Enough with the vaginas!

Yes, we know. Women are going to decide this election. But why do activists have to resort to gyno-talk to get our attention?

Published September 15, 2004 4:49PM (EDT)

I have just about had it with the voting vaginas.

That was the sentiment running through my head -- for nearly three hours -- on Monday night, during the Vaginas Vote, Chicks Rock concert held at Harlem's Apollo Theater. The event was planned and sponsored by Rock the Vote, Planned Parenthood, the White House Project and of course V-Day, that vulva-licious organization headed up by Eve Ensler and her blessed freaking vagina.

My fidgety exasperation was emblematic of my growing ambivalence about this political season's mass pander to the women's rights movement. In case you've been holed up in PBS's Colonial House, here's the story: A very tight presidential election is upon the United States, and some rocket scientist-pollsters have stumbled upon the fact that American women feel alienated from the country's male-dominated, combat-heavy, healthcare-light political agenda. If we voted in huge numbers -- which we've been allowed to do for 84 years but have sort of given up on in recent decades -- women could decide the election.

The results of this discovery have prompted both parties to bombard us with enough statistics, action-plans, celebrity spokespeople and revolting "You Go Girl!" sloganeering to choke an aging riot grrrl. We've been addressed by the earnest Kerry girls and the giggly Bush colts, bland Laura and spicy Teresa. Sarah Jessica Parker wears an in-joke "Kerry" nameplate necklace, while Angie Harmon totally intends to vote. The Republican "W Stands for Women" campaign rests on the theory that because George Bush is pussy-whipped by a wife and two daughters, he understands women's issues better than his opponent.

And here at the Apollo, the argument seemed to hinge on a bunch of women slithering around the stage with swaths of red fabric doing interpretive dances about their hooches and saying things like "It's not a voting box, it's a cauldron ... stir it well, sister." That's what Ensler's Vagina Warriors were doing Monday night: undulating and moaning darkly about places to bury their daughters' afterbirths and imagining a world in which they are "forever unafraid of being raped by the clean-cutting bulldozers of capitalism." "I have no more tears to weep," said one of the dancers.

I could not agree more. Except that my frustrated, disappointed, fearful tears are not just about the way the world is being run into the ground by the current administration, but about the way my sisters have decided to respond. Maybe it's just overexposure: I've heard so much about the 22 million single women who didn't vote in the last election and the 50 million eligible gals who are still not registered that all the numbers are blurring. And so are the celebrity faces. I can't tell Rosario Dawson from Kathleen Turner, Toni Childs from Julia Stiles.

But that's not good news. Because I am a young woman, a single young urban woman, I am the person who must be reached, who must be inspired to go out and cast my ballot. They shouldn't even have to work that hard to get me, since as Julia Roberts once reassured Richard Gere, "I'm a sure thing." Long steeped in feminism, engaged in politics, I spent my youth wishing for the kind of cohesive feminist movement that had preceded me. Women need to vote -- this year and every year. Enfranchisement is a process that needs to be worked on, worked out, hammered into us. Women's rights are so powerfully under-attended to, so frequently ignored, that it really does sometimes make me want to weep. Since the sixth grade I have bristled every time one of my classmates or colleagues has begun a sentence with the words "I'm not a feminist, but..."

Look, you dopes, we should all be feminists. But even me -- cocked and ready to respond to anyone who wants to address the questions of gender equity, me -- from my privileged, well-educated, media-savvy, urban perch: I am about ready to hurl.

"Are there are any registered vaginas in the house?" Ensler asked the mostly white crowd at the Apollo. No, actually. But there are registered women. "I have never been so afraid in my being," Ensler said, urging the audience to "pull out that other paradigm living inside of us waiting to be born." What? "Step into your vaginas and get the vagina vote out." Aaaaah! What does stepping into your vagina mean? It sounds like it would hurt! And since Ensler wants us to be frank about our bodies, let me tell the truth: My vagina's role in voting will be pretty minimal compared to the effort my hands and eyes and brain are going to put in.

But it's confusing, watching all this. Because there are the real ideological bright spots, the rush of relief at hearing anyone pay attention to women. It would be like throwing out the baby with the bath water to ignore Monday night's very fine performance by Vanessa Carlton, who followed Ensler onstage and announced, "This is the most vaginal evening I've ever been to. But I'm proud. To have one, I mean," before singing her song "White Houses," with a verse about losing her virginity that MTV has been censoring.

And then there was the B-list stew of stars who showed up onstage and at the press conference before the event. Roseanne Cash and Gina Gershon and Hazelle Goodman -- I'm glad they were there. I love seeing someone whose work I admire -- like Edie Falco or Patricia Clarkson, neither of whom were at Vaginas Vote, Chicks Rock, but who have been faithful feminist foot soldiers -- stand up for issues that register so profoundly for me. But I wonder how much impact they will have. I wonder how many swing-state women will wake up early to vote on Nov. 2 because of Marisa Tomei and Isabella Rossellini's rip-roaring reading of Eve Ensler's "V-World" monologue at a theater in Harlem? "V-world is the center of us, and it is round," they intoned, as V-words like "voluptuous," "vivid," "viva," "Venus" and "vaudeville" appeared on the screen.

"Vaudeville"? How about "vomit"?

I'm pretty damn sure the voters won't be pouring out of their Midwestern homes because of Ensler, the media hog who cannot keep her mouth shut. On the press line before the program, arm in arm with Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda, Ensler kept interrupting. And no, I don't want her to pipe down cause she's a woman. I want her to pipe down because I want to hear other people who have things to say about aspects of feminism not directly related to the clitoris.

