“My vagina is angry!”
I had to let those words sink in. The first time I heard them was during the annual V-day performance of the Vagina Monologues by Arcadia’s For the Women student organization. V-day, an international movement, was started in 2001 by activist Eve Ensler as a global campaign to end violence against women. A significant part of this movement is the episodic play, Vagina Monologues.
Due to my circumstances, chiefly my male identity, I have a limited concept of the distinctively female experience. However, thanks to V-day, my understanding became abundantly more clear.
It all started February 13, the Friday before Valentine’s Day. While many people were preparing for new dates and 20th anniversaries, buying chocolates, making dinner reservations and laying out rose petals, a large portion of Arcadia students were preparing for another V-day. Before coming to Arcadia, I was unaware of what exactly V-day or the Vagina Monologues was. Over my four years here, I’ve learned that it’s really pretty simple. It’s a story.
My small part of that story begins on the frigid walk from my apartment to campus on that Friday before Valentine’s Day. I had bundled up after making plans to accompany a friend to Arcadia’s annual Vagina Monologues performance. After arriving at Stietler auditorium on the edge of campus, eyes watering from the wind, we waited in line to buy tickets to the show. A cheerful young woman, clad in black and red, gave us a warm greeting and offered us tickets. Exchanging our money for palm-sized uterus tickets on colored pink paper, we mounted the stairs and settled in some seats to wait for the show to begin.
The stage, warmly lit by rows of lights fixed to the ceiling, did not look prepared for a traditional performance. In lieu of a set with props and scenery, about 30 people, mostly women, were seated in a semicircle around the edge of the stage. They were clothed in a sea of blacks and reds and casually chatting with one another. Their arrangement put me at ease. I didn’t feel that I was attending a performance, but that I was preparing to have a conversation.
As the lights dimmed, that conversation began. It was a particularly enlightening one.
For instance, I discovered about 30 substitutes for the word “vagina.” I learned vividly that the process of birth is awe inspiring. I was educated about the idea that widows are “closed for business.” And, I found out that vaginas are angry about tampons, patriarchy, and abuse.
As I sat in the audience, I was dragged back and forth from tears to howling laughter. I even experienced both simultaneously. But, hearing the answer to the question “what would your vagina wear” can do that to a person.
As each individual or group would rise and move to the center of the stage, I was unsure of what I would hear next. By the end of the performance, I had heard the stories of young women under 10 and over 60 and of many colors. I heard from women who were self-confident, women who were confused, and women who survived abuse. I heard from Burmese women and transgender women. I felt privileged that they let me hear their stories.
As the lights flickered back to life, the room filled with applause. The storytellers rose from their seats and delivered a powerful declaration – their mission to help achieve the goal of the V-day movement and end global violence against women. With the mantra One Billion Rising (named for the approximate one billion women worldwide affected by violence) they demanded the end of violence for their communities, their families and themselves.
From coursework in sociology, including my First Year Seminar, “Monsters in Our Midst,” which explored the cultural impact of monsters (for example, witches and violence against women), I’ve learned that systematic global violence against women is a societal expression of power. While it primarily affects women through individual and institutional discrimination, anyone perceived as acting outside of their gender roles is negatively impacted. Violence against women perpetuates ideas of what it means to be a particular gender with no room for people in between.
While no amount of coursework can allow me to truly understand the experience of women, I still want to stand beside them in their goal. Given my interest in global public health, I am in a good position to do so! As one may imagine, global violence against women severely impacts a population’s health. Since women are the ones to carry children, this impact can span generations. Large scale actors in the public health arena, like the World Health Organization have branches dedicated to improving the health of women. Even at Arcadia’s performance of the Vagina Monologues, local organizations called CHOICE and Women in Transition had tables to disseminate information and resources to raise awareness for for reproductive health issues. As I find my place in the world of global public health, I hope to add my voice to these advocates and the one billion rising.
Photo by Kara Wright ’14