This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
“Are you going to the Vagina Monologues try-outs tonight?” my friend asked me last year after class.
“I hadn’t planned on it,” I replied cautiously. Truth be told, the word ‘vagina’ made me uncomfortable. There were yearly productions of the Vagina Monologues at my undergraduate institution, but I never went. I thought it was a time when women gathered and performed monologues they had written, and I thought it demeaning to have these monologues named metonymically. I did not want to be associated with the Monologues: I was in favor of women’s equality, but I did not want to claim my sexuality in so visceral a manner. In my mind, the ‘Vagina’ of Vagina Monologues just referred to the actresses, not the content.
How wrong I was.
I somehow found myself tentatively agreeing to investigate the auditions, but I wasn’t making any promises. I walked in the front door of Mudd Theater and filled out my audition sheet, and then one of the women told me to pick out a sample piece to read. The choices were excerpts from “Hair,” “Cunt,” and “My Vagina was my Village.” I spent a long time trying to decide which of these pieces I could possibly read, since I was uncomfortable with all of them. I couldn’t name my trepidation, but I knew that I did NOT want to say the word vagina. Reflecting on that experience now, I think a large part of that fear was because my body was never the subject of discussion in such a physical way before. My parents’ discomfiture with discussing anything related to sexuality shaped my own hesitance to broach the subject even on my own.
During the auditions, I was supremely uncomfortable hearing and watching women so overtly celebrate their sexuality through the stories they read. Even in a group of all women, I was incredibly embarrassed by their behavior. I wondered if there was a way to gracefully exit the room and pretend that this experience had never happened. When it came my turn to read, I was nervous. I chose to read from “My Vagina was my Village,” a story poetically describing rape. This seemed to me the safest option, because I could assign an abstract label to the rape victim; I could not so easily contain the celebration of a woman’s body. I walked out of the room after auditions rather hoping that I would not be chosen to participate. I received an email a few weeks later detailing which people from the auditions would be performing the different monologues. After a brief sigh of relief that at least I hadn’t been given some of the raciest pieces, I archived the email and didn’t look at it again until January.
I had a very difficult opening to my second semester at Claremont School of Theology. More and more I felt my voice being silenced in the classroom, ignored in preference for male voices. I began to feel invisible in the classroom. I unearthed the Vagina Monologues script from my email and began to memorize lines as a defense mechanism against the devaluation of my voice in the classroom. I would prove my worth to myself, even if no one else.
Then rehearsals started. My partner knew I was participating, but he did not press me for details about my experiences; he knew I would share when and if I wanted to do so. Incidentally, it was only after the Monologues that I told him about my experiences. Reflecting upon this, I think it was because there was something special about that all-women’s space, and even if the stories we performed for an audience were not verbatim our own, we shared a bond that I did not want to violate. These women held my stories as I held theirs.
Less than a week before opening night, one of the participants had to drop out, and I stepped in to perform “My Angry Vagina.” Here at last I connected with the text I was reading, the monologue I was performing. This monologue gave voice to my anger and gave me a way to channel my anger. My sense of self-worth as a woman had been denigrated time and again in classes and in my community at large, and releasing that anger through the creative power of an impassioned monologue afforded me an agency that I had hitherto fore not demanded. I felt empowered and restored as I purged the angry feelings, acknowledging them, venting them, and sharing them.
In the midst of a space for women only, I found the voice that had been mostly dormant and learned to celebrate with a community of women. We laughed and we cried, listening not only to the monologues we memorized but to the monologues we live every day as women attending Claremont School of Theology. Unlike the lesbian separatism of Sarah Hoagland, ours was a more inclusive separatism, welcoming women of any and all sexual preferences into community. As both participant and observer, I watched as women (in seminary, no less!) found their voices and celebrated their womanhood (however they defined it). I saw women marrying the ideas of celebratory sexuality and religious commitments (mostly Christian) in a way I had never before seen. The women who performed in the Monologues formed a bond not otherwise possible at Claremont School of Theology. In the freezing cold Mudd Theater in January and February, women came together and accepted each other in a way seemingly foreign to the pervasive CST ethos. The community we created in those weeks continues to inspire me even as I go about my normal life in a still-patriarchal society. In this time, I came to respect my voice, my body, and my self-worth, and I will forever be grateful to my friend for encouraging me to audition for the play that acknowledged, validated, and celebrated my experiences as a woman.
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