Watching Fonda and Steinem work the cameras was inspiring. They moved with lithe confidence, Fonda in a V-day T-shirt and boulder-size turquoise jewelry, Steinem in black silks and gold sandals. "Anyone got questions?" Fonda bellowed gamely at the rope line, her arms slung around the shoulders of the rest of her kick-line. When a Fox News reporter asked her about the photo of her and John Kerry at an antiwar rally that keeps getting passed around Republican circles, a Vagina Warrior press person quickly stepped in and cut him off. But Fonda happily held forth on the Iraq war with as much candor as she once did the Vietnam conflict. "It's a lie," Fonda said about Iraq. "I agree with the military experts who say it's a quagmire." And about the upcoming election she said, "I don't think there's ever been such a clear choice between radicalism and moderation. I mean, we are dealing with a radical ideologue here." Steinem elaborated on what she thought would inspire younger women to get out and vote: "Maybe they want to go to college. College tuitions have risen 30 percent under the Bush administration. Maybe they drink water; the Safe Drinking Water Act, which has been protected by six previous administrations, has been badly damaged under George Bush. Maybe they eat salmon, which is now dangerous because of environmental damage. Nothing is safe now."

Next to them, Ensler could be heard telling another interrogator, "Vaginas are catchy!"

It had the same hollow ring as her later introduction of two Afghan women -- Malalai Joya and Zoya -- and an Iraqi woman named Yanar Mohammed whom Ensler referred to as her "shero." I listened to these women plead with the Apollo crowd to vote in November and thought back to parade of Middle Eastern women who had been trotted in front of delegates and reporters at the Republican Convention last month as a testament to George Bush's dedication to women's rights. I'm not sure that they're not all being used for the same thing: as emotional baseball bats with which to kick the other side in the nuts.

And I'm not sure that the rest of us -- from Ensler to me to the audience to a nation's worth of female voters -- aren't being used, perhaps even mocked, in similar ways. It's like all this attention to us girls is a way of making fun of us that we don't quite get -- like American Idol William Hung. We think they are taking us seriously. And yes, they should be. But if we think this is going to last, we're crazy, because after Nov. 2, "women" as a demographic and voting bloc will stop being important to politicians. We have problems that go well beyond getting into voting booths for this election. If we care about ourselves, we have to find a way to put issues like equal pay and universal day care and labor rights and reproductive safety and freedom on the table in a meaningful way, every day, when there is no election coming up.

Maybe that's why women like Fonda and Steinem look so great in comparison to Ensler and the Vagina Warriors -- because they have been there. They have fought and been forgotten and abused and mocked and had to think rigorously and argue vociferously and been forced to base their arguments on more than writhing vulvic ecstasy. And as a result they have given us more.

Although Fonda did not appear onstage, Steinem did. At 70 years old, she walked with grace and spoke with a gravity that electrified the crowd. She joked about how as a child in Toledo she dreamed of "tap-dancing my way out of the Midwest and into the hearts of the American people" on the amateur stage of the Apollo. She soon realized, she acknowledged, that she was maybe not the Apollo type and that she was not a good tap dancer. But, she said, "if a crazy white girl from Toledo can make it to the stage of the Apollo, then we can win this fucking election."

Steinem's clipped deployment of the F-bomb was more galvanizing and shocking than the preceding three hours of clitorises and orgasms. She then read a witty top-10 list of reasons she'll be voting in November, including George Bush's failure ever to go to the Apollo, her suspicion that he has never been above 96th Street in Manhattan, and his inability to find time to meet with the black caucus in his four years as president despite three meetings with the pope. "I don't want to vote for someone I wouldn't hire," Steinem continued dryly, noting that the president "was a cheerleader with a low C average" who "couldn't find any oil in Texas." She noted Bush's federal judge appointments, his privatization of the prison system, his poor environmental record, and the fact that "he's never met an NRA demand he doesn't like." Mostly, she said, she'll be voting because "the suffrage and abolitionist movements gave their lives for the vote."

In short, Steinem spoke to the crowd as if we were educated adults. And it felt great. So crisp in comparison to the rest of the night, the rest of the media-fueled frenzy over wooing women. Steinem seemed to know how to strike the only tone that might carry this energy past the election. Because if we reduce everything to the flaccid vagina T-shirts and reductionist, sex-positive one-liners, we are doing our best to ensure a fate I already fear: that as soon as this election is over, we will be forgotten again.

In fact, I was so moved by Steinem and her eloquent, hard-edged comments that it made it all the more difficult to return to Ensler's final explosion, in which she read the dictionary on the spelling of VOTE: "Voracious! Vociferous! Vitamin! Vehement!" "Oppose! Out of office! Overcome, overflow, orgasm!" "Talented! Tantalizing! Turn out! Texas!" Mysteriously, she didn't shout any e-words, instead returning to her favorite letter, and yelping in alphabetic ecstasy, "Vulva! Vulva! Vulva! Vote!"

Oh. My. God. Make it stop. Talk to me about healthcare and the war and labor laws and Mideast politics and the threat of nuclear force in North Korea and job outsourcing and the price of education and how we're going to take all this money being spent on big shows at the Apollo and use it to revive a serious multiracial, multigenerational coalition of people dedicated to exploring gender equality. By all means talk to me about sex -- about men and women and love and violence and gender representation and body image and safety and issues of intimacy.

But please, please stop telling my vagina to vote.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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