It seems crazy that the female anatomy has caused so much commotion over the years, both in society and in the medical community. Being present in roughly half the people on Earth, it is shocking that there even is a history of the vagina. But there is one, indeed.
From sacred to shamed: the history of the vagina
Although nowadays vaginas are extremely politicized and shamed – we’re trying to fight that, together! – there were times when the vagina was actually revered and celebrated. Those times are what the world normally refers to as “uncivilized” – which means before technological progress was even a thing. Or maybe when societies were not patriarchal.
In very ancient times…
If we travel back to 3500 BCE and to Mesopotamia, we can start looking at Ishtar. Ishtar, also called Innana, was the goddess of love, sex, beauty, desire, and fertility – in other words, all things female, right? However, she was also the goddess of war, combat, and politics.
The Sumerians also saw the vulva and vagina as sacred and, in fact, there are quite a great deal of Sumerian poems about Innana’s vagina. A bit later, the Sumerians worshipped Nin-Imma, another goddess who was the divine personification of the female genitalia – can you even think the commotion this would have caused in more recent times? Yikes.
In short, vaginas were considered to be the “cradle” of life, the start of everything, and revered for that. Furthermore, it is believed that in those times, clay models of vulvas and vaginas were used as amulets against evil spirits, infertility and impotence. Who’d say that the history of the vagina had had such a beautiful start? Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the case for many, many centuries after.
A few millennia go by, and our trip takes us to Ancient Greece. And, oh girl, get ready for a scary story. In Ancient Greece the female anatomy was still somewhat praised. Emphasis on the somewhat. Yes, there is the Venus of Milo and all that, but the reality isn’t that pretty.
In Ancient Greece, a vagina was considered an inside penis. And there was this toxic idea that women envied male penises (as if!) and the phallus was, thus, sacred and a symbol of fertility. As a result, women were considered a commodity and an instrument – both for male pleasure and for making babies.
The Medieval Period, though, is when the history of the vagina starts to really take a bad turn. During the 11th and 12th centuries, the simple thought of a vagina was repulsive. Vaginas were bad and a temptation. Women were the representation of lust and deceit. And let’s not forget that in many religions a woman was considered impure during menstruation.
Also around this time, some statues and figurative carvings called Sheela Na Gigs were used to inspire fear or disgust of vaginas. It is thought that these carvings are much, much older, and were actually a praise to the vagina and to the female anatomy in general. However, in the Medieval Times, these small statues of naked women showing an exaggerated vulva, were used as a warning against lust – especially female lust. They can still be seen in numerous old churches in Europe.
17th and 18th Centuries
You must be thinking where in the history of the vagina did the word actually show up. And you are right. Although there might have been plenty of other names for vagina, the word vagina appeared in the 17th century – as a medical term. In the late 1600’s medical textbooks finally had accurate drawings of vaginas. During this time, it was thought that to conceive a child, both man and woman had to climax, i.e., have an orgasm. Female pleasure, although completely misunderstood, was put on the table… for a little while.
The medical community rapidly discovered that women could get pregnant while unconscious, and there goes the concern with female pleasure. Vaginas and vulvas were still a taboo – and would continue to be – as the society was very misogynistic.
20th Century (and the missing clitoris)
While the 1901 edition of the famous anatomy book Henry Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body – or Gray’s Anatomy – was accurate when it comes to female genitalia, the 1948 edition saw the clitoris removed from the pictures and explanations. Why?, you ask; well, one can never be sure, but apparently the notion of a pleasure centre in women, that wasn’t the vagina, seemed to be immoral. Not only immoral but also unhygienic.
Many sociologists also agree that the clitoris was feared by men: it was seen as a threat to the male virility, because it meant that a woman did not need penetration (or a penis, for that matter) to actually have an orgasm.
While there has been a lot of progress in the history of the vagina, we must not forget there is still an immense work ahead. Up to 2017 the word “vagina” was banned from TV commercials in the US – yes, even the ones about menstrual products. And in 2006 Oprah popularized “vajayjay” as a way to say vagina without having to say it.
In fact, a female Michigan politician was scolded for using the word vagina during a debate about abortion… in 2012! In 2016 a high school history teacher was allegedly fired for saying vagina during a lection about an artist known by implying vaginas in her paintings.
Fortunately, the world seems to be changing now, after a long, long history of vaginal shame and repression. As such, there are even two museums dedicated to the vagina: London’s Vagina Museum and the online Vaginamuseum. We invite you to visit also the Labia Library, a website dedicated to labia, created by the Australian non-profit Women’s Health Victoria.
But remember, it is up to us, the newer generations, to put an end to the shaming. We need to give a happy ending to the history of the vagina. We can start by calling it by its name – no shame, no fear.
Take good care. Of you. Of Mother Nature.