There are no founding mothers, just embarassing aunties and cleaner-uppers: the care work we demand of women and no one else

ensler

Eve Ensler

This story, of Mount Holyoke College cancelling a performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues because it was deemed exclusive of transwomen’s experiences, is a perfect example of the care work we expect of women, their institutions, and feminism, and of no one else.  We never demand that men’s or male-dominated political movements or institutions serve absolutely every other social justice issue first, second, or third, before they can work on their announced and preferred issue or issues.  This is only a demand we make of women and their institutions and political movements, because we expect this kind of care work from women and not from men.

On a related note:  the message here is just shut up.  Stop talking.  Stop acting like your experience is relevant to anyone else.  Shut up, already!!!  Stop talking about vaginas!  As though any one monologue–get it?–could presume to represent everyone’s experience.  The title of the play is very intentionally The Vagina Monologues, with the “s” indicating that there is more than one experience recounted here.  But somehow, we see the word Vagina, and we stop thinking and start screaming “SHUT UP!!!”

Ensler has responded to the Mt. Holyoke students’ decision here.  She writes:

The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina. In the play, I never defined a woman as a person with a vagina.

Inclusion doesn’t come from refusing to acknowledge our distinctive experiences, and trying to erase them, in an attempt to pretend they do not exist. Inclusion comes from listening to our differences, and honoring the right of everyone to talk about their reality, free from oppression and bigotry and silencing. That’s real inclusion — to listen to different stories, with curiosity, and love, and respect, in all their particular and distinctive human individuality.

We need to create a loving space for people with vaginas, and women without them, to address our oppressions, desires, and secrets and to simultaneously honor the fact that gender is not based on anatomy or genitalia.

Usually, it’s students on conservative campuses who struggle to produce Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, but here in the name of “inclusion” a group of presumably feminist women at a women’s college have deemed The Vagina Monologues too narrow and essentialist and therefore unworthy of being produced and discussed in the community.  I hope the students who were persuaded not to produce Ensler’s play will come to see this as the misogyny that it is, if not sooner then later.  (When conservative campuses refuse to sponsor productions of the play, we don’t hesitate to call their reasoning “misogynist.”)

Women as artists and political activists are not permitted to represent the experiences of many women–apparently, we must speak for everyone.  Oh, if only we could hold everything written by men to the same standard!  But no one ever does, because male artists are permitted to create works of art that represent specific, subjective experiences, and they’re even allowed to claim that these specific characters represent The Human Experience!  And now we have students at a women’s college saying that a play that represents people with vaginas aren’t sufficiently “inclusive,” because not everyone has a vagina.

In these demands that transwomen be recognized and included, I see more than a little bit of male privilege at work.  I don’t object to demands for inclusion at all.  I object to demands that certain women just shut up and go away, and that certain works of art be erased from the history of women and the history of feminism because a few people today disagree with some of their ideas.  How is that feminist, these demands to deny our history and cast dirt on important artistic, intellectual, and political contributions?  How about complaining at coeducational universities that they’re not inclusive enough?  Why presume that it’s only women’s colleges that need to change their mission and orientation to accommodate transwomen?  Why don’t more transwomen study women’s history and feminism and think about what other women might want or need?

No other political movement is treated this way.  It’s only feminism that is regularly expected to denounce and deride its founding mothers and sisters in the struggle, and the damnedest thing is that there are always a number of younger feminists who are willing to do this.

26 thoughts on “There are no founding mothers, just embarassing aunties and cleaner-uppers: the care work we demand of women and no one else

  1. SRSLY

    The why don’t we hold men’s things to the same standards bugs the CRAP out of me. It’s the same way in tech… everyone complains about Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg but says NOTHING about Bill Gates or (RIP) Steve Jobs or the hundreds of other prominent guys in tech.

    One of the comments I read on a story about the Mt Holyoke decision noted that their college had had the same concern, so *they wrote and additional dialogue* and changed the name of the show a little bit (I forget how, but remember it sounded clever).

