A Daily news digest by Jasper van Santen

Vagina: say it loud, Lisa Brown | Naomi Wolf – guardian.co.uk

In News on June 22, 2012 at 10:19

Rep Lisa Brown reading 'The Vagina Monologues' in Lansing, Michigan

via Vagina: say it loud, Lisa Brown | Naomi Wolf 

During a debate on anti-abortion legislation in the Michigan statehouse, the Democratic state senator said that she was flattered that there was such an interest in, as she put it, “my vagina”, but that “no means no.” She was barred from later debate because, she claimed, she dared to use that word.

To say, as a legislator, “I’m flattered that you are so interested in my vagina” – in the context of a Michigan legislative debate – is the perfect provocative sentence. And the storm that followed made the Michigan state courthouse the hottest place in the Midwest. But what was so incredibly bracing was the way in which Brown’s provocation – and the Republican response to it – laid bare, so to speak, what the real power struggle is. The issue is not about obscenity, of course: it is about political control.

Brown, with strategic audacity, insisted that she was kept from the statehouse debate because of censorship around the word “vagina”. House Republicans denied that this was the reason. They claimed something even more crazy, and more interesting: that it was her comparison of anti-abortion legislation to rape that led her – properly, in their view – to be barred, because, as they put it, the language she used was itself an act of chaos, disrupting proceedings. GOP Representative Lisa Posthumus Lyons, of Alto, said in a statement last week:

“Her comments compared the support of legislation protecting women and life to rape, and I fully support majority floor leader Jim Stamas’ decision to maintain professionalism and order on the House floor.”

Brown understands her moment, and that the best defense is a great offense. Female liberals understand that when you enrage the opposition, you don’t back down; you go further. She staged a reading of “The Vagina Monologues” on the Michigan courthouse steps: 2,500 people, men and women, came to watch Brown, along with an appearance by revered playwright and rape campaigner Eve Ensler. (See this account from Autumn Smith.)

Ensler rightly pointed out that the issue is not about the propriety of the word, but about anxieties about women’s access to power. Ensler declared, to applause:

“The vaginas are out. We are here to stay.”

This battle fascinates me. I had a similar feeling watching a recent news item concerning Carol Price, a former TSA worker, who had experienced, going through security, what she thought was an overly invasive search. She turned to a supervisor and grabbed at the TSA agent’s genitals to demonstrate, and was promptly arrested for “assault”. This exchange, like the one in Michigan, suddenly snaps one out of the weird collective hypnosis of how “the way things are done” can make you not see the crazy-obvious. The TSA can grab your crotch and it’s essential for “national security”, but when you grab theirs, it’s assault?

Legislators discussing at length and in detail bills dealing with women’s vaginas and uteruses, and closely defining a legal range of vaginal options (for example, regarding ultrasound probes) – with outcomes sometimes profoundly against women’s will about what should be done to their vaginas – is “legislative decorum”; but the minute a woman utters the word “vagina” or compares to being raped a planned legislative outcome against women’s will, all hell breaks loose?

Something worth foregrounding, because it is so often obscured by debate about what happens in the uterus, is that D-and-C’s and even later abortions are performed vaginally – that most private of private places, site of the most personal of decisions. What occurs in the Michigan statehouse when legislating on these issues is, therefore, categorically about Brown’s vagina. I think Brown used that personal, intimate, confrontational word partly to demonstrate mnemonically how very personal, intimate and, literally, inward or internal the decision to have an abortion really is, and what the action of an abortion really involves.

The “pro-lifers”, I have argued before, are entirely within their rights to hold up signs that show images of the fact of a dead fetus. It is a real fact, a real image, not propaganda or spin. But in exactly the same way, Brown is within her rights to shove the word “vagina” and even its image into the public discourse: it is an equally real fact, the real site where the result of all this wilful abstraction, in which the Michigan Republicans have sought to engage, will be played out. From a pro-life perspective, and from many points of view, there is no escape from the outcome being that so-graphic one. But from a pro-choice perspective, and others’, too, there is no escape from the site of the abortion being that so-intimate one.


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