News: Vagina Power

Catholic students rally for free speech and more

Mar 19, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Vina Parel Ayers

The shocking truth: Vaginas are part of the student body at a Catholic school, Xavier University.

It wasn't only the return of spring weather March 14 that explained the casual dress on the campus of Xavier University. Many students wore shorts, but many also wore T-shirts proclaiming V-Day — V as in "vagina."

Erin Cox wore a hand-lettered T-shirt that announced, "I have a vagina — deal with it.'' On the usually quiet Catholic campus, V-Day — dedicated to free expression and female sexuality — saw red V signs sprouting in dorm windows, while cutout V's were fastened to the Scales of Justice sculpture on the residential mall.

At Kuhlman Hall, cattycorner from Bellarmine Chapel, students taped the word "vagina" in huge red letters in windows on the third and fifth floors.

"Whose university is this?'' said Cox, an XU senior, as she distributed flyers for a 3 p.m. rally on the mall. "I wish it hadn't happened the way it did.''

But it did — and XU had to deal with it.

By week's end, the controversy over the 11th-hour cancellation of the play Vagina Monologues grew into something more than just an issue of censorship and free expression. Vagina Monologues had taken on a life of its own.

'The student body is mobilizing'

What had been planned as a simple production of an inarguably provocative play with strong language exploded early last week into an issue whose after-shocks were felt clear to week's end.

To say it was the talk of the campus is an understatement, according to students and faculty. An imminent war with Iraq and the success of the school's basketball team were mere whispers among students who had turned the campus into one broad and obvious political placard by Friday.

Beyond free expression — the transcendent and galvanizing issue — the controversy expanded to questions about the importance of students in defining the mission of the university, the voice of women on campus and the role of alumni and outside groups in determining what the university is all about.

Some saw V-Day as a renaissance of student activism on campus.

"Xavier is an apathetic campus, and all of a sudden the student body is mobilizing,'' said Chuck Sambuchino, chair of the School Activities Council. "It's really a great thing to see.''

The Student Activities Council, the events programming board at XU, had planned to stage Vagina Monologues last weekend. But on March 10 the council was told the play was cancelled. The Rev. Michael Graham, president of XU, said the play was "being overshadowed by concerns about the sensational nature of some of the language and themes in the production.''

Those concerns were sparked by outside pressure and alumni, according to students. News of the cancellation spread, and the next day a crowd of 150 students and faculty met with Graham, who reaffirmed the cancellation. Students who attended the meeting were upset and began to organize. While they planned a rally, V signs began appearing in dorm windows and 750 V-Day T-shirts were manufactured.

Nancy Bertaux, an economics professor, says she spent a sleepless night March 11 over the cancellation.

"I was inspired and moved by what the students had to say,'' she said. "I awoke Wednesday morning. I called Cathy Springfield (director of performing arts) and said, 'We're going to do this. We're going to make this part of our class.' ''

Bertaux approached the academic vice president and told him of her plans. The administration didn't balk. They readily agreed to the change of aegis.

"It had gone from being a university-sponsored event to a part of a classroom," says Kelly Leon, XU spokeswoman. "That's the difference."

Making the play part of Bertaux's class transubstantiated it into a "legitimate exercise of academic freedom'' in a "suitable environment of debate and discussion," according to Graham.

The play was performed March 14 and 15. The venue didn't even change — the Gallagher Student Center. Only the sponsorship was different.

'Censorship is for pussies'
But in spite of the compromise, the rally went on as scheduled March 14. Students, especially women, resented the unilateral nature of the cancellation, according to Chris Sims, a 21-year-old a junior and one of the organizers of the rally and play.

"They never asked us why we felt this was important,'' she says. "There's underlying issues here. Students did not have a voice in this whole matter, and that's what really upsets us. It's more than censorship. It's about who is the university really here to serve. It was basically a male decision. The university is a whole lot different in 2003 than it was when some of the men graduated 40 years ago.''

The protest rally under cloudless, blue skies attracted more than 200 students and faculty. A few students carried placards that said, "Do not censor my vagina'' and "Censorship is for pussies.''

Charles Snodgrass, an English professor wearing a V-Day T-shirt, said the faculty had met earlier in the day and overwhelmingly voted to condemn the play's cancellation as a university event.

"Since the 11th it's engulfed the campus,'' Snodgrass said. "If we're a university who are indebted to the idea of free inquiry, we should support this.''

One by one, students and faculty addressed the rally, which lasted 65 minutes, touching on issues of censorship, free speech, student empowerment, women's rights and domestic violence. Christine Anderson, a history professor, praised the students and what they'd done to educate the community.

"We encourage you to think critically,'' she said. "Since the Middle Ages, universities have been sites of controversy and debate, and you are carrying on that noble tradition.''

Jackie Kaminski, a XU sophomore, thought the issue of free expression important, but said she was at the rally to celebrate "women and women's issues.''

The rally had its antecedents almost 40 years earlier at Berkeley, Calif. in 1964, when the Free Speech Movement was born. The XU administration didn't overreact and call in police as the Berkeley administration had done after students began protesting a ban on political groups soliciting on campus. A crucial difference is that the XU students, due to the compromise, didn't reach the point of choosing whether to defy the administration's initial decision.

Sambuchino was heartened by the week-long turn of events — and the outcome.

"Through the four years I've been here, I've never seen anything like this,'' he said. "The student body came together in a matter of days. It's so powerful. It's showing how the student body matters and how the students can mobilize. It took four years for me to actually see the student body care about something.'' ©