Where are her ovaries now? Chat with Rivka Solomon
TTO takes many forms -- it's a book, an open mike movement, a play, and an organizing tool for women's and girls' empowerment. Most TTO events benefit women's and girls' causes -- women's shelters, Planned Parenthood, groups working to end human rights abuses around the globe, Amnesty International, and more.
I had the privilege of interviewing Rivka to get the inside scoop on TTO's success and to find out where her ovaries are now.
Here's what she had to share:
1. TTO just celebrated its 6th anniversary. Mazel Tov! Can you tell us a bit about the life cycle of the project? How did it begin and how has it evolved?
First, TTO was a book (excerpts are found on our website www.ThatTakesOvaries.org). Then, as soon as the book came out, I coupled it with a TTO open mike movement. I figured that since I was able to only include 64 women's stories in my book, and since I knew there were a few billion other women with good stories to share -- stories that should be shouted from the rooftops for all to hear! -- I had to come up with an idea that would both help publicize the book AND give women a place to share their own ovarian acts. Ta-da!, an open mike movement was born. This idea also embraced the philosophy behind the book: that every woman and girl is a role model for others; that each has retained her power and strength in at least some areas of her life; that, if shared with others, such power and strength would inspire others to live a more bold life, too. The open mikes embraced the larger philosophy I hold that every woman and girl is a natural born leader. So, I encourage women who have never organized anything before to learn to be a leader and organizer of women's voice and women's causes by leading a TTO open mike. The play grew out of the open mike events. At each TTO open mike we held, before the actual open mike component of the night, and to rev up the audiences, we would read stories/excerpts from the TTO book. We'd get women from the community to rehearse them ahead of time and then read them aloud at the event. So, finally taking the plunge to write a whole TTO play for the stage was a no-brainer. I had already written and edited the stories in the book in a way that I felt was pretty dramatic, so adapting them for public readings was not hard. The final step of adapting them into a full play for the stage was not that hard either. Our lovely Bobbi Ausubel, Artistic Director of TTO, worked on the play with me and we co-wrote it together. Of course, we are continually tweaking the play and re-working the script. But meanwhile, in its various forms and incarnations, it has been produced and preformed on college campuses and in community theaters all across the US.
2. What sparked the idea behind TTO? Can you share a significant moment or story that helped the project take off?
Well, really, the spark or idea behind TTO is that I wanted to encourage women and girls to lead more bold lives and be risk-takers. Because 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! So that is The Big Idea behind TTO. The specific moment or story that helped the whole project to take off is really this: As a 20 and 30-something young woman, "That takes ovaries" was a saying I used often enough with my girlfriends when we wanted to remark about some other woman's chutzpah, her audacity, her guts, her fearlessness. But then one night I used it at a party with folks I didn't know as well. Someone had told some story about some lady doing something totally brazen and I just said, "Well, that takes ovaries." And the whole room instantly fell silent. I guess they were trying to compute what I had just said. Then, like a millisecond later, they all burst out laughing, exclaiming, "That's great!"
After the party ended, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized the playfulness *and* the power behind the phrase "that takes ovaries." It was not just fun and funny; it challenged the myth of the passive female -- and that made it political. Even more, the phrase reflected a key sentiment behind the latest rising wave of young feminists at that time (you know, the Guerilla Girl, Riot Grrrl, Third Wave, and girls' movements), that is, the attitude of playful brazenness in the push for gender equality.
So that very night I decided to compile a collection of ovarian acts where women and girls take charge, and maybe even have fun. I hoped my book-to-be could add to those already coming out that are a platform for girls' vibrant voices and a celebration of womanly resilience. And as I say in my book intro, I envisioned a book that would excite women and men of all ages who wanted to see the ovaries in their circle -- their sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and friends -- leading empowered lives.
I guess what I really wanted to do with this book title was introduce something new to our lexicon and therefore something new to our way of thinking about gender characteristics. By adapting the phrase that takes balls to that takes ovaries, I felt we could challenge the myth that only men have innate power and fearlessness. When we adapt the phrase, we women are claiming our naturally-born, inherent strength and courage, too. And why not? Women and girls everywhere have been acting on their strength all along; the only thing that's new is the cool expression we are now using to brag about it. And I was just lucky enough to be the first to snatch it up as a book title.
3. What has surprised you most about TTO's success in becoming a vehicle for empowerment? Was there an "ah-hah!" moment or a particular experience in connection with your work that gave you pause to consider something new? A moment that propelled your activism in new directions?
The biggest surprise was that the vision that I conquered up quietly in my own little head became a big reality very quickly. I envisioned the open mike idea, developed the outline for the guidelines for how to lead one in the original book and on my website, and before I knew it, women from around the globe were emailing me asking if they, too, could lead a TTO event. And then, women who had organized a TTO event started to email me "report backs" from their events, telling me how empowering the event was. Individual audience members (event participants, really) emailed me and told me how much it had meant to them to share their own story of personal courage and bravery at the open mike event, and some wrote how the event inspired them to do something bold the next day, or the next week. It was, like, wow, you mean this thing really works? The model I had come up with really works? That was my a-ha moment. And I still have it, just about every day, even 6 years after the book has come out, each time I get one of these emails or talk to a woman who is moved by our events.
