Playwright and activist Eve Ensler is one of the most inspiring people on the planet, and I have been blessed to have a front row seat to her amazing journey. I was there in those first days when she first began to talk about using her Obie-award winning play The Vagina Monologues to launch V-Day (in fact the term V-Day was literally coined at my dining room table when Eve brainstormed with the board of the women's organization I run, Feminist.com), her global anti-violence movement which has gone on to raise over $80 million dollars for programs in over 140 countries. She is quite simply a force of nature. I am not the only one who shares tremendous admiration for her, which was evident by all the love in the room at Viva Vevolution!, a sold out V-Day fundraiser and celebration of Eve's birthday at Donna Karan's Urban Zen Center this past Wednesday evening, a crowd which included some of V-Day's luminary Board members such as Donna Karan herself, Kerry Washington, Pat Mitchell, and Thandie Newton (other V-Board members include Jane Fonda, Salma Hayek, Rosario Dawson among others). On Sunday, June 11th, Eve was also awarded the prestigious 2011 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award, which recognizes an individual from the theater community who has made a substantial contribution and effort on behalf of humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations.
One of the many things I have always admired about Eve was her bold and indomitable spirit. When she first set V-Day's mission she decided to make it to "end violence against women and girls" and those words were chosen purposefully. It wasn't something a little less idealistic or diluted like "to work to help stop violence against women" - she set the bar pure and simple on ending it - no compromises, no excuses. That is what the world needs right now - that uncompromising belief that despite all odds, a better world IS possible. It is Eve's contagious passion and determination that has made V-Day a success - we thirst for that belief that humanity's consciousness and behavior can evolve and change. I think it is also that Eve believes and invests in the notion that pain can be transmuted into power. She turned pain into power for herself, which began when she was physically and sexually abused as a child by her father, an experience that has fueled so much of her work. She sees the same possibility in abused, violated and marginalized women here in the U.S. around the world -how that outrage and desire for other women to avoid that same fate can be turned into a source of strength, and healed through the act of helping others. There is perhaps no better testament to turning pain to power than V-Day's opening this past year of the City of Joy, a groundbreaking community in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Congolese women and girls, who have survived horrific acts of rape and violence, are provided with support to not only heal themselves, but training to become leaders to steer Congo towards peace. At the event, and in this interview, Eve talked about her sense of an emerging "woman spring" - women, like those in the Congo, who are courageously rising up to demand their rights, have their voices heard and assume leadership roles in their communities and around the world.
Eve and V-Day always seem to have their finger on the pulse of what important new paradigms are emerging, whether it is focusing on empowering girls through her latest work I am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Lives of Girls Around the World and their new V-Girls campaign, or V-Men, which engages men not just as allies in ending violence against women, but to also free them from what she calls the "tyranny of masculinity" which she believes has "cut men off from their hearts".
Eve recently survived uterine cancer, and at the event on Wednesday night she talked openly about coming through the past year and almost dying, an experience she described as being profound, very difficult, yet also incredibly beautiful - and that in addition to the power of people's prayers and love it was the truly the power of potential change and her work on behalf of women and girls that kept her alive.
In the following interview, Eve talks about V-Day, the Tony award, V-Girls, V-Men, the "gift of cancer", the "woman spring" and more.
Marianne Schnall: How are you feeling about all these celebrations of you and V-Day, both at the event last night and receiving the incredibly prestigious Isabelle Stevenson Award at the Tonys on Sunday?
Eve Ensler: You know, I feel so happy about so much. It's always holding the two - right, the really terrible and pressing state of the world, and the incredible signs that there is this birth of the woman spring. I am so grateful to be alive. Everything after that feels like gravy. And the gravy's pretty good.
MS: Having been there at the beginning, it certainly does seem amazing all that V-Day has accomplished. What does the success and spread of V-Day's reach and spirit say to you about the power of women and sisterhood?
