February 14th marks a global day to speak out against violence against women. V-Day was the creation of Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues. It has grown every year and has spread all over the world. Marianne Schnall, founder of feminist.com, remembers how it began.
WAMC: 51% Show # 1126 (02-10-2011)
Valentine’s Day, for people all over the Western world, is a day in which we express our feelings of love for the special people in our lives. But for the past 15 years, Valentine’s Day has also become V-Day - a day in which special fundraising events take place around the world commemorating the global anti-violence movement founded by playwright, author and activist Eve Ensler. I have had the great privilege of knowing Eve since V-Day’s inception. Her inspiring story is one worth sharing, since she so powerfully embodies important human qualities such as courage, hope, compassion and generosity – and the amazing capacity of one person to create tremendous change in the world.
I was working as a freelance journalist and had also recently founded the women’s web site Feminist.com when, in 1996 I got a call from the actress Kathy Najimy, who I had recently interviewed for a magazine piece. She was mysterious. “Her name is Eve Ensler,” she said. “She is a writer, she is a feminist, she is an activist. Don’t ask questions - just call her.”
I did as I was told and it turned out Eve was looking for a way to use her groundbreaking, Obie-award winning off-Broadway play The Vagina Monologues as a vehicle to raise funds and awareness to stop violence against women. The Vagina Monolgues were based on Eve’s interviews with over 200 women speaking openly about their bodies. Her motivation for the campaign was both personal and experiential – she had been sexually abused by her father as a child but she was also overcome and transformed by all the women who were coming up to her after her show to share their own stories of surviving violence. I invited Eve to come talk about her ideas with the Feminist.com Board at a special meeting at my house, and there, sitting around my dining room table, in an electrifying whirlwind of excitement and inspiration, and fueled by Eve’s contagious and passionate energy and the important cause she wanted to promote, V-Day was born. We brainstormed ideas for V-Day’s very first fundraiser. It took place at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom on Valentine’s Day 1998 and featured performers such as Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie Perez, Susan Sarandon, and Calista Flockhart. They read from The Vagina Monologues and the event raised over 250,000 for local New York City anti-violence groups. Since then, V-Day has triumphantly gone on to raise over $80 million for anti-violence programs around the world, crafted international educational and media campaigns, and funded over 12,000 community-based anti-violence programs and safe houses in hot spots such as Democratic Republic Of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, Egypt and Iraq. In 2010 over 5,400 consciousness-raising V-Day benefit events took place produced by volunteer activists in the U.S. and around the world.
One of the important things I have learned from Eve Ensler is not only about the potential of huge dreams and visions, but the ability to turn pain into power. She did it personally, taking the pain of her past and healing herself and others through her work with V-Day, and she is now doing it for some of the most devastated people on the planet, such as in the Congo, where over 400,000 women and girls have been brutally raped and mutilated as tactics of war. This month V-Day marks the momentous opening of The City of Joy in Eastern Congo, a revolutionary community where Congolese survivors of violence will be provided with support to heal themselves and training to develop their leadership abilities and life skills. Conceived and developed with Congolese women, The City of Joy will provide up to 180 women a year with programming that includes group therapy, dance, theater, self-defense, and education on issues such as HIV/AIDS, family planning, ecology, technology and economic empowerment. Eve told me, “We are supporting women in the DRC who are creating a minor, soon to be a major, revolution. My experience is that in places where women have suffered enormous violence or witnessed it, there is always a group of women who, rather than getting AK-47s or machetes or escalating the violence or doing themselves in, actually grieve it and feel it and pass through it and as a result, they become the strongest women. They become the people who shift the culture.” The opening of City of Joy is the beginning of what V-Day believes will be a powerful new platform to steer Congo towards peace by helping women restore their sense of agency over their lives.
In Eve’s ongoing personal story of turning pain into power, she has just come through a difficult period battling uterine cancer, and she has used that experience as fodder for some of her most inspiring and moving articles and speeches. A few months ago, when Eve spoke at the 15 year anniversary party of Feminist.com, she looked healthy and radiant, and she talked openly about coming through the past year and almost dying, an experience she described as being profound, very difficult, yet also incredibly beautiful - and that in addition to the power of people’s prayers and love it was the truly the power of potential change and her work on behalf of women and girls that kept her alive. To me, that is what both V-Day and Valentine’s Day have come to represent - something far bigger than a card or flowers: huge, transformative gestures of love and caring, both for those we know and for others we don’t know but need our help. As Eve once said to me, "Discover your fantasy of what you need the most, what you would want someone to do for you the most and then go out and give it to someone else." As Eve’s story demonstrates, that is the one of the most powerful ways we can heal ourselves and the world.
For more information about V-Day, you can visit www.vday.org
This commentary originally aired on WAMC: 51% Show # 1126 (02-10-2011)
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