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  • (In)Decorous Abortion Debate: Michigan Legislators’ Protest Performance of The Vagina Monologues
  • Ann Folino White (bio)

Early evening, on June 18, 2012, thousands of women, men, and children gathered on Michigan’s capitol lawn. A “gigantic bolt of red fabric for lack of a set” lay in a “V” at the base of the capitol steps (Norris). Many wore T-shirts declaring love for female genitalia—for example, “I ♥ Vaginas”—Planned Parenthood T-shirts and buttons, or ACLU T-shirts. On the front of the latter the Statue of Liberty says “Vagina,” championing reproductive rights and free speech; on the back is printed “Vagina. Can’t Say it? Don’t Legislate It.” Homemade signs aggressively and humorously denounced state regulation of women’s reproduction: for example, “Keep Your Boehner Out of My Vagina,” “If I Wanted the Government in My Vagina, I’d Screw a Senator,” and “MI-Gina.” The collective mood was convivial; people took videos and posed for pictures. They chanted “vuh jahy nuh” as they sat in lawn chairs, on the grass, or stood waiting for Michigan lawmakers, theatre artists, and Eve Ensler to perform The Vagina Monologues (TVM) (fig. 1).

Four days earlier, on Thursday, June 14, news had broken that Michigan House Republicans barred Representatives Lisa Brown (D) and Barbara Byrum (D) from speaking on the floor for, allegedly, “disrupt[ing] the decorum of the House” (“Michigan Woman Lawmakers Silenced”). Straightaway, media and social-media users had circulated the story that the women legislators were censored for using “vagina,” positioning TVM as the fitting response. Startling coincidence seemed to dictate it.

Stepping back to scrutinize serendipity as instead a series of political, rhetorical, and organizational decisions makes clear why Michigan politicians and activists turned to theatre as a means of political action, and the advantages and limits of performing TVM specifically. It also renders the unlikeliness and significance of legislators’ performance in the show. Using multimedia coverage; interviews with (former) legislators,1 actors, and organizers; parliamentary rules of decorum; and my observations of the protest, I posit three related arguments.2 First, that political actors availed themselves of theatrical protest because the legislature’s patriarchal performance conventions—inscribed as “decorum”—impeded female representatives’ participation in debate despite their performative interventions. Second, theatre training—organizational skills, networks, and learned volunteerism—was vitally generative of the protest. Finally, legislators’ performance in TVM radically confronted gendered aspects of the legislature. TVM ’s old-hat feminist politics fall very short of progressive representations and activism, particularly as V-Day events. Placing the play within a new context did not correct its politically questionable dramaturgy. The protest performance perpetuated TVM ’s essentialism by leveraging identity politics for short-term political gain. However, the legislators’ performance substantively transgressed political convention; it unmasked “universal” representative democracy’s masculine underpinnings via its refusal to disavow womanhood.

Wild, Wild West: Decorum in the Michigan House

Byrum and Brown maintain (to date) that they did not breach decorum. The following analysis of what happened on the House floor demonstrates that they were not censured for violating [End Page 125] written rules of decorum, but rather for the tacit expectations of women’s conduct underlying them. Furthermore, although Byrum and Brown do not perceive their actions as such, they belong in the genealogy of radical feminist performance. Their performances personalized their interest and the opposition’s in the abortion bill, violating the liberal ideation of representative government. In doing so, they precipitated vehement patriarchal reactions. It bears an uncanny likeness to Carolee Schneemann’s 1967 Round House. Schneemann defied unwritten codes of decorum operating at the Dialects of Liberation Congress, whose elite afforded her a token invite only to systematically demean and marginalize her for being a woman artist. Within that context, Schneemann’s “kinetic theatre” exacted the confrontation (Harding 121–49). In the Michigan House, Byrum’s and Brown’s performative acts challenged the written rules’ patriarchal underpinnings, but the rules’ strength necessitated further theatrical intervention.

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Fig. 1.

Protester posing in ACLU T-shirt with Planned Parenthood pin, June 18, 2012. Michigan Capitol, Lansing. (Photo: Author.)

The stakes of House Bill (HB) 5711 were very high (“2012 House...


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