EE: I had a Board meeting yesterday, with the most amazing group of twenty women. And I just sat in this room and I just thought, "Look at these women - we are in such sisterhood, and such solidarity and we are working towards the same goal with our hearts and our souls." And I feel that way about V-Day - in the room the other night, you could feel the solidarity, the community, the love, you could feel people's commitment. And so many of those people have been there since the beginning, Marianne [laughs] you know? So I am wildly optimistic when I think of where we are and what this is.
MS: Having worked in so many regions of the world over the course of so many years you have a unique global perspective. You talked on Wednesday night about your sense that the "woman spring" is now arriving. How would you best describe it? What are the signs you see?
EE: Well, I think I mentioned a few of them the other night - whether it's a chambermaid speaking out against DSK and a woman judge prosecuting, or Cairo women creating a harass map, or Agnes [Agnes Pareyio, a Kenyan woman who created the first V-Day Safe House to escape female genital mutilation] running for parliament, or 5,000 V-Days this year or the City of Joy opening and the Congolese women taking back their country - I think it's everywhere. I think we are seeing the absolute and utter collapse of male politicians in this country and we're seeing what the underpinnings of the power structure are, which are sexist underpinnings.
MS: And simultaneous with all that you do see these little sprouts, even in the most heavily oppressed regions of the world, such as in the Middle East, where women are slowly beginning to find their voice and demand their rights as well.
EE: In some ways faster than here! It feels like if you just look at the fact that a woman was central in twittering the Cairo revolution, and women were central to the Tunisian uprising. Women are at the center of everything right now and moving everything forward. And I do think in the next year or two, we are going to see such a woman spring, such a rising.
Look, I was in Paris when this whole DSK thing happened and the number of women coming out of the closet to talk about harassment, to talk about abuse, to talk about the ongoing sexist objectification that is going on in the workplace and the home and the streets and relationships - it's fantastic! It's a huge a breakthrough.
MS: Now that the City of Joy has opened - what is happening there?
EE: At this point almost 40 women - we'll have 90 over the next few months, are in the early stages of therapy of healing, there will be civic training, there will be legal training, there will be speaker training, there will be an economic empowerment piece, there will be computer training, literacy training, self defense, agricultural training - women will hopefully gradually become leaders and be able to bring back what they've learned in their community. And in the process we will begin to create a network of leaders throughout the Congo.
MS: I loved when Christine [Christine Schuler Deschryver is V-Day's Congo Director and Director of City of Joy] was talking about how you and V-Day uniquely came in and rather than imposing, really just empowered them.
EE: Well, that's V-Day's model. Never impose. We never bring The Vagina Monologues anywhere, it only goes where people sign up to bring it - we never bring programs anywhere - we just support existing programs or programs that people envision on the ground.
MS: The International Criminal Court is now accusing Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadafi of ordering mass rapes by his armies in Libya - even going as far as providing them with Viagra to encourage them to do it. It does seem that rape as a formal tactic of war has been becoming more widely implemented...
EE: It's been happening for years. I don't think it's new. I think it's always been here.
MS: But do you think it's improving or worsening?
EE: You know what I think? I think the world is always improving and always not improving. I think that both are simultaneously happening all the time. I don't think it's one motion unfortunately - I wish we could say it's better, better, better - but I think it's better, bad, better, bad - you know?
MS: Maybe it's that there's more awareness.
EE: We have no idea how many women were raped in wars - because no one ever asked. So sometimes when people say statistics have escalated, I wonder if, that is true or are we just hearing about things now that we didn't hear about before. .
MS: Your latest book, I am an Emotional Creature is aimed at empowering girls, and V-Day recently launched V-Girls. As you know, I have two daughters, so this is hugely important to me, especially having had such a tumultuous teenage-hood myself. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your teenage self?
EE: To have had my anger and not had to turn it against myself. Because it really turned into depression and self-hatred and self destructive behavior rather than just being angry which would have moved me towards my strength.
MS: The other exciting initiative that V-Day is focusing on is V-Men. What is at the heart of the message and mission behind the V-Men initiative?
