A vagina by any other name

20 Jun

“Finally Mr. Speaker I’m all so flattered you’re interested in my vagina, but no means no.” -State Representative Lisa Brown

Speaking on the floor of the Michigan State House, State Representative Brown responded to discussion of HB 5711 , a bill that has since passed with an overwhelming majority that bans abortions after 20 weeks with no exceptions and includes targeted regulations against abortion providers (TRAP) provisions including specifications like how to dispose of “fetal remains.”  Because clearly legislators would have a superior understanding of this than medical providers.

Representative Brown was barred from the last day of discussion of the bill on the floor of the Michigan House.  No official reason has been given, but the Speaker did say State Representative Brown “failed to maintain the decorum of the House of Representatives,”  because she used the word vagina in reference to a bill about abortion… a procedure only needed if you have a vagina.

I am so thankful that up to 5,000 people had the good sense to get to the Michigan State Capitol steps to watch a presentation of the Vagina Monologues.  I also would have paid to join the crowd chanting C-U-N-T (which if you are not familiar with the “Reclaiming Cunt” monologue,  you should make a point to see live one day).  Watching thousands reclaim the word vagina and with it their dignity as women (and men), accepting their humanity and biology, I can only imagine how powerful it can be.

In an interview about the performance, Eve Ensler said, “language is so important, it is the pathway to freedom.”

Thinking about Ms. Ensler’s words and the implications of language brought me back to the most recent Gallup polland the use of “pro-choice.”

I will not bore you with the tired dialogue on that phrase not resonating (though Kush did an excellent job discussing this).  What I will bore you with is the conundrum that faces us, the one that theoretically prompted Nancy Keenan to step down for her post as President of NARAL.  If we are no longer represented by vestiges of the second wave, whether it be their words or leaders, where are our new leaders and language?  Jessica Valenti wrote beautifully about a new generation at the helm of reproductive justice organizations, that so many people have consistently have overlooked.  Despite this, I still think we have a serious language problem that is not being addressed.

Define Reproductive Justice in onr sentence.  In a two second sound bite?  Can’t?  Well, honestly I don’t think you should be able to.  The beauty of intersectionalities is that they are complex.  They address multiple facets of the human experience SIMULTANEOUSLY.  This is not about simplicity people.  Or bowing to a culture whose collective attention span is being reduced by the day. We have to find a way to embrace complexity and wordiness and make it accessible as at the end of the day we all know access is the key.

We were recently discussing the difference between using trans and trans* on the AG listserv, and taking a step back it becomes astonishing how much meaning is conveyed in a simple asterisk.  But to me that is a clear example of language evolving, becoming more inclusive and specific, a model we may be able to follow as we evolve more specific language for reproductive justice.

So where does this leave the vagina phobic in Michigan?  We are clearly seeing a retrogression as a means to block the “path to freedom,” as Ms. Ensler so eloquently put it.  But you can’t erase words.  At least it is very difficult to do so in a country where dictionaries operate independently and there is no council in operation like the Académie française. As Ensler said at the end of the same interview, vaginas are here to stay.


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