I have to admit that I have never seen nor read the Vagina Monologues. At the time I first heard of the play in high school, I was annoyed by what seemed to me its shock-value title. As time went on and my feminist community grew, it became embarrassing to admit that I’d never seen the show, so I would pretend I too was super familiar with whatever others we referring to. Now, I just haven’t had the time!
But curious to know more about the play and the woman behind it, I went to see Eve Ensler give a lecture for the Institute for Women’s Leadership at Rutgers University on March 31st. I was pleasantly surprised by the clever, passionate, and upbeat woman I found there and am now very curious to read the play! I was very impressed with Ensler’s ability to speak about injustice and suffering but to maintain a generally cheerful and hopeful disposition. When she disagreed with someone, she spoke with thought and passion. So many times when I speak with other feminists (or listen to myself speak) I hear a lot of anger, frustration, and burnout. While Ensler certain expressed anger and frustration, she was able to move past it to provide a hopeful, productive, level-headed response.
Let me share some of the thoughts and advice she shared with us.
There will be no change without a struggle.
This is great life wisdom in general, but: In response to a question about how frustrating it is to talk to people who don’t understand feminism, Ensler reminded us that we can get lazy with our activism. When working to make change and to challenge power, we are going to get pushback and we are going to get attacked. Ensler urged us not to get comfortable in certain ‘levels’ of activism, but rather predicted that we need to be more bold, disruptive, and creative in our efforts to bring about change.
2 Things Every Girl Needs
To do this, Ensler suggest we each need two things: (1) a inner shield— an inner strength that resists and protects us against attempts to injure or destroy who we are, and our foundational beliefs about ourselves and our world, (2) a posse— a group of people who support, energize, and believe in us and can help us heal. Ensler reminded us that we are not alone in this struggle, and that it’s imperative to remember this, “They will defeat us if we think we’re alone.”
Love People into Change
This one is a little hard to hear for me. I’ve heard a lot of talk about bringing about change through “radical love” or a “methodology of love.” My general reaction is that if our enemies aren’t coming to the table with love, why should we? Also haven’t they taken enough from us already that we don’t also have to pour our love into them? I guess I need to rethink my understanding of love.
Ensler explained that to make change, we have to meet people where they are at. “It takes time for people to untangle themselves from what they’ve learned and the way they process things.” She argues for a feminist movement that remembers to be forgiving and provides space for mercy and for people to change their minds, be confused, and grow rather than just hurrying to classify people as bigots, racists, sexists, misogynists etc. and not letting them move beyond those labels when they try.
One student asked Ensler how to make men feel more included in feminist activities, such as attending The Vagina Monologues, and this kind of set Ensler off. Ensler responded by questioning why women who write or create material about women need to apologize for it. She wondered why men are not interested in or can’t express interest in something that is about women. Ensler posited that most men would say the respect women as equal, so there is no reason why they should not have interest in work by or about women. Between a man afraid of going to see the play, and a man interested in seeing the play, Ensler advocated dating the man expressing interest in what women think and feel.
If you live your life afraid to say who you are, then you can’t be who you are.
I actually don’t remember the context for this statement, but I have been thinking about it a lot. I think we often fool ourselves that we can keep parts of ourselves hidden, locked off, or just for ourselves because other people won’t respond well to them, and that that can work. But Ensler challenges this. Maybe if you can’t express your full self, then in reality, you can’t really be your full self.