Eve Ensler, whose groundbreaking play about women's sexuality still packs theaters 16 years after it debuted, oversaw Monday night's performance by Democratic state Rep. Lisa Brown, 10 other lawmakers and several actresses.
Capitol facilities director Steve Benkovsky estimated about 2,500 women and men sat on lawn chairs and blankets to take in the play in downtown Lansing. Rain had lashed the city earlier in the day, but the play unfolded under sunny skies. Billed on Facebook as the "Vaginas Take Back the Capitol!" event, the combination play and protest included political signs and chants of "Vagina! Vagina!"
Ensler, who took time away from a production of her new play she's overseeing in California so she could help put on Monday's performance, said she's thrilled to be involved. She likened the punishment meted out by the Republicans who control the Michigan House to "the Dark Ages."
"If we ever knew deep in our hearts that the issue about abortion ... was not really about fetuses and babies, but really men's terror of women's sexuality and power, I think it's fully evidenced here," Ensler told The Associated Press by phone Monday before arriving in Lansing.
"We're talking about the silencing of women, we're talking about censoring people for saying a body part," she said. "Half of these people who are trying to regulate vaginas, they can't even say the word."
Brown made her comments during debate last week on a series of bills that supporters say would make abortions safer but that opponents say would dramatically reduce women's ability to get abortions. While speaking against a bill requiring doctors to ensure women aren't coerced into ending their pregnancies, Brown told Republicans, "I'm flattered you're all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no."
Brown was barred from speaking in the House during the next day's session. House Republicans say they didn't object to her saying "vagina." They said Brown compared the legislation to rape, violating House decorum. She denies the allegation.
"Her comments compared the support of legislation protecting women and life to rape, and I fully support Majority Floor Leader Jim Stamas' decision to maintain professionalism and order on the House floor," GOP Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, of Alto, said in a statement last week.
Democratic Rep. Barb Byrum, of Onondaga, said she was barred from speaking last Thursday because she referred to vasectomies during the debate.
"I'm overwhelmed by how much attention we're getting around the world," she told Monday's crowd.
Before the play began, Ensler joined Brown and Byrum on the Capitol steps and called for an apology from the Republicans who barred them from speaking.
"These women stood for our rights," Ensler said to applause. "The vaginas are out. We are here to stay."
The speaking ban lasted only through Thursday, when lawmakers left for a five-week break. But the incident has garnered attention internationally and on social media, where the hashtags (hash)vaginagate and (hash)sayvagina are attracting a flurry of posts.
Susie Duncan, 68, watched the play while holding a placard handed out by the American Civil Liberties Union reading, "Vagina. Can't say it? Don't legislate it."
"I hope this will spur people to go vote," the East Lansing resident said. "We've got to change this."
Brown says it isn't just women who are upset with the House GOP leaders' actions.
"I've heard from a lot of men. It's not just women who are speaking out," she said. Her father and mother attended the play.
The Women Lawyers Association of Michigan — whose 650 members include men — criticized taking away Brown's and Byrum's right to speak. The group said it wasn't taking a position on the bills in question, but on the lawmakers' free speech rights.
"Representatives Brown and Byrum had a right to have their constituents' 150,000 voices recognized on June 14, 2012. They were neither vulgar nor disrespectful," the group wrote in a Monday release. "When the minority is silenced, justice cannot prevail and democracy suffers."