Eve Ensler Calls for a Billion Women to Strike Against Sexual Violence
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Who could have predicted what an effect a group of women talking about vaginas would have. Fifteen years ago, Eve Ensler, then a moderately successful New York playwright, opened the play she had been writing for two years, The Vagina Monologues. Drawing on interviews she had done with more than 200 women, the resulting monologues – delivered, over the years, by actors including Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Oprah Winfrey – told of women's experiences: sexuality, abuse, love, birth.
But Ensler didn't stop there. Spurred on by the play's success – and by the stories women would spill to her after performances – two years later she created the V-Day movement. Mission: to end violence against women. Now, fundraising performances of the play are staged all over the world, and the movement has raised $85m to fund women's projects, including an ambitious centre in Congo, officially the worst place to be a woman, to support women who have been raped. Could she have predicted its longevity and influence? "It's all been a wonderful mystery to me," she says, with a laugh.
We meet in the busy bar of Ensler's London hotel. Those who meet her always comment on her megawatt charisma – "You don't just hook up with Eve," Glenn Close, who performed in the show, said once, "You become part of her crusade" – but she is less showy, less boisterous than that implies.
For years, she had a recognisable sleek, dark bob, which made her look part comic book minx, part warrior in protective headgear, but she lost it after undergoing chemotherapy last year, following her diagnosis of uterine cancer. These days her hair is cropped short. We end up sitting in weirdly oversized chairs, which means neither of us can touch the floor.
There is something quite childlike about Ensler, who is 58. Despite the horror stories from other women's lives she has spent absorbing – as well as her own struggles – she seems utterly uncynical. As angry at injustice as ever, but not worn down.
If The Vagina Monologues is starting to look a little tired in this country, it's easy to forget what an impact it still has elsewhere. "Just this week Qatar has signed up, and there are going to be women in Qatar who get up to do it, and they're risking their lives to do that," says Ensler. "I've seen that time and time again, this desire to break taboos, tell secrets, open up silences – I just find it very powerful and inspirational."
Ensler's most recent work, I Am An Emotional Creature, was based on stories from teenage girls. When it debuted two years ago, she launched V-Girls specifically to engage girls and young women. "They don't know what the word ' feminism' means, but their desires are feminist – they want to be free, safe, have opportunities and leadership roles. The trick is to find the language girls speak and support that, rather than say, 'This is an ideology that has gone on for years that you all need to support.' I'm a feminist, I grew up with feminism, but I also think there's a way in which we need to shake things up so that we can push it further and in other directions."
Another thing Ensler noticed with I Am An Emotional Creature is how ready men were to engage. She mentioned it to a (male) friend who told her, "Men have daughters; they feel they can actively be involved because they feel they can do something to change the destiny of their daughters' lives." Now there is a V-Men movement, "a cadre of men around the world who are stepping forward and saying, 'Ending violence against women and girls means something to me.' That is really exciting. Unless men are active allies, we'll never end violence against women and girls. Most violence against women is done by men – we're not raping ourselves – so unless men engage in this struggle and make this a primary concern, I don't see how we're going to end this."