In 1996, when Eve Ensler premiered The Vagina Monologues at a small performance space in downtown New York, she received the type of response playwrights dream about: critical acclaim, an Obie award, and sold out houses. Featuring her interviews with more than 200 women talking openly and intimately about their bodies, her play had struck a chord, and as Ensler puts it, "Language leads the way."
The play was a catalyst for an unexpected response: after every show, women would approach Ensler to share their personal stories of surviving violence, at the hands of relatives, lovers, or strangers. Overwhelmed by their number, and having been physically and sexually abused herself by her father, Ensler began to see her play as more than a work of art about women's bodies, but as a vehicle to help protect them.
At a benefit performance on February 14, 1998, Ensler launched V-Day a global movement to end violence against women and girls. Ten years and thousands of benefit performances of The Vagina Monologues later -- including a star-studded run on Broadway and a sold-out event at Madison Square Garden -- V-Day has raised over 50 million dollars for anti-violence programs across the globe and staged events in more than 120 countries. Even Ensler is astonished. "Look, I hoped we could do one big event in New York," she laughs. "And the weird thing is, it's still going. Every year I think, 'OK, this will be the end of The Vagina Monologues, we'll be done.' And in fact, I think this is the biggest year we're ever had." With more than 1,250 locations signed up, 2008 will see some 3,500 V-Days, she estimates.
To what does Ensler credit V-Day's incredible growth and reach? "Art has an alchemy that straight-on politics doesn't have," she says. "But I also think that the movement is so truly grassroots that it has just spread from one woman to another... it just organically happened."
Credit also must go to Ensler's out-of-the-box thinking, as she shaped the movement's trajectory. "V-Day is both the method and where we're going. It's an organizing tool and a media communication system. But it's not only that," she says. "It has all these prongs. It is a way of energizing women and breaking taboos, of bringing people together around particular spotlights, of speaking truths that we weren't able to speak before. And it's events."
The "mega event of the decade," as Ensler describes it, is certain to be V-Day's ten-year anniversary celebration, V to the Tenth on April 11-12 at the New Orleans Arena and Louisiana Superdome. Says Ensler, "We're turning the Superdome into 'SUPERLOVE.' There's going to be music, there's going to be slam poets, and story telling, and amazing speakers." She mentions urban environmentalist Majora Carter, educator Johnnetta Cole, law professor Kimberly Crenshaw, personal finance guru Suze Ormond, actress and activist Jane Fonda, health and human rights advocate Stephen Lewis, and journalist and activist Naomi Klein. "Every day someone else agrees to come. There's going to be rituals of girls coming of age, women from Afghanistan and Iraq, and Korea, and Africa -- everywhere." Also, she says, an art exhibit, a red tent for storytelling, and "wellness suites," where women of New Orleans can go for free "massages and yoga and meditation and makeovers and love. So everything that should have happened in the Superdome [after Katrina] happens there."
Scheduled for the weekend's special performance of The Vagina Monologues are Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, Jennifer Hudson, Ellen DeGeneres, Salma Hayek, Rosario Dawson, Ashley Judd, Julia Stiles, and Oprah Winfrey. For Winfrey, Ensler is writing a new monologue "about a woman in New Orleans." As impresario of women's empowerment, Ensler picked the Superdome partly to show "how women have been burdened with surviving and keeping families together."
Ensler believes the ultimate answer to truly ending violence against women involves connecting issues in order to change the culture. "It's in what we teach boys, in our acceptance of practices like racism and classism." Those behaviors, she says, contain "a level of humiliation and hierarchy that allows for the mechanism of violence to continue.... If we didn't need to sustain oppression, why would we need violence?"
In changing the culture, Ensler believes, the media has an enormous role to play, "The media is a huge part of perpetuating sexist and patriarchal images....How women are mangled and demeaned and just reduced in the media -- that is a crucial question."
Asked what she would like to be celebrating in another 10 years, Ensler answers immediately. "The end of violence against women." For now she hopes the V to the Tenth event will "celebrate our victories," honor and raise funds for the women rebuilding New Orleans, and create a "collective gathering, unity, energy that will really launch the next ten years of transformation."
This post first appeared at the Women's Media Center.