Last week in Michigan, State Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West) was barred from speaking on the floor of the State House–until further notice–after she said the word “vagina”. Vagina. The house speaker who banned her claimed she violated decorum by her choice of words. One of the most immediate—and correct—criticisms of this event is by Representative Brown herself, who said, “If they’re going to legislate my anatomy, I see no reason why I cannot say it.” But the issues that surround the ban for saying “vagina” are more complex than just whether or not the word can be spoken civilly and with tact. That answer is simple: Of course it can. It’s not a slang term, it’s not a pejorative. It’s the legitimate clinical name for a part of the female reproductive system, and it’s had to endure a lot lately.
Instinctively we recognize that we are all greater than the sum of our parts. We know that there is more to being a man than having a penis, and that the vagina does not make the woman. But the biological demarcation of gender is one of the primary ways in which we identify ourselves and each other in our society. One of the first questions asked on forms we fill out is whether we are male or female. One of the first ways we get divided in school is by gender. Even our infant toys and clothes are gender-specific and highlight what we see as “normal” outward manifestations of our biological sex characteristics. We may not think the actual phrase, “Oh, she’s a woman and therefore, she has a vagina,” but we know it, we understand it, and we base many of our interactions on our assumptions of gender identity.
And identity matters.
While Majority Floor leader Jim Stamas (R-Midland) said Brown violated “decorum” but has declined to elaborate further, Representative Mike Calton, another member of the House, said, “What she said was offensive,” and that “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”
*sigh* Really? Can someone please install a fainting couch in the Michigan State House? Because it looks like the menfolk are fixin’ to have a swoon.
Here’s the problem: vaginas and their use (or misuse, as some may see it) are being legislated about all the time. Abortion, premarital sex, the “age of consent”, access to birth control, condoms in the school, rape legislation, these all center around what goes on inside a vagina. Representative Brown said “vagina” during a debate about abortion which, like it or not, inherently involves vaginas. And no matter how you feel about abortion, you have to understand that it’s going to primarily affect women, and women are classified as women (legally, in a hospital, at birth, unless they’ve had gender reassignment surgery—which leads to a whole other host of legal concerns) because they have vaginas. Saying the word isn’t going to hurt anyone. It’s not like yelling “Vagina!” in a crowded movie theater will cause mass panic, possible property damage, or death, though it may cause some confusion. And to think that you can’t say the word “vagina” in front of women is infantilizing for everyone involved. What are these guys, eight years old? Are ladies going to giggle and hide because you’re publicly talking about their ladyzones? This is how you act on a playground, not in a legislative arena.
It’s this playground mentality that delegitimizes any poorly-balanced leg the anti-vagina contingent thinks they can stand on. First and foremost, sticking your fingers in your ears and humming loudly does not dismiss the existence of vaginas or the very real needs of the people who have them, no matter how much you might hope otherwise. Neither does bullying your adversary into silence. And clutching your pearls and swooning because you’re incapable of saying the word “vagina” doesn’t change the social reality that this is a part of womanhood. Ladies aren’t comprised of lacy collars and high heels and floral scented body lotion and an anatomically smooth and undefined nether region. Remember, with their pants off, Barbie and Ken are practically identical. But men and women? We are not the same. When you are sworn into office as a representative, you swear to represent the entirety of your constituency and unless you’re the representative from Barbie-and-Kenville, part of that constituency will involve vaginas and the people who sport them.
Consider the other ways we socially identify—consider race, for example, since that’s another cultural marker that’s present at birth. If members of the Michigan State Legislature were to faint away should another member said, during a debate, “Look, my skin is black, and this thing we’re debating about profoundly effects me, and not in an abstract way,” we wouldn’t expect that member of the legislature to get banned. We wouldn’t expect the Speaker to get all “I’m not hearing you! Lalalalala!” by pointing out that there may be different perspectives held by people with other cultural backgrounds, which should be taken into consideration by the officials elected to represent said diverse members of the constituency. And if he or she did, we would (rightly) expect the ground to open up and swallow the Speaker for his or her reprehensible behavior. Yet the vagina warrants a muzzle on the basis of decorum. Indeed.
What it boils down to is this: he didn’t like her argument, it made him uncomfortable. Because she’s vagina-bearing and identified by said vagina, and the word is indecorous and therefore dismissable, she became dismissable. This? Is not acceptable. Not for adults, not for debates, and certainly not for legislators who orchestrate bills that can effect…oh…the entire population of the state of Michigan which, according to census information, is somewhere around 9,876,187. Roughly half of all Michiganders have vaginas. Ladies, don’t let yourselves get overlooked.
Remember, this ultimately isn’t a debate about abortion, even though that’s what brought about the vagina talk in the first place. This is a public statement on the nature of debate and the creation of policy. If you’re OK with legislators being shut down because they try to have a dialogue that represents the reality of women’s issues, if you’re OK with being dismissed because you have a body part that is viewed as a shameful thing that can’t be discussed in mixed company, then please, stay seated and continue to do nothing. But if you’re tired of having to apologize for your vagina and want it to be recognized as a legitimate and healthy thing that does not brook dismissal, then take action. Support Representative Brown. Find like-minded people and support them. And never, ever, ever allow the bully in the room to shut down a conversation because it makes them uncomfortable. When we step outside our comfort zones, growth happens. So get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable, and repeat after me:
Vagina, vagina, vagina!
You can also find this post and others not-quite-like-it at http://sacredvillage.org/author/tpetersen/ (and yes, I know the web guy spelled my last name wrong, OK?)