When I was at university in Brighton, I used to look after two children of primary school age. Brighton being the enlightened place it is, they came home one day excitedly telling me they knew all about sex, men’s things and women’s things. The boy, thankfully, was more interested in when I was going to let him watch television after homework, but I had to spend the next three weeks listening to his younger sister talk to me endlessly about her “pachina”.
If I were a proper feminist, I would have corrected her mispronunciation and engaged in a meaningful discussion about the possibilities and power of the vagina — or, so the author Catherine Blackledge would probably argue.
Blackledge’s book The Story of V: Opening Pandora’s Box has been re-published, almost 20 years later, under a new, bolder title: Raising the Skirt: The Unsung Power of the Vagina. It begins, just as it did two decades ago, with an ancient history lesson as Blackledge moves through representations of vagina-flashing historical artefacts such as Sheela-na-Gigs, Terracotta Squatters (figurines now found in the British Museum), and beautiful paintings of devils being warded off by genital-flashing heroines. But the book is no dry history: readers are taken through animal anatomy, scientific revelations about ‘intelligent’ vaginas and the kind of orgasm descriptions one might find in a copy of Cosmopolitan. In the new edition, Blackledge argues we should celebrate this “muscular marvel of engineering” and shout from the rooftops about the power of the vagina.
But putting aside her intriguing research and salacious paragraphs on female ejaculation, the really interesting thing about Blackledge’s new release is why she’s come back to her story of ‘V’. In the foreword to the 2020 edition, she argues that today, more than ever, women need to feel empowered by their genitals in order to get what they want in life. Specifically, she uses the example of growing protests for abortion rights, the ‘pussy-hat’ protests against Donald Trump and a plethora of feminist literature on the vagina in order to argue that this part of women’s bodies is central to our understanding of our place in the world.
Blackledge wrote her book in 2003, but a feminist fascination with the vagina was old news by the time the millennium had arrived. In the 1960s and 1970s, strands of radical feminist politics were seeking to liberate women via self-education. The book Our Bodies, Ourselves aimed to give a woman’s perspective on women’s health — on everything from childbirth and abortion to how to collect and examine your own discharge. At a time when women’s bodies were still shrouded in the prejudices of a sexist society and the fears of a future world of sexual revolution, this quasi-handbook was truly revolutionary. As Wendy Kline points out in her work Bodies of Knowledge, radical feminist movements of the 1970s and 1980s were keen for women to see and explore their own bodies outside of the lens of the male gaze of their husbands or doctors.
Since then, feminist theory has been littered with discussion about the significance, oppression and liberation of the vagina. The radical feminist Anne Koedt’s work on the ‘myth’ of the vaginal orgasm took on Freudian conceptions of women’s inability to have ‘functional’ or ‘mature’ orgasms without the existence of a penis. Andrea Dworkin argued in 1987 in her book Intercourse that during sex women are “opened up, split down the centre” and thus “occupied — physically, internally, in her privacy”. The vagina is always there — symbolic or literal.
But while we might understand the radicalism (and perhaps eccentricity) of a past focus on women’s body parts, in a society where it still really was taboo to say ‘vagina’, the contemporary fetishisation of women’s genitals isn’t so forgivable. The flaw in arguing that women’s power, awakening or political understanding comes from between her legs is the attendant insinuation that her brain has nothing to do with it. And Blackledge argues we will never be free until we understand our vaginas: “If women and girls know what their bodies are truly capable of and know their history — understanding how facts about the female of the species have been misinterpreted, obscures or ignored then change can begin.”
An unintended consequence of this focus on the vagina is a growth in a deterministic understanding of what shapes women’s view of the word. Blackledge opens her book with the quote “she speaks from between her legs”, referencing the Greek mythological Baubo, who is represented with her mouth between her legs. But a woman’s power does not come from anasyrma (the action of lifting the skirt) that Blackledge says she is “so proud of”; it comes from her ability to think as well as any man.
This prioritisation of ‘pussy politics’ becomes particularly egregious when talking about abortion and sexual harassment. Arguing for women’s freedom to terminate a pregnancy has to be won on the grounds of a political and moral argument about conscience. The question is: does society have enough trust in women to make decisions about their own bodies, not: is society oppressing women because they have vaginas? Reducing a woman’s identity to her body parts is the mirror image of the sexism of old that feminists have been trying to escape. The pussy-hat protests against Trump’s election as president were a perfect example of this. Sexist men see all woman as a variety of pussies, vaginas, things — why play into that by attempting to paint women as ‘powerful’ genitalia?
Young women today are different from our mothers and grandmothers — we are more likely to talk about our genitals with our partners, friends, doctors and family members. In fact, there is a case to be made for getting women to shut up about their vaginas, so frequently do we reference them. To win the battle for sexual liberation, though, and fight back against rape and harassment, we are not demanding that men respect the power of our vaginas, but treat us like equal citizens.
Blackledge thinks we need to talk about vaginas more, and she’s tired of us avoiding the issue with euphemistic pet names. Here, Raising the Skirt has a point — female body parts have either been shrouded in secrecy, or the subject of scrutiny, for time immemorial. But while knowing about ourselves can never be a bad thing, it would be wrong to fall into the trap of continuing the sexist practice of reducing women to their genitals with a feminist version of vaginamania.
Call the vagina what you like — but shouldn’t we be more interested in what’s going on in women’s heads, not what’s in our knickers?