All over the world, vaginas and what comes out of them are considered dirty – much like women themselves. In first world countries like the U.S., our periods are gross and embarrassing. In so-called developing nations, women’s periods and the health of their vaginas aren’t just disgusting – they’re evil and dirty. Some girls are kept home from school when they menstruate, making them significantly less likely to graduate, and health care for millions of them is completely nonexistent.
My Little Red Book, compiled by an 18 year old student and published in 2010, chronicles the powerful stories of the first menstrual cycles of girls from around the world. The New York Times summarizes, “Like other menstruating women in Bangalore, India, in 1962, Shobha Sharma was banished from the family home to an isolated room in the back garden. In New York in 1942, Thelma Kandel was forbidden to water the houseplants (scientists once claimed that menstruating women secreted potent plant-killing “menotoxins”). More than one immigrant mother slapped her daughter across the face, for reasons none of them can quite remember.” Having your period is one of the defining moments of a woman’s life, and yet so many of our experiences are hidden or traumatic or scary. (In case you’re wondering, more than one author wrote about the influence of Judy Blume books on their understanding of that special time – it’s not just you.)
The Vagina Monologues is a celebration of women’s bodies. At alternate times scary, funny, depressing, and beautiful, the play is performed by thousands of colleges and independent groups all over the US and the world, usually around Valentine’s Day, and will be (as the motto goes) – “until the violence stops.”
This past week, Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown was barred from speaking on the floor indefinitely because she had dared to use the word “vagina” in a statement. In response, the #sayvagina Twitter hashtag spread throughout the country, with women and men alike questioning how you could legislate something that wasn’t appropriate to even talk about. Days later, Lisa Brown was joined by renowned feminist activist and playwrite Eve Ensler to perform The Vagina Monologues on the steps of the Michigan state capitol. Thousands showed up to hear them “Say Vagina” in public.
There are many women – women who even I would consider feminists – who are very much against the message of the Vagina Monologues. They don’t have a problem with the idea of saying vagina in public, or of supporting women’s unique health needs. Instead, they object to the idea that their entire identity as a human being is tied to their vagina. That somehow, their vagina defines them, instead of their mind, or their character, or their life experiences. “I am more than just my vagina,” they say.
Their reasoning is sound, but ultimately, it comes from a place of privilege. Since the dawn of time, people’s value has been inherently tied to their bodies, especially women’s. In the very early days, women weren’t able to necessarily help out with the labor of living off the land in the same capacity that men could. Men were taller and stronger, and more capable of survival via brute force. Men weren’t laid up with periods and pregnancies, forbidden from doing any hard labor because no one quite knew what would or would not be harmful to a child.
As time passed, women’s ability to reproduce became the main determinant of their value, especially their ability to produce sons. This was true both in poor, rural areas, where producing sons meant an extra hand on the farm, as well as in wealthier, more privileged circles, where a son meant an heir. Even today, women are bought and sold for their virginities and for their looks. Beauty is probably still one of the ruling factors in a how a woman’s life will be valued by her society. Sex selective abortion and infanticide are not things of the past in certain cultures, as once again, women’s vaginas, looks, and health – things over which women never had control over before – were their defining features.
And yet, that’s the point. Control over their bodies. Women’s lives have been tied to their bodily abilities and functions in a way that only a combination of technology and science has been able to change, and only in very recent history. Why do we not think of ourselves as just vaginas? Because we have the ability to control our bodies. Birth control, midol, emergency contraception, even sanitary napkins, are all methods of controlling our bodies so that we are not slaves to them. But in the course of human history, we have been tied to our bodies and to our vaginas, and while there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the other facets of our beings, to say that “women are not their bodies” is an ultimately privileged way of perceiving oneself. To this day, women and girls in countries and cultures around the globe are still beholden to their bodies, and slaves to its health and value.
Title IX and Discrimination Against Women
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX – 37 words that forbade discrimination against women in all educational initiatives and programs that received federal funding. While Title IX is most well-known for funding women’s sports, the truth is that Title IX addresses many topics. Under Title IX, the Justice Department has been able to force schools to appropriately address questions of sexual violence on campus, a crime that overwhelmingly affects women. Under Title IX, funding for science and math programs that had excluded women in the past were now required to offer equal opportunities. Since the passage of Title IX, girls’ participation in sports at the high school level has increased by over 1,000%. That’s not a type – a thousand percent. The number of collegiate female athletes has increased from 30,000 to 190,000 nationwide. More women than ever are entering the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), although we definitely still have a long way to go.
This past Wednesday, I was privileged enough to attend the White House Ceremony in Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Title IX. (If you ever want a kick in the pants to get to the gym or read a geology journal, spend 3 hours in a room with a group of female Olympic athletes, astronauts, and scientists). One of the distinguished panelists was Aimee Mullins, who was the first double-amputee sprinter to compete in NCAA track and field for Georgetown University, and who has never felt her feet touch the ground. Mullins was born with fibular hemimelia (missing fibula bones) and, as a result, had both of her legs amputated below the knee before she was two years old. Title IX gave her an opportunity to compete that would not have been available to her otherwise.
When the moderator asked the panelists to describe the biggest impact Title IX had had on them on a personal level – what it had allowed them to learn – Aimee responded thoughtfully. “Title IX gave me the opportunity to control my body for the first time. To celebrate it,” she said.
Her words struck a chord with me. The scholarships and opportunities Aimee received because of Title IX gave her new life, and a new sense of empowerment and control over her life. This isn’t unique just to her – thousands of women who have now benefited from the increased focus and support for women’s sports know just what she means. Women who were athletes in high school and college are less likely to become accidentally pregnant, more likely to attain another level of education, and more likely to succeed in their chosen careers. There’s a reason that so many female senior executives are former athletes. The skills, training, and character development – the lessons learned about control and power – all stay with you long after you stop training.
In the end, we’re all talking about the same thing. Lisa Brown was talking about the same thing on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives that Aimee Mullins was talking about in the South Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It’s the same thing Planned Parenthood and its supporters have been talking about in the face of attacks by lawmakers, and the same thing I’ve been blogging about for the past year.
Control. Control over our bodies – over our lives. Control over our life experiences and choice over what paths to take in our lifetime. Whether to give birth to children and when and what kind. When we talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, what we’re really talking about is the right to control our lives.
And in order to control our lives, we must first be able to control our bodies.