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Time Magazine: Activist Has Whole World Chanting the V Word


09/17/2001

It took awhile for Eve Ensler to adjust to her nickname.

People who saw her one-woman show would "scream things like 'there's the vagina lady' in shoe stores," Ensler recalled. "And you know at first it freaked me out a little to be identified as the vagina lady everywhere."

But since bringing "The Vagina Monologues" to the New York stage in the mid-1990s, Ensler has struck a chord with women around the world, seeking to free up repressed feelings about sexuality and negative body images. In the process, the 48-year-old playwright has become something of a celebrity.

But Ensler didn't always have it so easy. She had to fight to stage "The Vagina Monologues." Friends and supporters were skeptical.

She recalled, "People were like, 'Change the title. Are you out of your mind? You can't talk about vaginas.' "

Ensler did though.

The feminist activist said she was inspired to write "The Vagina Monologues" after being shocked by how a friend described her body in a discussion on menopause. Drawing on more than 200 interviews, Ensler chronicled how women felt about their intimate anatomy and turned these narratives into "poetry for the theater," Gloria Steinem wrote in a foreword to the published play.

"Let's just start with the world 'vagina,'" the monologues begin. "It sounds like an infection at best, maybe a medical instrument: 'Hurry, Nurse, bring me the vagina.' 'Vagina.' 'Vagina.' Doesn't matter how many times you say it, it never sounds like a word you want to say. It's a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word."

Some parts are humorous such as this early riff on vaginas: "There's so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them -- like the Bermuda Triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there."

Others are disturbing, such as a Bosnian refugee recounting the horrors of rape in war.

"Not since the soldiers put a long thick rifle inside me," the passage reads. "So cold, the steel rod canceling my heart. Don't know whether they're going to fire it or shove it through my spinning brain."

Taking action with V-Day The Obie Award-winning, off-Broadway hit has become an international phenomenon, being staged and published in more than 20 countries, including Turkey and China.

"I wake up in the morning, and I get e-mails from Antarctica, and places like Romania and Zaire, where the play is opening," Ensler said.

Major stars have taken notice as well. More than 85 actresses, including Glenn Close, Rosie Perez, Jane Fonda, Calista Flockhart, Kate Winslet, Melanie Griffith, Whoopi Goldberg and Susan Sarandon, have performed the monologues.

"Eve is bringing women back, she's giving us our souls back," said Close, who has worked with Ensler since the early days of "The Vagina Monologues."

Sometimes these actresses have been reluctant to tackle the pieces, but Ensler has been persuasive.

"I was like, 'I can't do this,' " Perez recalled. "And Eve and I met and she goes, 'Oh yes, you can do it, you have to do it and you will do it. So this is your monologue, you're going to do it,' and I go, 'My god,' and the monologue that she had given me, I had to do eight different accents in a matter of five minutes.

"And I said, 'I can't do this. I'm the girl with the voice, the accent.' She goes, 'Right, what's the problem?' "

While "The Vagina Monologues" has been a consciousness-raising experience for audiences, it also has inspired Ensler to take action against violence toward women.

"After every show, women lined up afterward to tell me how they'd been beaten or raped. And they felt such a desperate need to tell their stories that I started to feel insane," Ensler said.

"I felt the way a war photographer feels, that you're taking photos of these terrible incidents, but you're not intervening on people's behalves.

"And I said either I was going to stop doing 'The Vagina Monologues' or we would use 'The Vagina Monologues' to do something about violence against women."

The result was V-Day, an annual event on or around Valentine's Day, in which Ensler and a small staff organize benefit performances of "The Vagina Monologues" to raise money for groups seeking to end rape and fight female genital mutilation and other abuses against women.

V-Day drew crowds this year at Madison Square Garden in New York.

"It was just literally a life-changing experience," said Cathleen Black, president of Hearst Magazines, a V-Day sponsor and publisher of women's magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Harper's Bazaar.

"She's kind of taken it all out of the closet and kind of put it right on in front of people so that you can say the word vagina. And she can deal with violence, and she can talk about it and tell these stories, the profound stories of what women are really suffering around the world."

'I have to write' Ensler traces her efforts to end violence against women from her traumatic childhood in suburban Scarsdale, New York, as the daughter of a food industry executive and his homemaker wife. She said her father, now dead, abused her physically and sexually as a child.

"I don't know if I had not been a person who had survived enormous abuse if I'd be committed the way I am committed to this," Ensler said.

Ensler said that as a teen-ager, and in her 20s, she turned to drinking and drugs to blot out her pain.

Ensler met a bartender named Richard McDermott, who persuaded her to enter rehab and get sober, according to a February 2001 interview with People magazine. They married in 1978, and she later adopted his son, actor Dylan McDermott, star of "The Practice" TV series. (She later divorced Richard McDermott.)

She also began to focus on writing, which she credits as her salvation.

"By writing I created an alternative persona that I could pretend I was," Ensler said, "and she could hold all this info and feelings and thoughts for the future that I couldn't hold in me. I had to write. I still feel that way. I have to write. Like it's the way I keep my sanity."

Before the success of "The Vagina Monologues," Ensler had been writing plays based on interviews with people. It's a technique she continues to use in pieces such as "Necessary Targets," a political work to be staged in the fall about American women whose lives are changed by their experiences with Bosnian refugees.

Another new work is "The Good Body," the result of interviews with women from different countries about how they transform their bodies to fit into their cultures. Ensler also is working on a version of the "Monologues" based on discussions with teen-age girls.

"The lives of people, the actual lives, are far more interesting than anything you could invent," she explained. "Do you know? I mean the stories that I have heard and the stories I continue to hear, who could make these up?

"When I do the interview, I take notes. But it's more just letting that person come into me so then I can write the character."

A self-confessed workaholic, Ensler shows no signs of slowing down. Between writing, interviews and fund-raisers, she tries to fit in some time with her longtime partner, Ariel Orr Jordan, a psychotherapist.

Ensler said she longs for the day when she will no longer need to tell her stories.

"I hope there's a time when 'The Vagina Monologues' goes out of business. That's what I chant for every day," she said. "That one day we won't have to be here anymore. There'll be a day when women literally can put on the shortest skirt and tightest top and feel good and that everyone will look at them with great appreciation and great enjoyment and no one will hassle them or make them feel bad or insecure or threatened."