And today we have naming of parts. When I taught sex education I would begin with an activity called ‘naming of parts’. The students were encouraged to say all the words they knew associated with sexual parts of the body. Then we would agree on the terms we would use, having clarified what each of them meant. I am reminded of this activity when I read The Vagina Monologues.
The Decades Project on Bookword has arrived at the 1990s. The project features non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury. The Vagina Monologues was performed and published in the 1990s in New York. How far we have come since the first post about a book on gardening for the 1900s: Ms Jekyll and her Garden.
The Vagina Monologuesby Eve Ensler
Eve Ensler began TVM (as her theatre piece gets called) like this:
I bet you’re worried. I was worried. (3)
Vagina is harsh-sounding word (‘it sounds like an infection at best’ 5), but it has been, and maybe still is, in need of reclaiming. Eve Ensler is an American feminist activist who began performing TVM in part to reclaim and respect the word and female sexuality. The piece has been described as an episodic play, and as political theatre.
In her foreword Gloria Steinem suggests that reclaiming the word, using it, can help rescue and revise the symbols of women’s sexuality. Establishing more respect for women and their bodies is part of a bigger project, as she says:
If overthrowing some five thousand years of patriarchy seems like a big order, just focus on celebrating each self-respecting step along the way. (xviii)
Being explicit about the term, rather than referring euphemistically to ‘down there’, is about self-respect and about reclaiming women’s power over their own bodies and combatting violence against women and young girls.
In her introduction Eve Ensler claims she was an obvious person to begin this project. She had experience as a playwright who used interviews as the basis of her pieces, and she was a feminist. She found herself asking women about their vaginas and soon had more than 200 interviews to draw on. These form the basis of the monologues.
If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?
A beret. A leather jacket. Silk stockings. Mink. A pink boa. … (15)
This is one of the first monologues and it is followed by more like that and stories and experiences told to Eve Ensler in her interviews. TVM was performed in NY City and later in many other cities of the world.
I attended a performance in London probably 12 years ago. I am ashamed to say that I can’t remember who performed it. I can remember that it was a joyous, participative and energizing event. Before I re-read the text I thought that it would be dated. But the violence and abuse of women seems to be even more evident now than back then, and anyway the play is still being updated and performed every year, to coincide with V-Day (V standing for Violence, Vagina and Valentine).
V-Day is a non-profit organisation that provides funds to organisations around the world aimed at stopping violence against girls and women. Many well-known actors have performed in TVM, including Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Jane Fonda and Oprah Winfrey.
Eve Ensler is still writing in support of women. For example she wrote a moving appreciation in the Guardian of the joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Dennis Mukwege, earlier this month, which you can find here.
The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler were first performed in 1994 at HERE Arts Center New York City. A version of the text was first published there in 1998. I used the Virago edition of 2001. 188pp. A 20thanniversary edition was produced by Virago this year.
The Decades project on Bookword
In 2018 for the Decades Project I am featuring non-fiction by women having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc).
Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:
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