Wednesday, April 20, 2011

They Call it a Cunt in Colorado

            I auditioned for The Vagina Monologues after seeing a sample performance of one of the monologues during my Intro to Women’s Studies class. The monologues appealed to me for a few of reasons. The first reason is that I was struck by the message of the monologues. I feel that the production is about reclaiming a love of our vaginas despite societal pressure to see our genitalia as dirty, shameful and irrelevant. Additionally, The Vagina Monologues promotes an anti-violence campaign that seeks to publicize violence against women and to fight against it. 
            The third reason I decided to try out is because despite a few Nativity Story plays during elementary school, the last theatrical production I participated in was a lead role in a kindergarten production about a farmer’s vendetta against some pesky weeds. When I tell this story I usually point out that my role was given less based on talent and more on the fact that I could read the script. Because my acting experience is limited, I saw The Vagina Monologues as a way to try out acting without the intimidation of being turned down. That paired with my interest in the monologue’s content convinced me to try out.
            A few weeks after my audition, I heard that I had been cast parts in two monologues: “The Vagina Workshop” and “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy”. The first monologue is about a woman’s discovery of orgasm, and a literal self exploration with a hand mirror. The woman in the monologue describes becoming one with her clitoris, and accepting it as a part of her. The imagery of her timid fumbling expanding into a near panic as she begins to fear her own sexual expectations is movingly depicted by the language of the monologue, which I found to be relatable. I feel that a lot of women face anxiety about their sexuality when faced with social expectations that discourage a focus on female pleasure, while demanding sexual confidence and performance.
            The second monologue I performed in I found to be more challenging. “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vagina’s Happy”, is about a female sex worker who decided to work only for women. The journey of this woman is one I find intriguing. She tells the story of how she discovered moaning and how she fell in love with it. She begins to make it her goal to make women moan. Performing this monologue made me nervous initially. I found my voice cracking when I read through my part at home. “I started out as a lawyer, but in my late 30s I became obsessed with making women happy. It began as a mission of sorts, but then I got involved in it. I got very good at it, kind of brilliant. I started getting paid for it. I wore outrageous outfits when I dominated women; lace, silk, leather, I used props…whips, ropes, handcuffs, dildos” (Ensler, 2010).  My cheeks grew hot, though there was no one around to hear me.
             When I went to my first rehearsal, I found myself excited to do a read through. I am not sure how my outlook changed, but suddenly I could not wait to perform the piece. It made me feel empowered and strong. I found myself connecting with the energy of my cast mates. That energy acted as a fuel for my own spirits. I realized that this monologue has a lot to say and that I was lucky to get to read it. This woman’s words are about sexual expression and freedom. The monologue is about being confident in your sexuality and not apologizing for who you were. Most of all, the piece is about sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure being fully experienced without shame, guilt, regret, or stress which are all possible factors in many heterosexual relationship that I’ve been involved in. In many ways this monologue helped me realize that sexual pleasure is not an unreasonable expectation from interpersonal relationships I myself am involved in.
            I performed in The Vagina Monologues with twelve other amazing women on March 31st, April 1st, and April 2nd. The first two performances were in the Tivoli Turnhalle on Auraria Campus in Denver, CO. The last performance was held at Hamburger Mary’s in downtown Denver. The productions raised about three thousand dollars to be split between The Phoenix Center on campus and the spotlight campaign: Women and Girls of Haiti. The Phoenix Center is an on campus resource for any one has been affected by interpersonal violence whether they are survivors, friends, or family. “The spotlight campaign will highlight highlight…violence against women and girls in Haiti, and will focus on the increased rates of sexual violence since the devastating earthquake that took place in January 2010” (V-Day 2011, 2011).
            One of my favorite parts of the monologues was the inclusion of a piece that talked about the challenges that trans individuals face. Because the trans community is often a community forgotten when talking about issues of human rights or violence, I always find it refreshing for their stories to be discussed publicly. Because of our culture’s binary gender system, the transgender community face many challenges. Some of these difficulties include fear for their personal safety, self-hatred from internalized anti-transgender socialization, and separation from communities. Transphobia is the fear and the “hatred, discrimination, intolerance, and prejudice that this fear brings” (Laframboise and Long par 3). This fear can lead to harrasment, violence towards trans people and ostricization. Transgender people are often discriminated against in terms of health care, employment and social services. Because of the discrimination facing trans individuals, many have substance abuse problems (Laframboise and Long).
            Social ideals towards gender create transphobia. In a gender binary, there is no room for gender crossover or fluidity. In fact, individuals who challenge the gender binary are considered deviant and unacceptable within our culture. Transphobia can present itself in many ways.Some of which include the assumption that transgender individuals have mental disorders, are untrustworthy, are inherently disugsting or “sick”, or being unwilling to assist a trans individual in medical situations (Laframboise & Long). In order to combat transphobia, some action is being taken including, educating people on transgender issues and providing resources for trangender individuals. Additionally, making an effort to include transgender individuals and to provide necessary services to them (Laframboise & Long).
            Trans-liberation is relevant to more than just the Trans Community. According to Leslie Feinberg’s “We are All Works in Progress”: “Tran’s liberation has meaning for you-no matter how you define or express your sex or your gender”  (Feinberg, We Are All Works in Progress 1998, 2010). A gender binary system can be suffocating for all involved. Our society puts strict boxes around what is masculine and what is feminine. Gender liberation is about making these roles more fluid so that all of us can be ourselves and embrace all aspects of our humanity.
            When I listened to the monologue “They Beat the Girl Out of my Boy, or so They Tried”, a monologue about violence against trans individuals, I fell further in love with The Vagina Monologues as a whole. I was reminded that the trans movement is closely related to the women’s movement. Women are seeking to end violence against us, but so are trans individuals. We are both seeking equality in our world. This monologue brought me to tears every night we performed. Being a part of The Vagina Monologues has been a wonderful experience. I have learned a lot about violence against women and trans people, and I have learned a lot about myself. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of this amazing production.

