Tag Archives: Gloria Steinem

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

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. 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:

Silent Springby Rachel Carson (1962)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff (1971)

The March of Follyby Barbara W Tuchman (1984)

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

I did love reading My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. This book was chosen for January by my local book group. I don’t always welcome memoir, but the case was made for it and I began reading it as soon as it arrived. I found myself enjoying it way more than I had expected. Let me count the reasons after a brief introduction to the book.

Introduction to the book

Gloria Steinem is perhaps best known for co-founding the influential American feminist magazine Ms. in 1971.

I realized as a journalist that there really was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women, and this caused me along with a number of other women to start Ms. magazine. [from 2011 Documentary – Gloria: In her Own Words]

Spring 1972

My Life on the Road reveals that the magazine was only one part of a much broader pattern of activities addressing equality issues, especially in relation to women. She describes her career in these terms.

At first I was a journalist telling stories, then a sometime worker in political campaigns and movements, and most consistently an itinerant feminist organizer. (xxiii)

Can you imagine telling the careers officer, ‘I plan to be an itinerant feminist organizer’? If I had had such an idea in my head in the early 70s my career would have been very different.

The itinerant part turns out to have been extremely important, for travelling allowed Gloria Steinem to have hope encouraged by all the people she has met. Travel brings hope by passing on stories; being on the road forces you to live in the present; it provides alternative ways of looking at human activity. So I honour her efforts and her latest book by passing on something of my enthusiastic responses to her book.

  1. Her father’s story

Leo Steinem, her father, led an itinerant life, and was a big man in many ways. Gloria Steinem describes him as an unusual, restless man, open to change and differences. Many fathers pass on their political attitudes to their offspring, whereas Leo Steinem’s big-hearted generosity can be seen in his daughter’s story, the value of travel. A life on the road was his legacy.

  1. Nostalgia

Nowadays we refer to the Second Wave of feminism, but living through that exciting time of growing awareness in the late 60s and early 70s felt like a tsunami. Reading once more about this period of my past I felt something similar to when I read Harriet Harman’s recent autobiography. It was an exciting time to be alive and to take part in the struggles, some of which stretched across the Atlantic. Consciousness raising, cooperative and direct action, building the sisterhood, these were the lessons we learned. Some of us were propelled into the abortion debates. Later we battled against the placing of cruise missiles on Greenham Common, or supported the fight for fair wages with the Dagenham women and so on. Gloria Steinem tells of parallel struggles in the US.

Raissa Page, Greenham Common 1983

  1. Some specific women she met

I found myself wishing I had met so many of the women she describes. Many were activists who have been compelled to take action by local issues, standing up against inequality in their neighbourhood. There was Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee Nation. And Hillary Clinton, in whose race for the Democratic nomination she worked and then helped unify when she lost to Barack Obama. Robin Morgan, another writer, and many, many more. How lucky to have met all those wonderful women and worked alongside them.

  1. The significance of listening

Women have expressed dismay at inequality over the years. What Gloria Steinem identified and reported in the book is the importance of listening to these experiences. On the individual level that was why consciousness -raising groups were so important: they gave women both a forum to speak and a forum to be heard. We are learning more and more about how women are silenced (I refer you to Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain things to Me and Mary Beard’s Women and Power.).

In My Life on the Road Gloria Steinem describes how listening was the basis of her learning. It was the basis of cooperative, democratic actions. She did not bring answers, but modelled listening and finding local answers.

  1. Feminism is everything

By writing feminism is everything, I do not mean that it is the most important thing, I mean it connects every aspect of human life: the personal, the political, the physical, the relational, the economic, and so on. Gloria Steinem demonstrates a set of values that are not bounded by feminism, rather link her responses to inequality based on gender, to inequalities based on race, or class or undemocratic actions.

  1. Gloria Steinem

We must honour our heroes, and Gloria Steinem is undoubtedly one of mine.

Gloria Steinem 2012

  1. The struggle goes on

There is still a long way to go, and it is likely to take many more waves. The book was published in 2015, that is before some of the most depressing undemocratic developments of the last 18 months. But in addition to the election of a misogynist US President, and a referendum which will cause especial difficulties for women, who always bear the worst of the burden of social problems, we are today in a time of fighting back.

Steady progress has been made in respect of LGBT+ rights and expectations. Victims of male violence, and especially of male sexual violence are speaking out and naming men as never before, and being applauded for it. I write as Hollywood honours the #MeToo campaign at the Golden Globe awards and it becomes possible to think that a step has been taken that cannot be untrodden.

And there are the role models and actions that brave women are taking. I especially honour the example of Senator Elizabeth Warren, from whose actions the hashtag #shepersisted was coined. Remember how the majority leader tried to silence her when she read Martin Luther King’s widow’s letter to oppose Session’s nomination for the role of Attorney General? Sessions had used his position against black voter registration. Senator McConnell made the famous/infamous statement:

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

I like persisters. I think Gloria Steinem is a persister too.

Ms. Magazine 2007 – 35th anniversary issue

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, published by One World in 2015. 312pp

Additional picture credits:

Ms. early and anniversary issues from WikiCommons Liberty Media for Women.

Author Photo via WikiCommons. Jewish Women’s Archive by Joan Roth, March 2012.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews