IN 1996, sitting on a high-backed stool in a tiny theatre in downtown New York, Eve Ensler declared that she was “worried about vaginas”. What followed was “The Vagina Monologues”, a fictional series of accounts based on more than 200 interviews the playwright had conducted with women of different races and ages about their relationship with their bodies. Stories ranged from a chorus of girls’ experiences of their first period to a woman raging against the pressure to shave her pubic hair. One woman shared traumatic childhood sexual experiences that she felt were ameliorated by an adolescent liaison with an older woman, and Ms Ensler shared an account of the birth of her granddaughter. The performance was clearly designed to provoke—riffing on the c-word and revelling in the discomfort generated by such a frank discussion—but it was also designed to amuse and move. An early review in the New York Times proclaimed that “sex just doesn’t get funnier, or more poignant.”

The play—billed as a “whirlwind tour of a forbidden zone”—was an immediate success, and it moved women to break their silence. After each performance, they would come up to Ms Ensler to share their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of strangers, boyfriends, husbands, fathers, and the feelings of shame and isolation that trailed that abuse. She became determined to use the play’s popularity to address these issues. On February 14th 1998, a benefit performance of “The Vagina Monologues” at the Hammerstein Ballroom included such actors as Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn. The event, dubbed “V-Day”, sold out, raising $250,000 for local anti-violence groups. 

Colleges and universities were encouraged to stage their own charitable productions every Valentine’s Day. It soon spread across the globe, to a discreet hotel conference room in Islamabad, Pakistan (past productions have been by invitation only due to the play’s contravention of cultural and sexual norms) to Brussels, where nine female members of the European Parliament performed. The show was even brought to an all-male prison in Queens, New York. Ms Ensler attended one such event in Bosnia; one of the monologues, titled “My Vagina Was My Village”, was based on interviews she did with women who had been systematically raped in camps during the Bosnian war. To date, the V-Day campaign has raised over $100m, used to fund educational campaigns about violence against women—including marital rape and female genital mutilation—and to fund more than 13,000 anti-violence programmes and shelters internationally. 

In the 20 years since that benefit performance and the first edition of the text, “The Vagina Monologues” has been translated into 48 languages and performed in more than 140 countries. On January 9th, an anniversary edition of the book was released, including six never-before-published monologues. 

But that success has been inevitably accompanied by a backlash. Religious universities forbade students from performing in it, and officials from Uganda to Florida tried to ban productions for indecency. As late as 2013, a local newspaper in Wisconsin chose to advertise the play as “The XXXXXX Monologues”. More surprising is the accusation of some feminists, including Germaine Greer, a writer and academic, that the play reduces women to their genitals. 

In 2015, students at Mount Holyoke College, a liberal-arts college for women in Massachusetts, decided to break with their tradition of performing the play over concerns that it was insufficiently inclusive of transgender people. Similarly, “The Vagina Monologues” has been charged with privileging the voices of white, able-bodied women. Part of the play’s remarkable longevity must be attributed to its willingness to address these concerns. New monologues, written by Ms Ensler, have been released with each subsequent edition of the text, including 2004’s “They Beat The Boy Out Of My Girl...Or So They Tried”, created from a series of interviews with transgender women. Other “spotlight” monologues have focused on the experiences of Afghan women, Native American and First Nations women, and the “comfort women” who were forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese army during the second world war. The latest edition features monologues dedicated to the women of Haiti, the women of New Orleans who suffered after Hurricane Katrina and women who face sexual violence in the workplace.

Two decades after it first stormed through New York, is “The Vagina Monologues” still important? Some may argue that the work has lost some of its edge now that such candid discussion can be found in stand-up comedy and mainstream television drama alike. But Sarah Savitt, a publisher at Virago, believes that Ms Ensler’s creation is still urgent, particularly in light of the current #MeToo and Time’s Up movement. “When I turned on the radio this morning, the headlines were still dominated by stories about gender inequality,” she says. “I wish we were further along in the fight.” Ms Ensler, speaking at the Antidote Festival in Sydney last year, echoed that view. “Now more than ever, it’s time to tell the crucial stories, and say the words,” she said. “If something isn’t named, it doesn’t exist.” Her work helped many women to find the critical vocabulary.