March 1, 2008

Interview with a Fabulous Female


Rivka Solomon writes and rabble-rouses on the East Coast, specializing in first-person narratives focusing on women's and girls' issues. In addition to That Takes Ovaries! Bold Females and Their Brazen Acts, Solomon's work has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Bust: The New Girl Order, Feminista!, Lilith Magazine, and WBUR, Boston's National Public Radio news station (on-air essays). Since darn near babyhood, Solomon has been an advocate/activist for women and girls.

A message from Rivka:

Thanks, April, for this opportunity to talk with your readers! First, some background, before I get to your specific questions. That Takes Ovaries (TTO) is a book, an open mike movement, a play and an organizing tool for women's and girls' empowerment. The book is a collection of stories -- true stories -- written by women and girls about times they had been bold and courageous. The TTO open mike events are part of a grassroots initiative because, while our staff lead some of them, they are mainly led by local women from the community. We've held hundreds of them now around the US and abroad. At a TTO open mike, women and girls share their own gutsy acts, while we raise money for good causes and give out golden ovaries awards to all who share a story. The causes we have raised money for range from women's shelters to groups working to end human rights abuses around the globe to Planned Parenthood to Amnesty International. Any woman, girl or organization can lead a TTO event. It can happen in someone's living room or in a public setting. We've held them in living rooms with 10 people and at women's conferences with 600 women in one room. They are fun and allow one to gain experience organizing, leading and raising money for favorite girls' causes. The guidelines for organizing a TTO open mike are at our website, ThatTakesOvaries.org. You can also reach me there to see about inviting me or our staff to lead an event in your community or at your organization or school. Now on to your questions…

AB: What inspired you to write That Takes Ovaries?

RS: Well, really, I wrote the book and the play and am leading a TTO open mike movement for one reason: I wanted to encourage women and girls to lead bold lives and be risk-takers. Then their lives would be fuller, richer, more adventurous and fun -- and also, if they live their lives as risk-takers, then they'd be more likely to stand up for themselves and for others, especially against injustices. We all know you have to be a risk-taker to do that!

AB: When you published the book, did you foresee the movement it would become? What positive impact has the movement had, in your opinion?

RS: When I was editing the book and publishing it, I sure hoped this movement would happen. I am a bit surprised that it did, but also not surprised. That is because it seems to me that many of us are starved for examples of women and girls acting outside the stereotype of passivity and niceness. I am talking about women and men of all ages who want to see their sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts and friends leading empowered lives; mothers and fathers who care about their daughters growing up self-assured and confident; and girls eager to be a part of a REAL (not Madison Ave manufactured) girl power movement. I think a lot of folks are hoping to challenge a culture still wrought with inequality and double standards. So That Takes Ovaries taps into that vibrant mass of women and girls hungry for powerful female role models. THAT is why the open mike movement is still going strong five years after the book came out.

You ask what positive impact the movement has had… Well, I think that along with many other wonderful women's empowerment initiatives that other organizations lead, TTO events contribute to creating real change in the world. Regarding TTO specifically, not only do our events transform the women and girls who partake in them, but then these women, in turn, transform the larger community around them.

It works like this: At our events, women relay stories of their courage to supportive, cheering crowds. This simple but important act affirms the storyteller's confidence and determination to keep taking risks in her life, both personally and politically. And because courage is contagious (this is the tag-line of our organization!), the story sharing that happens at our events inspires audience members to be bold too, both in their lives and at the event itself, where they are motivated to step through their fear of public speaking and spontaneously share their own sassy stories. Stepping through fear and seeing that one can survive the experience encourages a woman to step through her fear again, perhaps in a bigger way for a bigger issue, such as standing up for herself and her rights. In this respect, courage is contagious within an individual too.

When men attend our events, they too are transformed. Men gain a deeper respect for women simply by listening to women tell stories about their courage. Men also share stories about the brave women in their lives -- their mothers, sisters, daughters. That is transformative too! For many male and female participants, this is the first time they will have ever heard a man publicly praise a woman's strength and courage.

Real political change cannot happen without someone willing to step through their fear and take a risk. TTO gives people a place to practice this risk-taking and to celebrate it. Our events have a transformative effect on people's lives long after the night is over. That, I would say, is the most positive impact TTO has.

AB: What are some of the most interesting or inspiring things you have seen result from the book and movement?

RS: Oh, there are many examples of women deciding to take on a challenge or take a step through fear as a result of coming to one of our events or reading the book. For example, we have held many TTO events in India thanks to Mira Kakkar, our wonderful leader there, and to Bobbi Ausubel, our Artistic Director (a.k.a my mom), who has worked there with Apne Aap (www.apneaap.org). Apne Aap is an amazing organization that helps to empower and meet the basic needs of WIP (women in prostitution) who are living in the slums and red light districts, including women and girls who had been forced into sexual slavery via the sex trafficking world. At some of our events, women from different walks of life (upper, middle and so-called lower classes of women) get to meet each other, and that lowers the level of discrimination. In addition, a wonderful thing happened at one of the events: After a few women shared their bold acts of leaving abusive husbands, right then and there an ongoing support group of these women was established. It is called I AM. I am very inspired by that.

AB: Why did you feel there was a need for such a book to be written? What space did it fill?

RS: Oh, this is a big question and will get a big answer!