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  2. “Why presume that it’s only women’s colleges that need to change their mission and orientation to accommodate transwomen?”

    Exactly! Why? Why, why, why?

    Enough already.

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  3. Feminist and women’s organizations are a major target of this sort of pressure, but they’re not the *only* political movement to experience it. Cis-dominated queer organizations and activists have received very similar criticisms from trans activists. Civil rights organizations have been condemned for their sexism and homophobia. For that matter, the roots of U.S. first- and second-wave feminist groups lay in dissatisfaction with the sexism and misogyny of abolitionists and the New Left. These cases aren’t perfectly analogous, but they illustrate a dynamic similar to the one at play at Holyoke.

    As a man, I’m in no position to opine on whether feminists are uniquely targeted. It does seem to me, though, that an implication of your powerful final words is that iconic figures like Betty Friedan shouldn’t be condemned for their homophobia, nor should the complaints of women of color about their exclusion from white-dominated organizations be taken seriously. Ensler’s response seems more hopeful and inclusive, with her emphasis on dialogue and on the specific experience of having a vagina.

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  4. In these demands that transwomen be recognized and included, I see more than a little bit of male privilege at work.

    Women have male privilege?

    Wow. This is really disappointing to read from you.

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  5. Also, it’s a bit disingenuous to describe this as an attack on women (transwomen are women) or feminists from without. This is very much a conflict within feminism and amongst feminists.

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  6. Yusifu–yes, other left political movements are criticized, but it’s only the women’s movement that rushes to trash its founders and to back down on its goals. Of course, we can recognize that people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger, & Betty Friedan were people of their times rather than our time, but we can do that without throwing them under the bus and trashing their achievements.

    Most Americans have no problem recognizing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as “founding fathers.” Most Americans lionize Martin Luther King Jr. while also recognizing that his behavior towards women was sometimes exploitative and retrograde. So why can’t we walk and chew gum when it comes to commemorating the important work of feminists in American history?

    Saurs: you’re misreading me if you think I’m describing this as “an attack on women. . . or feminists from without.” And yes, I absolutely think the insistence that talking about vaginas is somehow “transphobic” is coming from a place of male privilege. I don’t think that kind of presumptuousness dies quickly, if at all.

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  7. I think this is best termed a misogynistic manifestation of a bigger phenomenon, in which those seeking to preserve male (or white, straight, etc.) privilege manipulate liberal guilt (and in this case, undergraduates’ naïveté) to shut down the expression of an out group’s perspective.

    There’s a perfect line for this, in Panti Bliss’s TED talk, where she relates that people will tell her she has no right to complain about how gays are treated in Ireland because she could live somewhere so much worse:

    “This isn’t some sort of game or competition where the person who has it the worst wins the right to complain and everybody else has to just put up or shut up.”

    So, yes, canceling the Vagina Monologues is misogynistic, even if it’s done out of misplaced guilt about excluding trans women, because the result is to reinforce patriarchy. The same as you’d be transphobic if you told a trans woman to shut up about how hard it is in the US, because she should be glad to not live in Uganda. As a minority, you can’t help yourself by silencing another minority.

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  8. Yes–although, of course it’s people with vaginas who are in fact the global majority, not a minority! (Yes, a Vagina Majority! Why can’t we talk about majority experiences, not just among women but all people?)

    The “you’re so privileged, Western white feminist, why don’t you go to Afghanistan to help the women there?” is a classic right-wing tactic to silence voices they don’t want to hear. So how is it any different when it’s people on the so-called left who do this? I don’t see it.

    The left needs to get a grip on its internalized misogyny. That’s all I wrote about on this blog in 2008 while I documented the ugliness on the so-called left when it came to their rhetorical attacks on Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Looks like I’ll be writing about it more in the next few years.

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  9. The women’s center at my college (a SLAC but not a women’s college) decided to write up their own version of “Vagina Monologues” this year, partly out of concern for the trans* exclusion issue, but partly because they felt that Ensler’s original put too much emphasis on heterosexual abuse and not enough on heterosexual pleasure. Our students, based on their public e-mails, seem more concerned with updating the show to reflect their own experiences than with trying to run anyone down. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it.

