by Jill Gentile
This year’s International Women’s Day (March 8), which calls for a general strike in the form of a grassroots display of economic solidarity and anticapitalist feminism, should be an interesting one. It follows on the heels of the largest single-day demonstration in the history of the United States: the Women’s March of January 21. While but a single day, the march has already spawned a legacy. It not only pushed women’s voices and bodies to the foreground of public consciousness, it also opened space for male bodies, transgendered bodies, racialized bodies. And it pollinated the public imagination with images of the female body—in particular, images of female genitalia.
This display was no small feat, no inferior display. It was sizable. It was capacious. It was inclusive. It was receptive. Its abundance marked a substantial victory in the battle for female self-determination, for democratic inclusiveness, and for free speech. And it marked perhaps a decisive turning point for that most improbable protagonist, the vagina, in its Sisyphean struggle for freedom from patriarchal surveillance, sequestration, quarantine. Enslavement. What Jimmy Carter called “the worst and most pervasive and most unaddressed human rights violation on Earth.”
On January 21, “vagina” and “vulva”—the words themselves, along with their slang variants, including “p*ssy” of course—were reclaimed from the realm of the derogatory, vulgar, obscene, and strictly private and excised. In words and images, we launched a fresh and democratically contagious, even apocalyptic, iconography: the hidden, often degraded female genital took center stage in the public sphere. One sign exclaimed Vive la Vulva! Many other frank and fun, cheery and cheeky, colorful symbols flowed across the lawn of the Capital and down streets everywhere from New York to Nairobi, Singapore to Sydney, Athens to Antarctica.
Now here’s the thing: The power of speech lies in its irretrievability. It has intended but also unintended effects, effects that can’t ever be fully controlled or captured, quantified or measured. Once released, speech exists in the gaps that also join speaker and listener, mind and body, private and public, the silenced and the deafening. It is democracy in motion. It lives beyond censure. It is why dictators dread it and why tyrants repress it. And it is why free speech dissidents, those who live under repressive regimes, understand the firstness of our First Amendment better than many Americans do. They know that this freedom, above all, is the key to democratic desire—and to desire’s pulsating, democratizing action. It threatens and it vibrates.
Like freedom, the vagina too vibrates, pulsates. It reverberates in the symbolic exercise of speech—by means of what I call feminine law—which is exactly why it is feared, dreaded, and subject to repression. Yes, it is vulnerable to intrusion, to violation, to plunder. To being grabbed. Yet, even when grabbed and violated, it resists capture, operating according to its own whims and rhythms that are also lawful, requiring an elusive amalgam of wooing, self-knowledge, and of truthful desire to sustain an open receptive space. Located between the physically material and the immaterial unknown, it is a primordial symbol of space itself. Sustaining this metaphoric (and actual space) creates a lived tension between mystery and discovery, a gateway both to inclusion and to freedom. A foundational marker of free speech, it is essential for women but also for the transgendered and for men to claim.
Even those who mocked the March—those who would only see vulgarity where vaginality prospered, or weakness and victimization where pride and fierce resistance marched—needed to refer to it, to name it. Some even (if ironically) dubbed it “The Vagina March.” Yet if derogation was intended, the rhetorical strategy proved self-defeating. Naming the unnameable actually served to promulgate a discourse of (vaginal) desire, and of freedom.
It seems that Donald Trump and his coterie do not recognize this. Unable to claim the vaginal symbolic, they vainly try to seize and surveil what lies beyond their grasp. Unable to situate themselves in a symbolically vaginal holding and lawful space, they foreclose freedom’s spatializing force by retreating into faux phallic bravado and bluster (from vicious exhortations to “Lock Her Up” to rapturous appeals to patriotism and “freedom”). Unable to sustain the sphere of free speech and its democratizing action, they reduce the feminine (the female body, our Mother Earth) to objects of brute force rhetorical (sometimes actual) control and possession, degradation and plunder.
Perhaps for this reason, female speech, resistant speech, the ethical speech of desire, must always emerge from the margins, from a (vaginal) space between power and subjection, that birthing place of freedom and of truth. At times it will take the form of a political rant, characterized by Dina Al-Kassim as injecting oneself “into a language that only belongs improperly to one,” to reach “within a social network of division and exclusion to participate in the power of the world.”
In a fitting Women’s March postscript, Mitch McConnell’s rebuke of Elizabeth Warren—“Nevertheless, she persisted”— came to emblemize the too often socially unintelligible (to white men) voices of women. #Nevertheless, she persisted: the action of democracy creating itself.
Interestingly, psychoanalysis’s own origin story traces to Freud’s degradation of the feminine and of female genitalia. (Freud famously insisted on his cherished concept of penis envy). But it also pivots on free association, its signature method, which Freud neither invented nor discovered by himself. It was actually, if you will, the joint progeny Freud and of his patient “Frau Emmy,” who insisted on her right and need to speak freely without interruption. Freud’s peremptory questions and mansplaining might have silenced Emmy, but #she persisted.
Perhaps the vagina’s surviving marginalization, silencing, and even exile befits its role as the inappropriable marker of free speech. Not merely a body part, it is available to all. But its claiming requires a dedication to the lawful constraints that condition the exercise of freedom. “Remember: This is a marathon, not a sprint” reads the call to action for the General Strike on March 8. That date will now be the beneficiary of the symbolic and real effects of January 21. On that date—despite the disputations of those who would wish to deny reality— millions of people marched, chanting slogans, carrying signs. The p*ssy missile launched. The vagina metaphor is in play, and the democratization of desire has gained true ground, above ground, free from capture. #P*ssy Persisted.
 Al-Kassim, D. (2010). On Pain of Speech: Fantasies of the First Order and the Literary Rant. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 11.