Guest Post by Jenna Pollock
On Monday, June 18th, vaginas took back the capitol in Lansing, Michigan.
Earlier in the week, State Representative Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) was banned from speaking on the House floor after Speaker of the House Jase Bolger and other House Republicans deemed she had broken decorum by using the word vagina. At the time, she was closing a speech debating proposed abortion legislation, the most restrictive Michigan has seen since Roe v. Wade. At the same time, her fellow State Representative Barb Byrum (D-Onondaga) was banned for using the word vasectomy while speaking about a proposal that dealt with vasectomies.
This news caught my attention immediately. I was shocked. How could a politician be in trouble for using medical terms to discuss legislation related to those issues? How could no one be speaking up to defend these women? How could they be so easily silenced? And why was no one outraged that the 180,000 people they represent in Michigan had also been silenced? When Lisa Brown was accused of throwing a “temper tantrum,”I thought that the House Republicans must have been joking. Their rhetoric suggested that women are too emotional to lead and reason, because their emotions cause them to break “rules” (often put in place by white men) in childish and unreasonable ways, and must be punished for their disobedience. For hundreds of years, this rhetoric has allowed women’s voices and opinions to be sidelined, undercut, and delegitimized.
Within 72 hours it became clear that I was not the only one outraged. Activists in Michigan, including those with the ACLU, Planned Parenthood of Michigan, and the local chapter of the National Organization for Women had begun working with Eve Ensler and her women’s advocacy organization, V-Day, to plan a performance of The Vagina Monologues on the Michigan capitol steps. Representatives Brown and Byrum would be joined by State Senator Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor), Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), seven other Michigan legislators, 21 local actresses, and what would eventually be thousands of activists and citizens.
A friend of mine, the lovely Laura Waleryszak, works for V-Day here in Chicago and coordinated many of the event logistics. I was eager to be involved, and we headed out to Lansing bright and early Monday morning with a female-heavy playlist, 20 yards of red fabric, and real excitement.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen The Vagina Monologues. Until last week I’d only seen it once, about 10 years ago, and I remembered some parts of it making me uncomfortable (though granted, some of that could have been because I saw it with my mom). The play uses the word vagina and every possible slang term referring to vaginas, features a piece that includes actresses mimicking orgasms, and graphically discusses rape, among other things. I am a huge fan of the monologues, and don’t consider myself easily shaken, but as show time neared and thousands of people packed in around the capitol, I started to worry about what might happen when the performance began.
In retrospect, this is exactly the type of thinking that calls out for the monologues to be performed everywhere, as often as possible. It should be ok to use the word vagina! I shouldn’t have to worry about offending people or getting in trouble for using the word. Women should be able to do so proudly; claiming space for our bodies, our voices, and our selves.
I shouldn’t have worried. The performance was spectacular; moving in how perfectly normal and radical it was to perform it at all. I was also moved by the level audience involvement, and the bravery of first-time actresses. There was an electric energy that night. It started even before we used our red fabric to create a giant V on the steps. It grew as more and more people arrived with homemade signs, picnic blankets, friends, partners, loved ones, and colleagues. The energy endured from the first utterance of the word vagina to the last, and it reached a fever pitch when Eve took the stage after the show. Quickly and eloquently she named the oppression and power present in the situation and said she was “over it.” I couldn’t agree more.
I was inspired by my time in Michigan, by Eve, and by the eleven brave legislators who performed on the capitol steps. I was inspired by the two American Sign Language interpreters who, after hearing about the event, volunteered to interpret the show. I was inspired by the activists, ranging from children to seniors, who came to speak out. I loved their signs, including “Call Mine a Vagina,” “Vaginas Brought You Into This World and Vaginas Will Vote You Out,” and “My Vagina Doesn’t Need a Co-Owner.” There is more work to be done, and Michiganders are partnering with their supporters nationwide to fight back. For my part, I’m proud, and I don’t think I’ll ever view the word vagina in quite the same way again.
Jenna Pollock is a traveler, baker, and lover of summer. She is currently supporting the Rainbow Welcome Initiative at Heartland Alliance, a technical assistance program that supports the resettlement of LGBT refugees and asylees. This fall she will begin law school at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, Massachusetts.