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  10. NB–that seems like an entirely positive and reasonable thing to do.

    Also, I should say: I’m not a fan of the VMs. I have qualms about its dramatic and aesthetic structure. I saw Ensler perform it back in 1999, and even then it seemed to me to reflect a pretty 1970s outlook on women’s issues & feminism, so updating it to reflect the concerns and voices of younger women seems like a good idea all the way around. (I was surprised to hear that it’s only 20 years old!)

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  11. Thank you for this. I’ve been conflicted on the issue, and it’s heartening to hear there are people who feel the same way I do about it. On the one hand, I’m not in favor of societal enforced gender norms — I am supportive of everyone’s right to live in accordance with what feels right for them. On the other hand, the trans issue is becoming the exception that ate the rule. It’s really presumptuous for people who don’t have vaginas to come along and tell people who do that their experiences are 1) completely equivalent in every way; 2) that vagina-bearers should shut up about their experiences; and 3) that they are bigots if they don’t agree. I wouldn’t dream of telling a trans person that my experiences are exactly the same as his/hers, just because we’ve both experienced gender oppression.

    Being a vagina-person is still a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce, not a prize. To say otherwise is to erase the vagina-specific ways women suffer: genital mutilation, forced pregnancy, growing up from day one of existence as a member of the disfavored sex class.

    Intersectionality is a great tool for sociologists analyzing the ways individuals may experience oppression differently due to their membership in various disfavored groups, but it blows as a way for people to relate to each other. I never see anyone talking about it unless they’re using it to bludgeon someone else they think is higher up on the ladder. And I never see them applying it to any other group but women.

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  12. It’s never acceptable to tell people to SHUT UP, especially not in a college or university setting. And that’s what I get out of what’s happening at Mt. Holyoke: people with Vaginas are once again being told to SHUT UP! STOP TALKING ABOUT YOURSELF! SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUUUUUUUUUT UUUUUUUP!!!!

    No calls to write trans-specific skits to be added to the show. No calls for a conversation to talk as a community after a performance about whose stories were included (or privileged) and whose excluded. Just STFU, vagina people!!! Once again.

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  13. And yes, I absolutely think the insistence that talking about vaginas is somehow “transphobic” is coming from a place of male privilege. I don’t think that kind of presumptuousness dies quickly, if at all.

    Whose male privilege? I’m not asking rhetorically: I literally don’t understand who you’re talking about and that makes it difficult to follow your argument.

    Personally, I find Ensler’s answer here to be good and thoughtful and I like what Northern Barbarian’s school has done to make a play (a series of scripted monologues, yes) that is about both women and vaginas slightly less essentialist. But, again, I don’t follow what you’re saying and that’s probably my error or my ignorance.

    Trans men aren’t excluded here (they have male privilege, some have vaginas) and from what I’ve read men aren’t boycotting TVM at Mount Holyoke or asking that it be excluded. Female feminists are. Are you suggesting that female feminists are invoking male privilege here? That would be fine if you are, but if you could clarify that would be excellent.

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  14. Actually, don’t bother answering. I thought I might be missing something, but having read it through, no.

    Most Americans have no problem recognizing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as “founding fathers.”

    Most Americans are not left-wing or progressive. Most Americans apparently believe their food should be bereft of DNA. Most Americans are accustomed to expressing their “patriotism” and blind allegiance to a white-washed version of their history in a neurotic, and fashion, and don’t take kindly to mild criticism of that history’s heroes / winners. We’re clearly not discussing them.

    Most left-wing, moderately progressive, or politically liberal Americans (together comprising a small minority) do not hesitate to criticize Washington and Jefferson for their many, many personal and political failings.

