— by Jianda Monique
Rivka Solomon, the daughter of 1960s activists, has long been a rabble rouser. Her 2002 edited anthology, That Takes Ovaries!, now in its sixth printing, still inspires action with its essays by women telling their true stories of “being bold and brazen, outrageous or courageous”–from rallying against sexual harassment to chewing out a burglar in the act.
That book (and play of the same name) has spurred its own international movement, serving as a blueprint for at least 600 open-mike speak-outs and performances in which girls and women celebrate their own “ovarian acts.”
That Takes Ovaries: An Interview With Rivka Solomon
Bravery. Courage. Chutzpah! and… Femininity? Womanhood? Girlsishness?
More often than not, ideas of femininity don’t quite get lumped in alongside lion or lioness-like qualities. Though the “mother lifting car by power of love and adrenaline” scenario does come to mind when prodded, it’s certainly not the first image to come to mind when one thinks of motherhood or feminine power.
Enter Rivka Solomon, who, with her standout tome “That Takes Ovaries: Bold Females and Their Brazen Acts,” is rewriting the script before our very eyes with the help of a handful of brave, modern-day goddesses.
Back in the day, I had a chance to conduct a little Q and A with Rivka, and as she was then, these days she continues to be a veritable force to be reckoned with.
Q: What was the breaking point that made you collect all these stories, and kept you putting it together through all the peaks and valleys of the process?
Rivka: Are you asking what motivated me to spend 4.5 years collecting these stories, editing this book and now organizing the open mics? Well, two things. First, I just thought it would be fun.
You know, how totally cool to get hundreds of stories from women and girls about the gutsy, bold, audacious, outrageous things they have done! I get a real kick out of seeing a woman, any woman, being bold. I mean, isn’t it a rush to see a little girl walk into a room full of people and take charge? Or witness a teenaged girl take on some outrageous risk, and pull it off? It is just exciting to be around that stuff.
But I also compiled and edited this book for another reason. This book is about risk takers, women and girls who have pushed the boundaries, jumped over barriers, sailed around obstacles — often having fun while they did those things, often standing up for their own or others rights as they did those things. And, basically, I wanted to encourage that.
I wanted to celebrate female risk takers in a wide range of activities (in the world of work, in the world of playing and having fun, in the home, on the streets). I wanted to affirm women and girls who are already risk takers in their lives *and* I wanted to encourage others, readers who might not live their lives that way, to take the bold new step of being a risk taker.
I wrote this book because courage is infectious. I thought that if some reader who might not be living such a bold life now saw how another girl does something gutsy (like grabs the hand of a child molester groping her butt or tracks down wild guerrillas in Africa — two totally different stories in the book), then she might think, “Hey, if *that* woman can do something so outrageous, so adventurous, so courageous, then so can I!”
So in short, I wrote this book because I wanted to celebrate the fun, bold things women do, and also I wanted to do whatever I could to encourage even more women and girls to be risk takers. I feel that if women live more boldly, not only will they have more fulfilling, fun, adventurous lives, but *also* the more willing they’ll be to take risks in standing up for themselves and for others. And the more willing they will be to challenge “the system” and the sexism, racism, ablism, anti-Semitism, homophobia we live with (and usually try to just ignore) on a daily basis.
Q: Tell us more about the Open Mics. How are they going, what kind of a response are they getting?
Rivka: The open mikes have been going really well and people are responding wonderfully to them! In the past 9 months there have been 40 That Takes Ovaries! readings and open mikes (and some dramatizations) held around the U.S. and India, all organized locally by women in the community. In case your readers don’t know: The book is coupled with a grassroots open mike movement for women’s and girls’ empowerment.
Because women and girls everywhere have gutsy deeds to brag about, we are holding That Takes Ovaries! open mikes all around the country — and world now, too. That way women and girls in any community can come together and share stories about times they were particularly courageous, or brag about times they were wild ‘n’ crazy.
Guys can join us (and many do) by proudly bragging about the ovaries in their lives, their mothers, sisters, daughters. The open mikes can happen in your living room, with just your friends invited, or they can happen in a more public setting, like a bookstore, community center or as part of a pre-scheduled annual meeting.
