I had given a short speech on feminist history at UniteWomen.Org’s War on Women rally at the Michigan Capitol in April, but it was a wet, cold, sparsely attended event with a few energetic activists. That was a tiny spark, but not a flame.
Then, in an idle Facebook moment, I saw journalist Bonnie Bucqueroux’s video of a hearing by the Michigan House of Representative’s Health Policy Committee on the anti-abortion omnibus (HB 5711-5713). Only it couldn’t really be called a hearing, because the video made it glaringly obvious that most members of the committee didn’t intend to hear anyone. Anyone, that is, but anti-abortion speakers who went along with their point of view.
Only two male doctors and one concerned male citizen, Jeff Liebmann, were allowed to speak in opposition to the bills. Bonnie recorded a bizarre conflict between Liebmann, who somewhat clumsily attempted to explain fetal development by using the word “tadpole,” and Tea Party Republican Paul Opsommer, who angrily railed that his four-year-old grandson should not be called a tadpole. I have my own grandson, and I certainly can make a distinction between that wonderful boy and a fetus. I didn’t embrace the idea of a grandson until my daughter had made the choice to birth one. But that was the level of discourse –ludicrously based on false analogy–from one of our “decorous” elected officials.
Then, the women opponents of the bills–many of whom had suffered distressing health conditions of great bearing on this matter–were not allowed to speak to the committee. Representatives of Planned Parenthood, which oversees clinics threatened by the bills, were not allowed to speak. The hearing was shut down after 90 minutes. The Chair, Republican Gail Haines, even tried closing the meeting 10 minutes early. Bonnie filmed the anger of the women–the women with a vital need to speak–like Central Michigan professor Rachel Ann Foster, who had made the “agonizing decision” to have an abortion when she found that she was carrying quadruplets.
I was outraged at what I witnessed. I was outraged at the callousness of the committee members, their presumption that they could make laws without hearing the voice of the people, and their treatment of citizens with contempt. I am writing a book that touches upon constitutional issues and this was not the America of Principle I love when I read about our founders.
I had gone to sleep and awakened in The Handmaid’s Tale.
I was now very attentive to the news of the anti-abortion omnibus being rushed through the House by Republican representatives eager to pander to their extremist base of anti-abortion zealots and Tea Partiers. A few days later I heard that a protest was to be held at the Capitol. I envisioned a small, dedicated group holding a few signs, ignored by everyone, as was usual. I went anyway, because I had to express what I thought and felt, even if no one was there to hear it.
Much to my surprise a very healthy-sized group of protesters had gathered by the time we entered the Capitol in pink shirts provided by the local Planned Parenthood. My mother would have laughed, since I was always allergic to pink as too “girly.” PP’s young, dedicated staff brilliantly organized the protest. Hundreds of women streamed up the walnut-banistered stairs of the Capitol and into the gallery, as Representatives looked at us with dismay. They were not expecting this. We had heard conflicting reports of when the bills would come up for a vote–not a very predictable thing as I learned. But we were determined to make our voices heard . . . LOUDLY. Many of us circled the three tiers surrounding the rotunda outside the gallery and began chanting, stomping and pounding on the rails. It was loud enough to enter the chamber, muffled by heavy doors.
Although I was still not certain that any of this mattered in these times of corrupted democracy, I felt buoyed by a great swell of energy from so many people–especially the many young women–making their voices heard. If our sisters had had their resolute voices silenced by the Health Policy Committee, we would shout on their behalf. We would interrupt the perfunctory proceedings of these enemies of democracy.
We had heard that the vote might take place that day, but instead it was postponed, we thought until Thursday. The House voted on Wednesday, out of range of our unruly tongues. On Wednesday, Democratic women stood up on the floor to protest the outrage. They were angry and resolute, and used strong language, vivid examples and symbolic amendments to oppose these arrogant, dismissive, manipulative officials who either have lost the precious lessons of democracy or are swamped in ignorance and religious zealotry.
About a hundred of us returned on the Thursday, even though we knew the vote on one of the bills had been taken. We went into the gallery. Some of our Democrat representatives–men and women–smiled up at us. We felt connection and purpose. The anti-abortion omnibus was not on the docket, but we watched Speaker Jase Bolger swing his gavel like an imaginary dick, shutting down discussion of important bills, like gutting teachers’ retirements. Sitting there, we whispered, “Most teachers are women! This is a war on women and women’s unions!” A retired teacher, sitting there in her pink shirt, glared angrily down, and her daughter said to me, “This is her issue, too!”