It is important to me how women and girls are doing, all around the world. I care if girls get to grow up safe, free of violence and sexual assault. I care if women get to develop to their fullest potential without the burden of sexism. I have a passion for the liberation of women and girls everywhere.

I decided to write/edit a book about times women and girls were bold and brave because you need courage to fight for your liberation and to live free of gender role stereotypes and oppression. Thanks to the bold women of previous women's movements, we now have the right to own property, vote and use birth control -- all illegal in the past! We can now wear pants in public places (my mom had to wear a skirt to get into her university library), we can open bank accounts in our own names, we can study and enter any field we want to. Now we have rape crisis centers, domestic abuse hotlines and the common understanding that women are not to be blamed for being raped or hit.

So all that is good. But the truth is that the fight is not over yet, and that's why I wrote and edited the book. Women are still struggling for equal rights, like the right to live without sexual harassment, to live without violence, to walk down the street at night without the fear of being assaulted. The right to not be controlled, hit or beaten by our boyfriends! We still need to fight for the right to have equal representation in our political institutions and in businesses, to receive equal pay for our work, to have safe and easy access to birth control and abortion. And my personal passion: We still have to fight for the right to enjoy the mass media (movies, comedy, music videos) without being bombarded with hyper-sexualized images of women and images that constantly portray women as powerless victims. So THAT is why I wrote this book. I wanted to inspire women to be bold so that more women would become the risk-takers they need to be if they are going to join the effort.

I could also go global on you here. I could mention all the rights that women still need to fight for around the globe, because in many countries the situation for women is much, much worse than here in the U.S. In many countries women are second-class citizens with little or no power. They have no control over their sex lives or reproductive lives, no ability/agency to say "no" to sex, no access to condoms (which could save their lives when you consider HIV/AIDS), no birth control, no access to abortions. International women suffer from acid attacks, female genital mutilation, honor killings, forced marriages during childhood, sexual slavery and prostitution and rape during war. 1 in 3 women will be raped or assaulted in her lifetime. My point is that women have a lot of things left to fight for to achieve even their basic human rights.

AB: What constitutes a "brazen act"?

RS: A brazen act is any time one acts "out of line," not in accordance with the stereotype of what a woman is "supposed" to do. But really, each woman has to define "bold and brazen" for herself, and that is what they do when they take the mic to share a story. For me, I had to define "having ovaries" in order to edit the book, and the best that I could tell, it meant being bold, gutsy, brazen, outrageous, audacious, and/or courageous.

AB: Are you still in touch with any of the contributors? What are they doing now?

RS:
There are 64 contributors in the book. I am in touch with some and others I have lost touch with. It took me 4.5 years to write the book, so during that time there were births and deaths, marriages and divorces, etc. It was fascinating to see these 64 women's and girls' lives develop and grow and change.

AB: Has anything unexpected ever happened at a That Takes Ovaries! event?

RS:
Well, not unexpected to me, but I think it is often a surprise for women when men take to the mic and brag about their moms, sisters, wives, friends, etc. It is often the first time a woman will have gotten to see a guy publicly praise a woman for her strength and courage.

AB: What are some of the more unique things that organizers have done?

RS:
The organizers have a lot of fun with these events. Some blow up pink balloons that represent ovaries. Others decorate the walls with our Ovarian Synonyms (such as "audacious," "sassy" and "mettlesome"). Some have a Wall of Ovaries where women can list their bold acts on a bulletin board. Mira in India has everyone write messages on a sari that hangs on the wall. Some organizers invite local politicians to share their own ovarian act, or a local news anchor. That is always fun too.

AB: How did That Takes Ovaries! become a play? Did you imagine that it would as you were writing/editing it? Has being adapted to the stage changed the book in any way?

RS: Oh, I'm so glad you asked about the play! Based on the stories from the book, the That Takes Ovaries play is packed with the same type of multicultural, fun, sassy, true tales of estrogen-powered deeds that range from playful to political. It has a lot of diversity in it, with the voices of every day females from many ages and cultural backgrounds. It includes lighter stories, such as Joani opening the country's first sex-toy store for women and Alison staging a pee protest to secure wheelchair accessible toilets on campus, to heavier stories such as Ruchira risking her life to help girls trapped as sex slaves in Asia and D.H. Wu, a child, stopping her mother from committing suicide after years of spousal abuse. And it has my personal story of how I wrote this book and started the TTO open mike movement all while very sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

While I was editing the stories for the book, I could see the dramatic nature of the narratives, and I thought at the time, Shoot, why not make this into a play? So I did, and I did it with my mother, a playwright from the 2nd wave of feminism, and my father, also a playwright. It was a family affair.

AB: What are you currently working on? What do you see for yourself in the future?

RS:
We have re-written the play yet again (we keep fine-tuning it) and hope to get more productions of it going around the U.S. and globally. We are looking for theatrical representation, producers interested in producing it, and theaters interested in hosting it.

Separately, I am considering doing a second TTO book, but I am not sure yet. The first book did well and is in its 5th print run.

Before I sign off, I want to make sure that everyone knows that any woman or girl -- or any organization -- can host their own TTO open mike. Of course they can invite me or my staff to come lead it, or they can do it themselves, even as a fundraiser for themselves. The guidelines and registration (registration is mandatory) for organizing their own TTO open mike can be found at ThatTakesOvaries.org, along with our great colorful and inspiring promo video. Go watch it!