Many of the open mikes are fundraisers for a local girls’ group and groups working to end human rights abuses against girls internationally, like female genital mutilation and sex trafficking. The beauty of this book and movement is that any woman interested in organizing a That Takes Ovaries! open mike in her own area can get the guidelines from the back of the book, from www.thattakesovaries.org, or from me. First time organizers welcome.
Actually, we are looking for more people to organize open mikes. So if any readers want to come to one, or if they want to organize or host one they should check out the website.
Q: Your Berlin Wall story is incredible! What is your favorite story in the book?
Rivka: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed reading my story in the book!
Now, regarding my favorite? That is an unfair question. I love them all. I have been living with and working with each of these 64 stories for the past 5 years. Some stories are light and playful, some are deep and political. I like both types, and I like the contrast. For example, some stories are about women having fun — instigating an erotic interlude with messy paints, tracking huge gorillas alone in West Africa, shaving hairy legs in playful stripes, skysurfing out of an airplane on a tiny surfboard.
Other stories are about more political things, like running your sister’s batterer out of town, bawling out a racist cop, spreading your legs hundreds of times to teach medical students how to properly care for women’s gynecological health, mounting a pee protest in demand of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms on campus, and saving a girl you doesn’t know from being beaten on the side of the highway.
The way I see it, both the fun *and* the political stories fall under the single umbrella of freedom and empowerment for women. Both the fun and the political stories are about women rejecting tired old notions — stereotypes, really — of how they are supposed to act (i.e. passive, cautious, weak, etc), instead of being who they really are: complete full human beings who can do whatever they set their minds on doing.
Both types of stories, the light or deep ones, are about not accepting limits placed on you from a sexist society. Sexism, we all know, tries to define what men are “supposed” to be like and what women are “supposed” to be like. Being your true self means ignoring those “supposed-to’s” whether it is in the way you work or the way you play — or the way you fight for your human rights.
Q: Your sections dealing with sexuality and anger are particularly compelling in lieu of the fact they are grrl-centered stories. In your opinion, why do you think it’s still so hard for it to be “okay” for a woman to be angry, and to be sexually expressive or empowered?
Rivka: Good question. And a complex question. So bear with me with this long answer.
It is hard because it is breaking the stereotype (that word again!) of what a woman is “supposed” to be like. In a sexist society, both males and females are directly and indirectly told to squash our whole complete lovely selves into a small itty bitty box of what a man or woman is “supposed” to be.
We all know what this looks like: males are conditioned to be the half of the species who can get angry, but are not allowed to feel sadness or cry. Females are conditioned to be the half of the species who can be sad and cry, but we must remain sweet, kind and never get mad. Even when someone is doing us wrong. That’s crazy.
If someone disses you or hurts you, it is a natural human response to feel anger. Women should not be denied access to this part of their humanity (and if they do it is at their peril: depression, eating disorders, etc.). Similarly, guys should not be denied access to their compassionate, gentle sides (and if they do, it is to *their* peril: look at all the violence that surrounds men who feel a need to prove their strength and “manhood”).
Anyway, my book has a whole chapter dedicated to real women in the real world who feel real emotions, including the emotion of anger. It shows that just like all human beings, we sometimes get mad. It shows that in fact having access to our ability to get angry keeps us able to defend ourselves.
If you are busy thinking you have to be nice all the time, you may not try to stop someone from mistreating you. You may just grin and bear it, put up with it, let it slide. Of course then the abuse continues. Too many women are trained to be like that. My book offers examples of women being boldly and righteously mad.
Regarding your question about sexuality: It is hard to be a woman who is sexually expressive or empowered because it is, again, going against the norm.
Historically a woman was taught to be modest. She was the leg-crossing, no-saying figure who was the main obstacle to a sex act. When she finally did get sexual (after incessant pressure), it was always with a man, never a woman, and she was to react and respond, never instigate. It took guts to be an openly desiring female because being a sexual girl meant being a bad girl. She’d be discounted, ostracized. No longer “pure”, she’d fall on the other end of the spectrum labeled “slut.”
These traditional norms are still present in some women’s lives. What is tricky today is that the norms have morphed into a confusing mixed message. In today’s multimedia-based culture the so-called slut is actually promoted (though in real life she is still punished). She is the scantily clad, just-do-me-looking, hypersexualized young woman revered in ads, movies, magazines, and music videos.