 Works Cited:
Ensler, E. (2010, April 1). The Vagina Monologues. (M. Fowler, Performer) Tivoli Turnhalle, Denver.
Feinberg, L. (2010). We Are All Works in Progress 1998. In G. Kirk, & M. Okazawa-Rey,    Women's Lives: Multicultural Perspectives (pp. 187-192). New York : McGraw-Hill.
Laframboise, S., & Long, B. (n.d.). An Introduction to: Gender, Transgender and Transphobia.      Retrieved 03 10, 2011, from High Risk Project Society:
V-Day 2011. (2011). 2011 Women and Girls of Haiti. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from   


Ida B. Wells: A Story of Activism

Ida B. Wells was an activist for black rights during and after the Reconstruction Period in America. Wells was a prominent journalist and speaker who advocated social change. Her influence is particularly relevant to the efforts to abolish lynching in the United States. Furthermore, her powerful messages encouraged other African Americans to take charge of their freedom. For these reasons, Ida B. Wells is significant to African-American studies.
            According to A Passion for Justice: The Memoirs of Ida B. Wells, Wells began her journalism career in Memphis as the editor of a newspaper during the Reconstruction Period. Around this time, the Klu Klux Klan emerged. Soon after, in 1867, the Reconstruction Period ended and African Americans faced segregation (Greaves).
            When she was twenty-two years old, Wells herself was thrown off a train after refusing to move to the smoking car on a train so as to provide a white passenger with her seat. Wells filed suit against the train company and won her case. However, the decision was later reversed. Infuriated, Wells sent articles to papers describing her experience. Through these articles, she launched herself into journalism. She earned the title: “The Princess of the Press,” and became editor and co-owner of Free Speech (Greaves).
            By 1896, legalized segregation was taking place in the South. The new legislation was instated as a result of the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court Case. In this case, Plessy, was riding on a train and refused to give up his seat because he was only one-eighth black. However, he was removed from the train. His case was lost and the separate but equal philosophy became standard in transportation, schools, and other public services.
Wells advocated a boycott of the Memphis trolley system to protest segregation. The boycott was successful and hurt the Memphis economy (Greaves). This event acted as an example for the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. In this later boycott, people with cars assisted the boycotters by giving rides to and from work. Whites as well as blacks participated in the boycott.
            Instances of racism and segregation were becoming more prominent throughout this time. Lynching was on the rise. In one of the earlier cases Ida B. Wells wrote about involved someone she knew personally. Wells was good friends with an African American grocer who opened a store nearby an established white grocery store. One night police offers approached the black owners, holding weapons. In panic, the men fired on the officers resulting in fatalities. The men were incarcerated, but before the night was over, they had been lynched (Greaves).
            Wells caught wind of the story. She wrote that in blacks should leave the area to protect themselves from similar things happening to them. Because of her fiery words, a vast migration of blacks began into the north (Greaves). Once again, the Memphis economy suffered, this time because of a decrease in their population.
            In order to work against lynching, Ida B. Wells went into an investigation. The major transgression cited as the cause for a lynching was a black man sexually assaulting a white woman. After interviewing witnesses, Wells came to the conclusion that most of these relationships were consensual (Greaves). In fact, she pointed out that the reason rape was used as an excuse for lynching was likely to be because of societies views on interracial sexual relationships. Intercourse was seen as a substantial societal taboo, and therefore, any instance of it was misrepresented as a forced relationship.
            After awhile, the south became intolerant of Wells and exiled her in an attempt to silence her pen. She moved to New York and continued her anti-lynching advocacy while writing for another paper. Eventually, she went to England to bring lynching to international attention. Because of her discussions overseas, the London Anti-Lynching Committee was started (Greaves).
            Back in the U.S. Wells became a prominent member of the suffrage movement, working alongside Susan B. Anthony. She married Ferdinand L. Barnett, an attorney and the founder of The Conservator. Wells-Barnett became a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group that sought to further the rights and involvement of blacks in the United States (Greaves).
            Ida B. Wells’ influence on African American history is phenomenal. She was an uncompromising leader. She sought to expose the truth and force society to evaluate its motivations at the root. She refused to take the general opinion at its face value and instead investigated the true causes behind things like lynching and segregation. Because of her work, the Memphis Bus Boycott set the stage for the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. She is an inspirational historical figure. No doubt her activism helped prompt Rosa Parks in her own protests against segregation. For all of these reasons, Wells is relevant to understanding African American history.