    I find it hard to reconcile what you’re saying here with reality. On the one hand, we should be quiet and stop worrying about how Ida Wells was treated by her female contemporaries because doing so oppresses white women (REAL FEMINISTS), or something. On the other hand, cis women should be free to generalize from their experiences and silence dissent from trans women who would like to be included. Trans men are neatly erased. Their experiences with or without vaginas aren’t even worth a mention.

    Actually, that makes perfect sense. You’d like permission to punch down. Because: something something liberal guilt screaming harpies are silencing me inclusion is an illusion can’t we have something for OURSELVES transwomen “demanding” things from me exclamation point exclamation point.

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  15. Expecting a group of women students (presumably very few of whom are trans women) to perform a play solely out of respect for its “feminist foremother” author could also be an “example of the care work we expect of women, their institutions, and feminism, and of no one else,” no? When I was an undergrad (c. 2000) , none of the cis women feminist students I knew were excited about the Vagina Monologues. It had a kind of hokey “Hello My Name is Moonflower LabiaBlossom” vibe that grossed us all out. Trans politics weren’t even on our radar at the time.

    I can understand the disappointment over this, but the rush to blame those outside-agitatin’ trans women and their (unreasonable? faintly male? !!!) demands seems unfair. The mainstreaming of trans politics is just part of how feminists (and young people generally) are thinking about gender, bodies, identity, access, and community right now. You don’t have to be trans to be discomforted by a play that posits vagina/not-vagina is THE key global dividing line; plenty of cis women have made similar points on grounds of race, class, geography, who knows what else. And seriously: no one who is paying attention can think trans students and allies are only agitating for change at women’s colleges!

    I fully agree: it is annoying when 19-year-olds crap on what we love, probably unfairly and without fully appreciating its complexities. (I still can’t believe my students don’t find Pansy Division compelling, and yet….). But criticizing an iconic feminist play isn’t an act of betrayal or disrespect. Not even the worthiest feminist foremothers can demand young women SHUT UP! and play their dutiful daughters.

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  16. “criticizing an iconic feminist play isn’t an act of betrayal or disrespect.”

    Agreed, absolutely. They’re done criticizing it–they’re shutting it down entirely. It’s the SHUT UP aspect that I disagree with, and apparently a lot of the Mount Holyoke student body disagrees with as well.

    Do the same students refuse to read any and all novels by Philip Roth or Norman Mailer or Henry Miller because their portrayals of male sexuality are heteronormative and repressive and celebrate violence against women? No? Why not?

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  17. I’ve seen it way too much before, and yet I’m always amazed at the steely determination to avoid understanding the problem when it concerns women.

    1) Performance about the experiences of people with vaginas is shut down because it’s not also about people without vaginas.

    2) Cue the excuses: perfectly justified because excluding is bad; perfectly justified because who wants to talk about vaginas anyway; perfectly justified because it’s so over, and so on.

    The excuses are all good ones to, say, wash your hair instead of going to the performance. They are not remotely valid as reasons to shut it down.

    What is so hard about that concept?

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  18. I am sure some students do refuse to read Roth and Mailer (I sure do!) but reading a novel is not the same as committing yourself to months of work on a play. And it’s hardly unfair to engage differently with an explicitly feminist, putatively woman-empowering work than with crappy dudebro misogyfantasies.

    It’s totally bizarre seeing right wing campus activists (e.g. Campus Reform linked above) and some feminists jointly denounce young women for deciding not to produce a play. The Vagina Monologues is the centerpiece of an international education and fundraising brand, which advances one particular, contested feminist sensibility among many. There are also strict rules limiting how it may be adapted. The reported facts are that a student group consulted its members and wider community, decided the play didn’t match their politics/sensibilities, and instead are performing their own new show about gender (“The Student Body”). That’s only “shutting it down entirely” if you think the student group had an obligation to do Ensler’s play, which they don’t. I’m sure some potential audience members are disappointed; some students are always disappointed when any tradition changes. If they want to put on the VM themselves, I hope the college will support them in it. If they don’t like the new play, they don’t have to attend.