4. How is your commitment to women's empowerment connected to your Jewish identity? Is your Jewishness nurtured by your activism? Is your activism nurtured by your Jewishenss?
I strongly identify as Jewish, even though I am not so religious. I grew up "culturally Jewish." As a child, we celebrated the holidays that had a strong social message about oppression and liberation (Passover, Purim, Hanukah). But the primary way I feel I was influenced by Judaism was through the social change and social justice activism and work my Jewish parents lived -- breathed -- on a daily basis. They were active in the women and men's liberation movements, the anti-war (Vietnam) movement, ending racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Much of their passion for social justice work, I feel, came from their own Jewish backgrounds. It stemmed from their concern that all people should be able to live free, unoppressed and with the space to fulfill their innate, natural born potential. Something that my book and play are also all about, for women and girls!
5. The Jewish Women's Archive is rooted in the value of telling stories, and we're committed to preserving the stories of Jewish women who have shaped our world in myriad ways. It isn't always easy for women to share their own stories, especially those that touch upon sensitive issues such as sexuality, violence, discrimination, and abuse. There's this notion that "my story isn't important enough" or "why should anyone care about my experience?" Have you encountered this challenge among the women you've worked with? What are the strategies you've used to encourage women to open up?
Yes, we have encountered this same problem, and similar problems, with some of the women and girls we have worked with. It is the nature of women's oppression to make us feel like our experiences are not as important, not as valid, as men's experiences. And it is the nature of classism, racism and young people's oppression to do the same. So when we work with some communities of women who have been particularly oppressed or beaten down, or with women who are homeless or poor, or when we work with younger girls (even teens), we are often faced with the dilemma of them saying to us, "I've never done anything gutsy or bold in my life, so I have nothing to share at this open mike." Then we have to help them re-frame how they see themselves. We have to work with them to get them to understand that sometimes simply surviving in a harsh racist, sexism, classist, ableist, and homophobic world takes ovaries, it takes guts.
The strategies we use for overcoming this are to give examples, read stories from the book or play, about times women like them have been bold and brave. We also do "Pair and Shares" where women share small stories one-on-one with a partner about a time they stepped through their fear and did something anyway, regardless of their fear. And amazingly, as these smaller stories are shared, something shifts and transforms, and a woman or girl begins to see that, in fact, her whole life has taken ovaries! Or that, "Hey, I *did* do something that took guts once, something that was brave! That time I... " and then the stories pour forth.
6. TTO brilliantly blends art, history, and activism and unites the personal with the political. How do you effectively bring all of this together?
Well, the personal is political. Women from the 1960s consciousness raising groups that popped up around the US helped to show us that. These women gathered together and found that so many of their stories and lives were, in fact, similar. When they discovered that they all felt belittled by the men around them, or that they all experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, a light bulb turned on and they realized that their individual experiences are, in fact, a *group* experience that most women lived with. That was when "The personal is political" phrase was coined and became understood.
We find, even today, that when women share their personal stories at our TTO events, the women in the audience have that same "a-ha" or light bulb moment. When woman after woman gets up to share about how she was sexually assaulted, or how it took guts to do x or y or z, commonalities are discovered, and group experiences are understood. Women feel less alone. And they see that their personal struggles and triumphs are part of a larger picture of how women are oppressed and that the strategies for how to fight for their individual and group freedom from that oppression are also similar (i.e. you need to stand up for yourself, stand up for others, organize).
Using the arts (storytelling, open mikes, dramatic enactments) to make all this come alive, is nothing new. People have been using drama and the arts forever to depict the reality of people's lives and the conflicts and struggles -- and the triumphs -- that people face. So we are just part of a long tradition of groups who are employing the arts to this end. I will say that it is also very effective. People are more likely to remain engaged for 2 or so hours if there is entertaining drama happening in front of them, or if individual women (perhaps women who are seated right next to them!) become inspired to stand up to share a personal story. Certainly that is more engaging than if there is a lecturer at a podium, going on and on for 2 hours with statistics regarding women's oppression.
7. You recently hosted a fundraiser in honor of Women's History Month to help TTO continue its mission. How did it go?
Thank you for asking! It went really well. It was a fundraiser both for TTO and for Web of Benefit, a Boston area nonprofit dedicated to giving survivors of domestic violence small grants so that they can get their basic needs met (e.g. visit the doctor, pay for child care) and/or follow their dreams (e.g. take a class in order to get a degree, buy a computer). Amazingly, this was our FIRST TIME attempting to raise money for ourselves. Usually, our events are fundraisers for other women and girls' organizations. But we need money too, to expand and flourish. So after 6 years, we decided to hold an event for ourselves. We'll likely do more in the future. But we are also looking for a Fairy Godmother who would like to underwrite our powerful work. So if you see her, or a philanthropic donor, send her our way!
