On Monday evening as community members, students and faculty shuffled into Alumni Hall in the HUB, discussion of race and class in feminism was as common a topic as the extraordinarily strong wind that day.
The auditorium was lined with wall-to-wall seating in preparation for activist and Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler’s presentation, the second of many events to kick off Sexual Violence Awareness Week at Penn State. The week leads into Sexual Assault Awareness Month and is hosted by the Center for Women Students and the University Park Undergraduate Association.
Though perhaps most known for authoring the popular play “The Vagina Monologues,” Ensler also created V-Day and One Billion Rising, an organization and global movement aimed at eliminating violence against women and girls. According to its site, One Billion Rising is “the biggest mass action to end violence against women in human history,” raising money and awareness for its cause with performances, marches and demonstrations.
“Knowing her work over the years, she has done so much in terms of empowerment not just for women, but for all survivors (of violence) the world over,” said Jennifer Pencek, programming coordinator for the Center for Women Students. “This impacts everyone, this is everyone’s business.”
In her speech, Ensler addressed being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, her connections to women worldwide and ways for women to thrive in the face of exploitation and sexual violence, among a variety of other topics.
“There was a time when no one came to hear about sexual violence,” Ensler said, “and this place is full tonight, but there is still a deeper transformation that has to occur.”
To highlight this point, Ensler discussed the seemingly idyllic childhood that masked her own molestation and raised the point that if people with privilege of this kind are left wracked by sexual violence, those without privilege are fighting an entirely different battle.
“We lack understanding of how sexual violence is part of a grander scheme throughout the world,” she said. “We can’t imagine ending sexual violence if we don’t look at economics, colonialism, militarism and inequity.”
Ensler said her work with women in places as close as Ohio and as far as Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe has allowed her to recognize the connectedness of people from seemingly opposite places. She discussed how consumerism in the United States can lead to exploitation and danger for women in Bangladesh, how sexual taboos and a dearth of sex education can lead to violence and how American activism abroad can either bring flourishing communities or the oppression of local voices, depending on how it is done.
“If we’re going to change our environment,” she said, “we have to stand with people with less privilege in the way they want us to stand, not in the way we think they want us to.”
Though the topics of sexual violence and inequity are heavy by any standard — and Ensler did not sugarcoat — an overarching message of community arose. Ensler heralded the strong women in her life — her international “posse” of activists, educators, survivors, fighters and outlaws in their own countries — and encouraged men and women at Penn State and beyond to form tight-knit, but accepting communities where oppression and sexual violence are neither permitted or accepted as a norm.
“We are unstoppable when we rise with each other,” she said. “The liberation of each one of us is the liberation of us all.”
Noelle Rosellini is a Penn State journalism student.