slowly dissolves patriarchal oppression and allows the vagina to again enter polite society. (Ensler, 132)
Despite increasing awareness, the issues loom steadfast and daunting. A fraternity at Washington University defaced flyers during the millennium campaign. Similar situations rose at Arizona State and other colleges. (Ensler, 176) In the course of reading theatrical reviews, male critics appeared bound to assert their sexuality in the face of challenging art. Chris Isherwood of "Variety" found himself unable to use the word "vagina," apologizing for an old-fashioned lack of candor. A review that avoids language removes an integral key to understanding the message and substance of the art. Such critiques thus strip the piece of its ability to restore dignity to the female genitalia. Richard Zoglin of "Time" opened with a more blatant thrust of testosterone--siting a need to "grab a brew and watch Monday Night Football" after attending the "Monologues." Both in the face of abuse and cultural silence, V-day must continue to spread awareness and reclaim the language of the vulva--these goals remain outlines on the horizon.