By Tracie McMillan
Contribute • January/February 2008
In the 10 years since the debut of her still-controversial play, The Vagina Monologues, playwright Eve Ensler’s V-Day campaign to halt violence against women and girls has gone global, raising $50 million to support anti-violence organizations at home and abroad, from India to Asia and the Middle East. This year, a tenth-anniversary run of the play is being performed in 1,200 cities worldwide. CONTRIBUTE’s Tracie McMillan caught up with Ensler recently to talk about her decade of activism and her take on the changing landscape of philanthropic giving.
How has the world changed since you launched V-Day?
It’s become more contentious. We’re seeing the fallout of war on women in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I just came back from the Congo, where the sexual atrocities against women are the worst I’ve ever seen, and it’s clear that these acts have to do, in part, with bigger players, like the United States and Europe and Rwanda, manipulating things behind the scenes. If this government supports Rwanda, for example, it may have an impact on the people who wage genocide out of the Congo, and that will have an impact on women, you know? So the United States has enormous control and power over countries everywhere. And how we perceive and treat those countries impacts women everywhere. Where people are occupied and invaded, we know that the violence towards women increases. Why? Because when men are humiliated and shamed, they will then direct their rage towards women.
How did you make the leap from writing plays to taking action?
I’ve always struggled between being an activist and being an artist. But The Vagina Monologues was a breakthrough play because when I started to travel with it, so many women would tell me that they’d been beaten, or raped, or incested. The play inspired people to share their own stories. It just felt kind of immoral, hearing all that and not doing anything about it. So in 1998, we got all these women together in New York and asked ourselves, What could we do with this play to stop violence against women? We decided to have one event in New York City to raise money for some local groups. And that’s all we thought it would be. But that night in New York ten years ago, things just kind of ignited. Just being in the room, you knew something huge was being born. You could feel it. And ten years later? It’s unbelievable what’s happened. V-Day is now all over the world. We have programs in the Middle East, in Africa, in Haiti, in Native American land, and in Mexico.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about women increasing their influence via philanthropy.
I think that often, philanthropy is shaped in patriarchal ways—you know, that people who have the money see themselves as special, and they control the people who don’t have the money. And when they give the money, there are all of these strings attached about how people will behave and operate and be controlled by the people with the money. And I’ve always had a really difficult time with that. So I wanted to distinguish V-Day from that. That’s not what we are. V-Day is about self-empowerment. For example, this year, there’ll be 1,200 places that will perform The Vagina Monologues. They will produce those plays, they will direct them, perform them, advertise them. They will get the audiences in. And then, they will take the money and give it to the people in those communities of their choice. I have no control over that at all. We only say that if you do the play, you have to do it in a certain way. And you have to make sure your cast is diverse, because we always include people of color. And the last thing is that you have to give a certain percentage of proceeds to groups that work to stop violence against women. After that, it’s yours.
And so what’s happened is people have owned this movement as their own, as opposed to having a central person controlling things. You know, if you have money to give, you’re lucky. It’s a privilege. It means that you’re not starving, like 95 percent of the world. It doesn’t mean that you’re better.
That’s different from the trend in philanthropy now, which is to focus on metrics and accountability.
Yeah. The people we give money to are in partnership with us. They don’t work for us. You know, it’s a movement. It’s not like I’m sitting there asking people to prove to me that they’re worthy of this money that I so graciously give to them. It’s about engaging the people you’re trying to help and making them a part of the solution, you know?