Where to begin when talking about vaginas? - not that we did all that much of it before 1996, in public or private. Eve Ensler, the little lady who started The Vagina Monologues, changed that with this one-woman-show that she first performed perched on a wooden stool in a downtown Manhattan theater, using 4x6 cards as prompts. I took my sister to one of those early shows, and when Eve finished the operatic monologue, "Reclaiming Cunt," my sister whispered to me, joking, "She ought to be ashamed of herself." Glenn Close sat in the row behind us, as new to the material as we were.
The protean play with that word in the title is a celebration of the vagina and a searing indictment of violence against women in many forms. It's funny, heartbreaking, incendiary, empowering, and it's like nothing you've ever seen. To date, it's been performed some 10,000 times in 45 languages, in 120 countries around the world, each performance a consciousness raising event and a benefit to raise money that goes to fighting violence against women and girls in those communities.
With all this talk of vaginas, would it sound off-key to say that Eve Ensler has balls? She even co-opted Valentine's Day in 1998 -- Valentine's Day, that takes some doing! -- by calling it V-Day and using the day to encourage performances of the play, to raise more money and more awareness about violence against women. V stands for Victory, Valentine, and -- You Know What.
Thursday night was the tenth anniversary of the first V-Day, and because she has a great sense of theater and of history, Eve held the blowout benefit celebration at the sight of the original party, the exceedingly grand Hammerstein Ballroom, where Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, and Brook Shields each did a monologue and hung around for dinner and schmoozing.
It was billed as an anniversary bash and a kickoff to a major event - V To The Tenth - - that takes place in New Orleans, April 11 and 12, and that has the potential to be spectacular, both as theater and as a fundraising enterprise. The woman with the chutzpah to reclaim the word "cunt" is on a mission to do some serious healing and fundraising there - and to reclaim and rename the infamous Superdome, where two days of activism, international networking, theater, and free wellness programs, will earn it the name Superlove. Supercorny, but better than its previous incarnation. Nearby, at the New Orleans Arena, there will be a star-studded performance of the ur-play, with tickets starting at $25.
Eve had no grand ambitions when she began performing The Vagina Monologues, but so many women came up to her afterwards to confide experiences of violence and violation, she kept working the material -- and the material kept leading to new audiences, new adherents, and cascading opportunities. Those little prompt cards have become a global movement that's so far raised $50 million to fight violence against women.
It's hard to write about The Vagina Monologues or the phenomenon that is V-Day -- or the phenomenon that is Eve Ensler -- without sounding sycophantic. But there's no getting around the fact that there is true, deep, and lasting value at the center of what's going on here, and at every point along the way. What's happened as a result of this play is a tribute to the power of one person - one misbehaving woman -- to move the world. And it's a reminder of how unending, how starkly universal this problem is, the problem of men and boys committing acts of violence against women and girls -- rape, beatings, maimings, molestations, genital circumcisions.
Eve Ensler and V-Day are about rewiring men's brains by beginning to rewire women's brains. I'm not sure I believe the party line, that it's possible to end violence against women, not simply reduce it or recover from it. But there aren't too many more worthy goals, even if we can't make it happen any faster than one monologue at a time.
Elizabeth Benedict's novels include the bestseller Almost and The Practice of Deceit. She's also the author of The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. For a free copy of her recent essay, "What I Learned About Sex on the Internet," please click here: www.elizabethbenedict.com.