EE: To really build a movement of men who are equally devoted to ending violence against women and girls, and who are reviewing what it means to be men, and what it means to be masculine, and looking how patriarchal definitions of masculinity have led to violation and desecration and inequality of women.
MS: There was a lot of talk at the event about "breaking out of the man box".
EE: Well, that's the name of the piece, it's "Breaking Out of the Man Box" - and I think what Call to Men and Tony Porter and Ted Bunch are doing is so fabulous at looking at this whole construct of what it means to be a man, and breaking out of that.
MS: Not only having men as allies but also seeing how this whole movement frees them too.
EE: Exactly. Well, the tyranny of masculinity and the tyranny of patriarchy I think has been much more deadly to men than it has to women. It hasn't killed our hearts. It's killed men's hearts. It's silenced them, it's cut them off. And I think to be cut off from your heart is the greatest tyranny in the world.
MS: On Wednesday night you talked about the "perilous" place the human species is in right now, and that we have to be bolder and braver and believe in all-out change and revolution - and then you said "we have the power to turn this paradigm around". What is the new paradigm you think is emerging and what is required from humanity to usher it in?
EE: Well, I think we just have to look at all the ways in which we are violating the Earth, each other, economic violence, racial violence, environmental violence - where we are dominating and not cooperating . It's the denial of global warming and the denial of ecological destruction and breaking out of that denial. But breaking out of that denial across the board - how we treat women, how we treat gay people, how we treat people of color - facing poverty, the five percent or three percent of the world own all the resources. And ninety-five percent live in starvation and dire poverty. And how are we going to reverse that?
MS: I do think part of it is having the belief that it's possible - I always think back to when you decided to make the mission to "end violence against the women" - not something softer like "to help stop violence against women" - that you have to really, as you're saying, be bold and brave and believe that humanity is capable of what seems like an almost insurmountable transformation.
EE: Exactly. And I think we have to get bolder. Why after Fukushima didn't we all go out and shut down all the nuclear power plants and stay there until it happened? I think the human species is very suicidal. And I think overcoming that is very difficult and the point of being here.
MS: My sense is also that people are going through so much stress and personal suffering, kind of on autopilot, that they are just not even awake to know how to be part of the world and realize how their energy effects it - because it does seem very daunting, how they possibly could contribute to change.
EE: But I think that's part of the whole denial and suicidal mechanism right "Oh my God, the house is on fire." You sleep through the smoke.
MS: To me, after so many years of hearing you express such distress and outrage about what is happening to women, to hear you talk about a "woman spring"- something hopeful like that is very encouraging. Because for women to rise up, and be part of the energy to save the planet, that's hopeful.
EE: Oh, I think it's going to happen. I really do.
MS: There were so many people on Wednesday night so grateful and thankful that you seem to be back in good health, and you were simply glowing. You have written and spoken a lot about the "Gift of Cancer". How are you doing and feeling? And if you could distill it, what have you learned from that journey?
EE: Well, I feel fabulous. I feel better than I have ever felt in my life. And you know, it was the hardest year of my life. I almost died and I came very close. In a way, I did die. I feel like a huge tornado passed through me, and it swept out everything that wasn't meant to be there and it cleared the path for the future. And I am so grateful for all the people who helped me - and the resources I had, all the insurance I had to pay for incredible doctors, and I see how crucial it is that everybody has those resources. And I feel it's emboldened me - when you lose seven organs, whatever it was [laughs], you have infections for months, and chemotherapy for months, and you lose your hair, and you have all kinds of contraptions coming out of your body - you stop being afraid in a weird way. It's happened, you know [laughs] - it's done. A friend of mine said to me, "you are lucky in a way you've already gotten cancer - all of us are waiting for it."
MS: Sometimes life throws you these stark reminders that you are a body, of the miracle of life, and the experience of being human.
EE: It's not so bad - it's not so bad! Look, I wake up every day and I think "I'm breathing! It's a good day." [laughs]
For more information on Eve Ensler and V-Day, visit www.vday.org
Follow Marianne Schnall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/marianneschnall