A US lawmaker who says she was barred from speaking in the Michigan House because Republicans objected to her saying the word "vagina" during debate over anti-abortion legislation performed The Vagina Monologues on the Statehouse steps — with a hand from the author.
Eve Ensler, whose groundbreaking play about women's sexuality still packs theaters 16 years after it debuted, oversaw Monday night's performance by Democratic state Rep. Lisa Brown, 10 other lawmakers and several actresses.
Capitol facilities director Steve Benkovsky estimated about 2,500 spectators — women and men — watched the play in downtown Lansing from lawn chairs and blankets. Billed on Facebook as the "Vaginas Take Back the Capitol!" event, the combination play and protest included political signs and chants of "Vagina! Vagina!"
Ensler, who flew in from California, where she's overseeing production of her new play, said she was thrilled to be involved and likened the punishment meted out by the Republican leadership of the state House to "the Dark Ages."
"If we ever knew deep in our hearts that the issue about abortion ... was not really about fetuses and babies, but really men's terror of women's sexuality and power, I think it's fully evidenced here," Ensler told The Associated Press by phone Monday before arriving in Lansing.
"We're talking about the silencing of women, we're talking about censoring people for saying a body part," she said. "Half of these people who are trying to regulate vaginas, they can't even say the word."
Barred from speaking
Brown made her comments during debate last week on legislation that supporters say would make abortions safer but that opponents say would make it much harder for women to get abortions. While speaking against a bill that would require doctors to ensure abortion-seekers haven't been coerced into ending their pregnancies, Brown told Republicans, "I'm flattered you're all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no."
Brown was barred from speaking in the House during the next day's session. House Republicans say they didn't object to her saying "vagina." They said Brown compared the legislation to rape, violating House decorum. She denies the allegation.
"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," GOP Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, of Alto, said in a statement last week.
Democratic Rep. Barb Byrum, of Onondaga, said she also was barred from speaking last Thursday because she referred to vasectomies during the debate.
"I'm overwhelmed by how much attention we're getting around the world," she told Monday's crowd.
Before the play began, Ensler joined Brown and Byrum on the Capitol steps and called for an apology from the Republicans who barred them from speaking.
"These women stood for our rights," Ensler said to applause. "The vaginas are out. We are here to stay."
The speaking ban lasted only through Thursday, when lawmakers left for a five-week break. But the incident has garnered attention internationally and on social media, where the hashtags (hash)vaginagate and (hash)sayvagina are attracting a flurry of posts.
Susie Duncan, 68, watched the play while holding a placard handed out by the American Civil Liberties Union reading, "Vagina. Can't say it? Don't legislate it."
"I hope this will spur people to go vote," the East Lansing resident said. "We've got to change this."
Brown says it isn't just women who are upset with the House GOP leaders' actions.
"I've heard from a lot of men. It's not just women who are speaking out," she said. Her father and mother attended the play.
The Women Lawyers Association of Michigan — whose 650 members include men — criticized taking away Brown's and Byrum's right to speak. The group said it wasn't taking a position on the bills in question, but on the lawmakers' free speech rights.
"Representatives Brown and Byrum had a right to have their constituents' 150,000 voices recognized on June 14, 2012. They were neither vulgar nor disrespectful," the group wrote in a Monday release. "When the minority is silenced, justice cannot prevail and democracy suffers."