A Passion for Justice: The Memoirs of Ida B. Wells. Dir. William Greaves. 1989.

Precolonial Roles of Women in Africa

In the film, The Africans: Legacy of Lifestyles, women are described as caretakers of water, fire, and earth (Mazrui). The respect implied in this statement emphasizes the power of women in African Society. Although social arrangements vary immensely between cultural groups, women maintain a position of power throughout Africa. This authority can be exemplified through a direct leadership role, governing behind the scenes, or from a domestic perspective. Regardless of the manifestation, women in Pre-colonial Africa were not powerless.
            Polygyny is a common practice in many African societies. In polygynous societies men and women have separate roles. Men are primarily responsible for supporting the household financially. In fact, the more wives a man has, the wealthier he appears to be. This correlation stems from the social stigma of a man being held accountable for supporting his family. The bigger the family, the more financial resources the man must have (Bingham and Hill-Gross, The Custom of Polygyny: The Roles of Co-Wives).
Women in Africa are seen as symbols of fertility, women are therefore appointed to farming the land and raising children (Mazrui). Polygyny allowed a multi-wife household to share the workload both agriculturally and in child care. These women are referred to as “co-wives” and within this is a hierarchy of power. The senior wife, (generally the first wife,) has the most say in decision making next to the husband. The senior wife is in charge of assigning tasks to the other wives and settling disputes within the family (Bingham and Hill-Gross, The Custom of Polygyny: The Roles of Co-Wives).
Apart from specific cultural variances such as Polygyny, African societies are typically structured in either patrilineal or matrilineal systems. As the names imply, kinship descent is determined either through paternal or maternal lines. Societies utilizing patrilineal descent trace the male line. When a man chooses a bride she moves to the husband’s family. There she must prove herself worthy to her new kin through a strong work ethic on the plot of land she is given to grow food for her family. She is further tested on her ability to produce children, (particularly, male offspring.) In this set up if the woman decides to divorce her husband she will often times lose custody over any children born during her marriage. Furthermore, she can be accepted back in to her former society only through the approval of her father and brother(s). If she is turned away from her former home, she loses not only the land she acquired in marriage, but now has nowhere to go.
Matrilineal systems are in many ways opposite of patrilineal ones. When a woman marries, she has the choice to stay with her family or to move in with the husband’s. If she chooses to leave, her husband’s family provides land for her to farm much like in a patrilineal society. However, if the woman decides to divorce her husband she is readily accepted back in to her former household. The land she left behind will often be returned to her and custody of her children is often unchallenged in her favor (Azevedo).
Women have ruled directly and from the sidelines throughout many cultural groups of Africa. For example, in the Zulu Kingdom, Chief Shaka relied heavily on the advice of his mother, sisters, and concubine. After the death of his mother, Nandi, Shaka murdered many of his people out of grief. His aunts led a revolt against him and unseated him from the throne. He Bantu speaking, Lovedu are ruled directly by their “Rain Queen”. The Rain Queen’s control is largely supernaturally based. The amount of rain that falls during her reign is how her performance as ruler is judged. In Matamba, the female chief gained power through conquest. She appointed female chiefs to each of the territories she conquered. The Basutoland culture has had woman rulers appointed by consensus. These leaders were selected based on merit (Bingham and Hill-Gross, Women as Political Leaders: Some Powerful Roles).
From a western perspective it may seem that the constraints placed on African women are a sign that they are powerless. However, the above examples illustrate the vast variety of roles of women in Africa. My interpretation from the resources in this unit and the class discussion is that even in a patrilineal society, women are not powerless. Returning to Mazrui’s point that women are a symbol of fertility and consequently, life, one can ascertain that women are highly respected in Africa. The almost spiritual reverence afforded women implies that they are a key dynamic in African society. 

"The African Family." Azevedo, Mario. Africana Studies: A Survey of Africa and the African Diaspora. Third. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2005. 373-378.
"The Custom of Polygyny: The Roles of Co-Wives." Bingham, Marjorie and Susan Hill-Gross. Women in Africa Volume 1: Ancient Times to the 20th Century. 1982. 93-100.
"Women as Political Leaders: Some Powerful Roles." Bingham, Marjorie and Susan Hill-Gross. Women in Africa: Volume 1: Ancient Times to the 20th Century. 1982. 18-26.
The Africans: Legacy of Lifestyles. Perf. Ali Mazrui. WETA and The BBC. 1986.