By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Monique Stuart was a teenager when Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" first appeared off-off-Broadway a decade ago.
But by the time the 24-year-old saw the play in her senior year of college, she'd already made up her mind that it wasn't worth much.
"It really confirmed everything I already thought about the play," she says.
Which explained why she was standing behind a lectern at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Northwest recently, telling other young women how to be good conservatives -- and how to bring some protest drama of their own to Ensler's work.
"'It's disgusting," she said. "The play defines women as their sexual organs."
Seventeen young women, snacking on bagels and apple juice, had gathered for this workshop at the Conservative Political Action Conference to listen to Stuart and others trash "The Vagina Monologues," which appears on hundreds of campuses every February and March as part of V-Day, a campaign Ensler helped found in the late '90s to raise awareness about violence against women.
As part of that effort, her play has become a perennial fundraiser for anti-violence organizations.
The show has always had its detractors, but this year conservatives worked to transform the season of "The Vagina Monologues" into a season of the Vagina Debates. Stuart can take some credit for that.
As program officer at the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, a Herndon-based group with ties to some of Washington's most powerful conservatives, Stuart helped coordinate the movement.
"Our whole culture has become oversexualized," she said after her workshop, "and I think this play contributes to that."
The conservative effort baffles Ensler, who finds some of the objections to her play insulting. Especially, she says, the idea that her work reduces women to their body parts.
"If you had an understanding of the play, the vagina becomes the least significant thing," Ensler says.
"I am trying for the life of me [to understand] how anybody can protest what V-Day is," she says. "I have no idea why we have a conservative element in this country that doesn't believe in sex, that opposes masturbation, that thinks homosexuality and lesbians are evil. I think sexuality is healthy and gorgeous and delicious."
Aartie Manansingh, who produced the play at Georgetown University, says the campaign has an important role to play on college campuses. "It breaks the silence that surrounds violence against women and girls," she says. "On a college campus, there seems to be an attitude where issues of relationship violence and sexual assault are taboo, and people don't talk about them unless they're personally affected."
Jerry Lynn Fields, executive director of the V-Day movement and a former rape crisis center manager, noted that the play has been performed in more than 81 countries and raised more than $30 million over the years.
The play strings together interviews with 200 women into a series of stories, some full of humor, some full of pleasure, others full of abuse and violence. "Women's sanity was saved by bringing these hidden experiences into the open, naming them and turning our rage into positive action," feminist Gloria Steinem wrote in 1998.
But Stuart sees a different message, one that "tells women to look for their own fulfillment through sex."
Stuart asks, "Is that supposed to liberate them or empower them?"
It's been a road to empowerment for Stuart, at least, who seems to have found her conservative voice through protesting the play. She took up the cause as a student at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.
Stuart grew up in a liberal Connecticut family, but in her sophomore year, she attended a debate that included conservative commentator Ann Coulter and came away enthralled. Soon she had joined the College Republicans.
Then, the summer before her senior year, while she was an intern in Washington, she went to an event featuring conservative author Christina Hoff Sommers, who attacked the play.
Stuart finally read it -- and decided she was on Hoff Sommers's side.
During winter break of her senior year, she retyped "The Vagina Monologues," replacing every use of the word "vagina" with "penis," and called the result "The Penis Monologues."
"When you call it 'The Penis Monologues,' that's ridiculous. It's ridiculous on the other side as well," she says.
Stuart held a reading of her rewrite last spring and invited Hoff Sommers to campus for a lecture. To promote it, a friend of Stuart's dressed in a six-foot phallus costume and distributed fliers.
It impressed Hoff Sommers enough that she wrote about it in the National Review online.
After graduation, Stuart joined the Luce Policy Institute, which was preparing its anti-V-Day campaign.
Michelle Easton, president of Luce, sees Stuart as the fruit of the conservative movement's labor: "She's a wonderful example of a student who went to college as a liberal and turned to the conservative side through hearing a conservative speaker. That's what we do at Luce."
Stuart traveled the country and visited local campuses to organize the campaign. In November, she was on Georgetown University's campus, where Luce was co-sponsoring a talk by conservative Michelle Malkin. Stuart handed out books resembling Playbill that criticized "The Vagina Monologues."
Early last month, Stuart joined a conference call with more than a dozen women's outreach directors from the College Republicans to talk about protesting the play, says Sarah Armstrong, the national women's outreach director. "We try to get good speakers who are not only real role models but who can help us in our states with increasing activism," Armstrong says. "She's coming from the same place we're coming from."
The goal, Stuart said, was not censorship, but to get others to think about the play's message. She acknowledges, too, that the effort helped attract some students to the conservative movement -- the way she'd been won over herself.
Georgetown freshman Anthony Bonna took a copy of Stuart's Playbill back in November. A few weeks later, he called her to get one of the institute's anti-V-Day kits, with posters that ask, "Aren't women worth more than their private parts?" He and a few friends plastered the campus. Later, shortly before one of the "Vagina Monologues" Georgetown shows, he went door to door in a dorm to raise money for the same battered women's shelter that the show was benefiting.
It was an act to "show you can help out women without seeing a play that attacks traditional values," he said.
At George Washington University, senior Lindy Dinklage, 21, armed with materials she received from Stuart, set up an information table at the student center to oppose last weekend's three performances.
"Empower women's brains -- not their vaginas," Dinklage called out, as most students hustled by, jabbering on cell phones or heading into the student center.
But every now and again someone did stop-- and for Stuart, that's what mattered.