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  19. I was sad but unsurprised when this story showed up on my dash. It’s not enough to critique Ensler, no, we must SHUT HER DOWN and SHUT HER UP. Even though she has previously worked with trans communities to incorporate their perspective into additional material that is freely available for performances? I am so done with self-important and self-proclaimed critics like those at MH.

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  20. You know, I’ve been thinking today what Faustina Liberata wrote earlier in hir first comment re: expecting nineteen year-olds to have a full sense of women’s history and feminist activism and reverence for all of it. Ze’s right–it’s not up to college women to do this. (Heck, I was one of those women in college–although a history major, I was sure eager to push aside the unfashionable politics and wardrobes of the Second Wavers/Baby Boomers so that my generation could just enjoy the Awesomeness & not have to bother with any of that activism stuff.)

    Nineteen year-olds should absolutely question the wisdom of their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers, etc. They should bring the concerns of their generation to the feminist table. But they also can’t expect the entire Dinner Party (a la Judy Chicago) to roll up and die on command. It’s up to cranky middle-aged and older ladies like us–quixote, Janice, Nicoleandmaggie, Northern Barbarian, etc.–to listen to their concerns but also to serve as the collective institutional memory and point out examples of callous youthful foolishness.

    Did I tell anyone at Mt. Holyoke to SHUT UP or go away? No, I just wrote a blog post and called out their misogynist reading of the politics and significance of The Vagina Monologues. They can and should keep talking, and if any of them want to engage this critique, I’m completely open to it.

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  21. As a disclaimer– we’re actually gen X, so a different generation of feminists (remember how we’re pro choice feminism and can’t imagine not being so?). I don’t think it’s really up to us (that is, nicoleandmaggie) to decide what is “callous youthful foolishness” and what are legitimate concerns of the new generation.

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  22. Historiann,

    I don’t know if you feel that what you’re saying here amounts to female solidarity, but I don’t think it does. Female solidarity doesn’t exist if your criteria for what constitutes female-ness is arbitrary and exclusive. If you’re trans-exclutionary and comfortable with labelling yourself as such*: fine. If you’re not, you’re not doing a very good job of understanding where other women are coming from.

    Women are not body parts. They are not genitalia.

    As for this blinkered and ahistorical suggestion that trans people are A Recent Phenomenon / Invention, that their existence Impedes Upon the Sanctity of (Real) Women, that their desire to be recognized within feminism an assertion of male privilege or an act of invasion, that this assertion amounts to a guilt-trip successfully aimed at “naive” young people: you are missing a vital amount of information. Your knowledge of the history of LGBT, modern and not-so-modern, is sorely lacking.** Trans people have always existed. Trans people are an important and overlooked part of gender history. Trans people are responsible for some of the basic human rights LGBT people in the US now enjoy. They are not interlopers. They are not hijacking your cause, because you don’t own it in the first place. They are not conniving sneaks trying to exploit “callous youthful foolishness.” How absurd.

    What is this nineteen year-old strawoman about, anyway? Did you do a poll of all trans women over the age of 30 and they agreed with you here? Are Some of your Best Friends trans women?

    Pretending that you are literally being attacked, censored, and silenced by a marginalized and oppressed class is a play straight out of the right-wing reactionary handbook. Do you behave the same way when women of color remind you that feminism has not always been kind to them? Do you accuse them of trying to ruin your toys?

    *I note that you never addressed whether you think trans women have male privilege / are male, so I’m still confused on this point
    **As I can’t imagine, in your case, that this is true, you are playing dumb for some reason

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  23. Thanks for the patronizing lecture, but I think I probably know more about the history of gender and sexuality in early American than you do. Because I’m not teaching this year, I haven’t seen one of these since last spring on my teaching evaluations! So nice to be reminded of what I’m missing.

    I’m sorry that you’re so angry that someone with a vagina disagrees with you and won’t just shut up. You seem to think that you have a special call on my time and attention, although you’re an anonymous stranger who appears determined to misread my opinions. (See my comments above on the care work we expect of women).

    Please seek help.

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