8. How do you envision TTO evolving in the next six years? What's your dream for its future?
Besides continuing to run our grassroots efforts, where women's organizations can lead their own TTO open mike, and besides continuing our work having TTO staff go out into the world to lead TTO open mikes, the next steps are: 1) the play; 2) more international work; 3) maybe more books. First, the play. We are now getting the play in better shape. It has already been produced in small theaters and on college campuses around the country and excerpts have been done around the globe. All that has been very successful. Audiences really love the play. But we recently re-worked the script to make it even better. We changed a few things. So we are now looking to workshop the script, that is, try out the newly revised script in front of a live audience. And once that is done, we will be hot on the trail for a producer and director, all in an effort to get the play into some *professional* theaters, and in front of some *larger *audiences. So if you are a director, a theater or a producer, and interested, please contact me! Second, I am also toying around with the idea of a 2nd TTO book. Maybe a sequel, or maybe a series of books, like, for example a TTO for African American women, a TTO for Latina women (in Spanish!), a TTO for businesswomen, for outdoors women, for travelers, etc. The idea is a TTO book for specific communities and/or specific groups of women with specific interests. But I need a literary agent and a publisher for that. So, again, if there are any out there interested in this project, contact me, please.
Lastly, I really want to keep expanding our international efforts. Besides TTO events held across North America, we have also held TTO open mikes in Asia, Africa, Latina America, Europe and Australia. In India, for example, our wonderful TTO coordinator, Mira Kakkar, has led over a dozen TTO open mikes for women from all walks of life, from rich, upper class women, to women who were sex trafficked/prostituted and are now struggling with HIV/AIDS. A lot of these stories are shared at the TTO events Mira holds in India, and women leave the events feeling very inspired and ready to take on the world. And Bobbi Ausubel, our TTO Artistic Director, is also active in India. There she works with Ruchira Gupta's organization, Apne Aap www.apneaap.org, and with women and girls who have been prostituted and sex trafficked, and those at risk for being prostituted. She is getting these women to share the stories of their very hard lives aloud, helping them to reframe how they see themselves, from victims to brave survivors. And helping them to speak publicly about their experiences, so they can then go on and petition for their rights to the higher authorities, the people who control their lives, like to judges, lawyers, the police, etc. Amazingly, the model we use for women's empowerment (which, of course, is based on the universal approach of story-sharing and storytelling) works really well wherever we have done it, no matter the region of the globe, no matter if the setting is urban or rural, no matter the background of the women. This is what TTO is all about, helping women to find their voices and helping women to stand up for themselves. If our events, if our open mikes, can contribute to doing this in some small way around the globe, then I'm thrilled and want to continue this work.
9. How can people get involved in TTO?
Any woman or girl anywhere, or any organization, can lead a TTO event. It can happen in her 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 one gets experience organizing, leading, and raising money for a favorite cause. The guidelines for how you can organize a TTO open mike are at our website. 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. Please check out our promo video at www.ThatTakesOvaries.org, or also found at YouTube (do a search for That Takes Ovaries. It is in 2 parts.)
Separately, if anyone is connected to a theater want wants to do the *full* That Takes Ovaries play, we'd love that, too! (Open mikes are often held after the performance.) We are looking for actors, directors, producers and theaters who might be interested in a production of the That Takes Ovaries play.
10. What words of wisdom or advice do you have for other "Jewesses With Attitude?"
Mostly, just keep being bold. Don't let anything stop you from doing what you know is right, from working to create the world you want to live in. Be a mover, a shaker, a diva-change-maker! I often say: If you can imagine it, you can do it. So go out there and do it. Of course, sometimes that is easier said than done. So if it is hard to take that very first step of being a bold woman, or a Jewess with attitude, remember, you can start small. Once you do something gutsy -- even in a small way -- and you see that you lived through the experience, then you build self-esteem and confidence in yourself, and then you can take on the next act -- a bigger act! As I wrote in my book (now paraphrasing), like courage, risk-taking is infectious -- both between people and within a person. Between people, it is motivating to witness someone else's courage. Within an individual, doing something bold helps develops confidence and experience; the more risks a woman takes in one area of her life, the more she feels able to take them in others. She may want to start with a gutsy act for pleasure and fun (e.g. like going skydiving) and before long she won't put up with any timidity in any area of her life (e.g. she'll stop putting up with an abusive partner). Once a girl is initiated and passes the I'm-a-risk-taker threshold, and she knows she can act regardless of fear, her life becomes fuller. And with her newfound confidence, she is willing to address unfair treatment she experiences or witnesses. She is no longer able to tolerate the sight of injustice without trying to address it, because she no longer feels it is beyond her ability to succeed. If a woman lives her life in a more daring mode all the time, then there will be no question about whether she will stand up for herself and others when mistreated, and no question she'll fight back if attacked. She won't be afraid to break the rules, act improperly, get dirty. All that is part of leading a "no limits" life. So folks, enjoy being bold, and if that is scary at first, marvel at your ability to walk through fear. Not letting fear stop us in one area of our lives means we are less likely to let it stop us in others, from defending ourselves against a single incident of discrimination to changing the world for the better.
We at That Takes Ovaries challenge each of you to lead a bold life. So, dear women, be bold!