Last week, the Lancet medical journal became briefly internet-famous when it published the following sentence on its Twitter account: ‘Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected.’
The sentence is a pullquote from a bigger article, but boy does it capture the imagination on its own. Like a Hieronymous Bosch painting, you can return to it again and again, always finding something new and surprising to appreciate. There’s the musicality of it, all those four- and five-syllable words that roll pleasantly off the tongue. There’s the faintly macabre invocation of ‘bodies’, followed by ‘with vaginas’, suggesting a collection of corpses accessorized with (but not necessarily attached to) a bunch of birth canals. There’s a straightforward descriptiveness, too, almost evocative of content meant for children: if you liked Bananas in Pajamas, you’re gonna love Bodies with Vaginas!
But the weirdness of the sentence is ultimately outdone by the ubiquity of language like it, reflecting a recent but indisputable shift in the way that academic and activist communities, including in medicine, talk about women. There’s a whole new world of terminology out there, all of it centered on bodies and biology, that studiously avoids any mention of whose body it is. It’s a world of menstruators, people with cervixes, vulva owners — and, of course, bodies with vaginas.
This is an interesting development given that any mention of vaginas was not long ago declared taboo in activist spaces. Productions of The Vagina Monologues, once an iconic feminist play, have been repeatedly closed down over the past five years after protesters complained that it implicitly excluded women without vaginas. A 2014 celebrity benefit to fund abortions for disadvantaged women in Texas, titled ‘Night of a Thousand Vaginas’, also came under fire for being ‘hurtful and exclusive’ to trans women. At the time, the message to women was clear: vaginas are canceled. Don’t talk about them.
But now ‘women’ as a category is canceled too, for the crime of failing to include vagina-havers who don’t consider themselves as such. ‘Female’? Same deal: it’s not the language but the entire notion of sex as an identifying factor that has been problematized.
It’s hard to overstate what a weird coda this is to the history of medicine as an institution, in which women’s bodies were often the object of fear, suspicion, and harmful ignorance. From superstitions about menstrual blood, to Freud’s disavowal of the clitoral orgasm, to a medical establishment that turned a blind eye to the ways that female physiology and biochemistry differed from men’s, the healthcare system (of which a journal like the Lancet is a part) has been riddled with biases that continue today. For decades, women were seen as a sinister other, their bodies too dark and dangerous to explore, a no-go zone on the map of humanity.
But then, at least we made it on the map.
The new rubric, on the other hand, leaves nothing to point at, no territory of our own. It’s all casual dehumanization (‘bodies with vaginas’), decategorization and language that leaves us with little room to discuss the common biology, anatomy and experiences of the group that once called itself ‘women’.
Simone de Beauvoir lamented that women were a perpetual other, the object to a male subject, defined not by their own characteristics but by the ways in which they weren’t men. But now it seems that there are men and there are women — that is, anyone who cares to claim the label — and then there’s that other category. You know. Those people: menstruating, lactating, vulva-owning, a loose assembly of body parts that no longer merits its own name, let alone its own movement. The other-twice-removed. It’s an irony of this brand of inclusion: the more we stretch to respect and recognize the humanity of some groups, the more one particular group of people, always the same one, gets nudged toward the margins.
In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said, ‘The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When Government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.’
A week ago, in an awareness-raising tweet centered on the new Texas abortion law, the ACLU reproduced that quote — only bowdlerized to erase all traces of sex-specificity. Every ‘woman’ became ‘[person]’; every ‘she’ became a ‘[they]’.
Of course, feminism has always purported to define itself as the radical notion that women are people. But it’s a fair bet that this isn’t what anyone had in mind.