No longer the obstacle to sex, today’s girls and women are supposed to personify it; according to the media images, they are to look attractive, lusty, and be sexually available at all times for the men of the world. Women have learned to accept being on constant ogle-display. Worse, what is considered attractive is defined for them by the fashion and media industries. A woman’s value depends on whether her looks meet the industries’ definition — and how much male attention she gets.
From women being told they are *not* supposed to be sexual, to being told they *should* be more sexual, our sexuality has been played like a Ping-Pong ball in a game of table tennis. So the truth is worth repeating (and that is what I hope my book does): A woman’s body is her body, and it shouldn’t be pushed around by anybody else. We all need to be in command of our own selves. We all need to make our own sexual decisions.
So today, a woman who is empowered sexually is a woman who is making her own decisions, not doing what others tell her to do. Today, empowered women are choosing for themselves. They say yes when they want to say yes, no when they want to say no, and they do the asking and initiating when it suits them. That is a sexually empowered female at the start of the new millennium.
Q: Personally, what gives you the strength to keep speaking the truth as a writer? As a woman? Against so many odds–so many competing (indeed, aggressively opposed) voices?
Rivka: There has been no negative response to my book or the open mikes, so actually it has not been hard at all to speak “the truth” — which, of course, is really just *my* truth. Though a big part of what “my” truth has been with regards to my work is really giving other women a place to speak their own truths.
My book and open mike movement are about giving women and girls a place and a format for sharing stories about their own lives. Sharing personal experiences aloud is the foundation for any political movement. It is also the fuel needed for the long term *continuation* of any political movement, including the movement for women’s liberation, which we all know started a long time ago with the fight for the right to vote and continues to this day with the fight for the right to not be beaten at home, sexually harassed in the street, raped etc. It also includes our right to keep abortion safe and legal, get equal pay for our work and equal attention in the bedroom.
For any society to evolve, for any people to be free, before reality on the ground can be changed, the truth needs to be told. My book and the open mike movement is about women sharing women’s truths. It is showing what real women’s and girls’ lives look like, what are our struggles and what are our triumphs. And getting back to your question of what gives me strength, well, it is just that: hearing these stories gives me strength.
Q: Any words of inspiration for women in particular—or artists, as well—creators? Also, what do you think men might get out of this book?
Rivka: Words of inspiration for *them*? No, they inspire *me*!
Mostly I just want to say that I recognize that it is not easy being an artist — at least not in the U.S., where I live. I am not sure what country your website visitors are from, but in the U.S. artists don’t get a lot of respect or money for their work. Unless you are a big name, of course, then you get loads of dough.
But for the rest of us, if you are in the music, visual arts or writing industries, if you are an artist of any kind, you are likely waiting on tables or cleaning houses as a way to pay for food and rent. In reality, they/we are working two jobs and only getting paid for one. I have heard that in other countries artists get more respect and thus more money, without needing to be a big name. I just wish we could go back to the old days when artists had patrons, some wealthy, generous person who sponsors you and your art work.
Anyway, that is what *I* desperately need. So any potential patrons reading this interview are welcome to contact me atThatTakesOvaries.org.
What do I think men might get out of this book and our open mike movement? Well, men love the whole concept of That Takes Ovaries! They “get it” as soon as they hear it, and they love it. The men I know who have come to the open mikes really enjoy it. Men have been standing up at our events, just like the women, and they proudly brag about the ovaries in their lives — like last week one guy in his early 30′s just went on and on about how wonderful his younger sister is. At the same event even the bookstore manager stood up and told us how important his favorite teacher was in his life — a woman (and a feminist at that!).
Q: What project(s) are you currently working on?
Rivka: I’m working on organizing the open mikes, book readings and the play. Mostly, with other women, I am organizing the open mikes in communities throughout the U.S., India and hopefully soon China. Also the book has recently been adapted into a play for the stage. We have a four week run of the Ovaries! play in Washington DC in March 2003 with Horizons Theatre (www.horizonstheatre.org), the longest running women’s theatre in the U.S. Very exciting stuff. Each Friday night we will hold an open mike after the play’s performance.
By the way, we are currently looking for other interested producers, theatre companies and celebrity actors. If you know anyone who’d be interested in looking at the Ovaries script have them contact me.
Rivka, thank you so much. Courageous is infectious—yes! #Cosign.
So is inspiration. Thanks for sharing so much inspiration with us.
That’s right, y’all: Egg Up.