I have a lot on my mind these days. Earning a Ph.D. in history with a focus on women and gender requires immersion into the darker side of history. Black History Month unfolds into Women’s History Month. I also joined the cast of The Vagina Monologues to raise money for Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands. Yes, I’ve got a lot on my mind.
My mind wanders to the antebellum South, where the white constructed myth of black women’s promiscuity, personified in the myth of the Jezebel, justified sexual abuse. Slave dealers commodified this abuse with the “fancy girl” market, where some women sold for a staggering $5,000 and could be as young as twelve. During Reconstruction, rape and sexual abuse continued as there were no legal precedents established against them during slavery that could prevent their use as tactical weapons to promote white supremacy. In an act many may have performed as overseers or slaveowners a decade earlier, men cloaked in the protection of hoods, darkness, or legal impunity stripped women’s clothing to their waists or pulled it up to their necks before beating them. Whether in urban or rural areas, black women were raped, often because their husbands violated some southern white code, such as participating in politics or landowning. Occasionally, urban women found an outlet to voice their outrage via access to the Freedman’s Bureau, a federal prosecutor, or a Congressional hearing, although the witnesses were repeatedly questioned about their attire and level of resistance. The impact of this culture of violence permeates the modern civil rights and feminist movements as well. A decade before she initiated the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks organized efforts to bring a rapist to justice. When Joan Little killed a prison guard who attacked her in 1974, she proved that all women, even an incarcerated petty thief, deserved the right to protect their bodies.
At some point, this historian had to separate her emotions from these histories to press on with her work, yet in the last year I took my nose out of books just long enough to catch sound bites on the national news. I discovered that my body could shut down a legitimate rape. I heard “vaginal ultrasounds” used in the same sentence with “pregnancy resulting from rape.” I found myself defending my reproductive rights forty years after Roe v. Wade. And like Sandra Fluke, I felt branded a Jezebel because I was enthusiastic about my right to receive free birth control. Suddenly, all of this information combined with the dozens of friends who have commiserated with me about our shared experiences with sexual and physical violence proved more than I could bear.
So I rose. I rose along with other amazing women in this year’s production of The Vagina Monologues. While it is disheartening to recognize that women must still wage this war for control of their own bodies, I am hopeful because I see a unity that history has never witnessed but has been simmering, rising if you will, beneath the surface of history’s pages. I see one billion rising.
This year The Vagina Monologues at USC is part of the One Billion Rising campaign (www.onebillionrising.org), a worldwide movement inviting people across the globe to take a stand against violence against women. Join us at the show and be a part of this uprising. The Vagina Monologues at USC will take place February 15 through 17 at 8:00 p.m. at the USC Law School Auditorium (701 Main St.). Tickets cost $8 for students and $10 for the public. Proceeds will be donated to Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands. (Find out more at vmonologuesusc.wordpress.com.)
-- Jennifer Whitmer Taylor