After the protest, I went to meet Susan Masten, Bonnie Bucqueroux and Michigan NOW lobbyist Mary Pollock, all smart, savvy, talented organizers who were reinvigorating the Lansing Area NOW in light of recent events. I had some time to kill, and as I was waiting in the coffee shop across from the Capitol, a young Planned Parenthood organizer, recognizing my pink shirt, came up to me and said, “Can you join us for a press conference? Women Democrats have been banned from speaking in the House.”
In that instant, I knew that the little Napoleons had met their Waterloo.
It was a small press conference in a tiny hall of the Capitol. Just a few reporters, Barbara Byrum and Lisa Brown making their case, with a few other women Dems standing beside them. One male reporter smirked throughout. I am not a violent person, but I felt the urge to smack him.
On my Facebook page, I saw that Barb had posted angrily about her censure. Now usually, Barb’s Facebook feed is about her kids, the pleasures and struggles of being a mom, and the occasional announcement of a town meeting. She seems the most peaceful and huggable person alive. But now. . .. .
Barb. Was. Pissed.
And so were all of us. Not many hours after, the whole business exploded in the local news, and then the national news, and then the international news. (The Brits seemed especially enthralled). Vaginagate was funny, angry, rebellious flat-out in-yer-face confrontation. It had everything, including the word, “vagina.” Who could resist? The prudes wagged their grey heads, the Tea Bag woman-haters ranted, privileged hot-house flowers snipped that the vagina-lovers had no class, and the Republican legislators fumbled around with excuses on the slippery slope of their own making.
What could have been more satisfying? How we laughed at them.
Then, what???? Eve Ensler and The Vagina Monologues are coming here? That play we once knew, that had once spoken to us in our fierce and wild days? The angry, poignant, over-the-top, mind-blowing love letter to vaginas? And it was being performed on the Capitol steps???
In honor of it, I went to Target (apologies, but I fed the capitalist beast for a good cause at least) and bought a cheap, broad-brimmed, bright pink summer hat. I went to the craft store and bought glue, beads, and felt in a sensual range of pinks and reds. Then, on my kitchen table, using a pattern cut from Xerox paper, I made eight decorative vaginas and glued them to my hat. Now, you would never know, as a casual observer, what those felt shapes represented. The hat looked like something your grandma would wear if she were completely liberated from the constraints of “taste.” So I went down to the Capitol with my daughter, who was also wearing a pink hat, a gardening hat that makes her bright blue eyes pop. We had embraced our inner pink.
I had decided to try an experiment of tweeting the experience through the new Lansing Area NOW twitter account. I had tweeted something maybe 10 times in my life, so I had little idea what I was doing. I also have an old Crackberry that was not really conducive to the enterprise, but I managed to tweet using the hashtag #sayvagina since I knew that you needed one and that Progress Michigan was using it. I saw that the mainstream media was using #VaginaMonologues because they just aren’t that cool. A few of my offerings:
The world is watching the Lansing Capitol here tonight
Has there ever been so much “vagina” on a state capitol’s steps?
saying “she got down on herself” on the Capitol steps!
Vagina workshop part of the play–maybe our reps could use one!
Yes, even “clitoris” has been spoken on the hallowed stairs
“Vaginas muthafuckas!” And the crowd roared
woman/woman power moan
As you can see, I was getting pretty warmed up before my phone died, and the next day I saw the Detroit Free Press had used three of my tweets in their liveblog, but none of the really good ones like “vagina muthafuckas!”
2,500 or 5,000 people (depending on whether you are the kind of person to believe the Capitol grounds guy or Eve Ensler) shouted vagina at the Capitol that day. The more they tried to silence a few of us, the more thousands of us would shout.
Now, women in Michigan are pouring over the language of the house bills. We are listening to our women organizers and lobbyists who have been doggedly fighting in the trenches with little support. We are looking at the ways the issues are intertwined. We are gathering in houses and coffee shops to discuss strategies. We are revitalizing organizations we’ve neglected. We are gossiping like mad about our elected officials. We are writing songs, creating art, and designing bumper stickers.
Women in America have never tolerated being silenced. They did not stand for it when the Puritans exiled them. They did not stand for it during the American Revolution. They did not stand for it when they were enslaved. They did not stand for it when they witnessed slavery. They did not stand for it when they were told they could not vote. They did not stand for it when they were told they couldn’t speak of contraception. They did not stand for it when the country went to futile wars. They did not stand for it when they were told that their position in the movement was “prone.” They did not stand for it when they were told to sit on the back of the bus. They did not stand for it when the police raided their clubs.
We do not stand for it.
And if we don’t carry on the traditions of our mothers and our grandmothers, then we will lose the world for our daughters and our granddaughters.