Eve Ensler Rising: One of America's Most Amazing Activists Is About to Pull Off Her Biggest Event Yet
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Eve’s superhuman drive and riotous dreams make the impossible seem probable. She also has a healthy dose of pragmatism and a record of achievement at her back. V-Day grew up with its own means of support, funded solely by productions of the play. The group now accepts foundation dollars but still refuses money from governments. Some very rich people sit on the board, including Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and philanthropist Jennifer Buffett. But there’s no discernable blunting of Eve’s edge. In June 2010, writing in The Guardian, Ensler called out the Obama administration for telling her that femicide in Congo was not Mrs. Obama’s “brand.”
“V-Day’s the product of a playwright, but there’s strategy behind it,” says Susan Swan, the organization’s longtime executive director. The group hasn’t wavered; it has a big, clear goal: to end violence against women and girls. There are rules. V-Day productions can’t support other causes, no matter how worthy; they have to support local anti-violence programs. As a result, college organizers have formed connections with women off campus. Also, the play has to be performed as written. When she stopped performing the piece herself, Ensler required that the cast of any commercial production include a woman of color. “That very concretely gave a whole cohort of actresses their first break,” says Swan.
Above all, Eve doesn’t just put her words to work. She puts herself in her work.
Westen says that is critical. “Charisma is in many ways an ability to move people to think that important change can happen,” he says. “But it isn’t only words. Performance is part of it.”
Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, a Polk Award–winning journalist, sees a constant flow of newsmakers, artists, activists and academics come through her TV/radio studio every day. Eve brings tears to her eyes, she told me, because “Eve does not stop, she maintains a drumbeat…and she creates community wherever she goes. She leaves a place, and there’s a community behind her.”
When Republicans in Michigan censured Representative Lisa Brown for using the word “vagina” in a floor debate over a package of draconian anti-choice bills, Ensler called State Senator Rebekah Warren, co-chair of the Health Policy Committee and former president of MARAL—the Michigan branch of NARAL, the pro-choice group. Ensler proposed performing The Vagina Monologues in protest. Warren, who knew Eve from years of V-Day performances, agreed on a reading on the steps of the Capitol building.
“It was Friday. The worst time to reach people are weekends…. But how can you beg off a 10 pm conference call if you know Eve Ensler is going to be on it?” Warren said to me.
Three days later, thirteen women legislators, including Warren and Brown, stepped out with Ensler to read the play and found an audience of 5,000 people stretched out on the lawn in front of the Capitol.
“People were looking for some way to respond,” says Warren. Would they have turned out for just a rally? Maybe some of them. “But Eve’s well known as such a fighter for women…it made a difference,” said Warren. Eve’s presence, and the phenomenon of the reading, also brought the media: on MSNBC and CNN the event dominated a news cycle.
“When you look at the world from a place of feminist, or progressive, or any kind of orthodoxy, you can forget where people really are,” says Mallika Dutt, founder and CEO of a global human rights group, Breakthrough, which signed up early to support OBR. In Delhi, Breakthrough booked a 350-seat house for the first Indian performance of The Vagina Monologues. Two thousand showed up, and Dutt almost had a riot on her hands. “She engages people at a level of feeling that’s different from the intellectual language we’ve come to speak,” Dutt told me.