Speak up for the Vulva
I love Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and I’m an enthusiastic fan of her brilliant and radical work. But I have to admit that I’m disheartened that she didn’t name her book and play The Vulva Monologues. I know that the word “vulva” doesn’t roll off our tongues the way the word “vagina” does. But it matters that we misuse the word “vagina” to refer to everything “down there” (“Vagina Monologue,” LILITH, Fall 1998).
For the past two decades I’ve been trying to get the words “vulva” and “clitoris” into our collective vocabulary. My first serious attempt to raise vulva consciousness was directed toward my professional colleagues. When I joined the staff of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, I published a paper called “Parental Mislabeling of Female Genitals as a Determinant of Penis Envy and Learning Inhibition in Women.” A case example illustrated how the failure to accurately label the girls’ external genitalia contributes to shame and confusion about sexuality, as well as to inhibitions toward “looking” and learning.
The article appeared in 1974 in a prestigious psychoanalytic journal and was met with a dignified silence. I received only two reprint requests, both from Germany. My colleagues (along with the world) continued to use “vagina” when they meant “vulva.”
Interestingly, in Freud’s time, the words “clitoris,” “vulva” and “labia” were not included in the dictionary and, in this country, the only word in Webster’s dictionary to refer to female genitalia was “vagina.” If we think carefully about our failure to acknowledge that the vulva, including the clitoris, is an important aspect of “what girls have,” the concept of “penis envy” takes on a new meaning. But although the appropriate additions to Webster’s have since been made—little has changed, linguistically speaking, since Freud’s day. Not only do parents fail to tell their daughters that they have a vulva that includes a clitoris, but the very idea of such communication produces a curious reaction of embarrassment and discomfort in otherwise mature persons of both sexes.
Feminism has taught us much about the power of naming and misnaming—and the importance of knowing the difference. Surely, we can muster the clarity and courage to say “vulva” when we mean vulva, and “vagina” when we mean vagina. Surely, we can tell our daughters precisely what they do, indeed, have.
by Harriet Lerner
I was troubled that Jewish men, in the study of “How We Look on TV” (LILITH, Summer 1998) named a character who “doesn’t look Jewish” as a positive image of a Jewish female. How can we expect to move away from stereotypes when we ourselves are embracing them. I have often been told “but you don’t look Jewish.” My standard response is, “What does a Jew look like?” This forces people to confront their preconceived notions. We as Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colors. It is time to embrace our diversity and share it with others.
by Lillie Rizack
I’m a native New Yorker, an avid reader of LILITH, a poet, and currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago. I truly enjoyed your Fall 1997 issue, which was dedicated to relations between fathers and daughters. Several friends and I found much solace in reading the writing of various women and their experiences. LILITH has created a wonderful space for confronting many integral issues.
by Helen Tannenbaum
GENDER & CATASTROPHE
From the Far Left…
We are all familiar with images of women as representing catastrophe: a dry-breasted mother unable to feed her child, a child suckling at the breast of its dead mother, a woman snatching food from her child, or her “heroic” opposite, a mother sacrificing her last morsel for her children.
Genocides, including the Shoah, are often the political consequences of constructions of femininity and masculinity in society. The current attacks on (en)gendering the Shoah ignore the centrality of gender in how we understand catastrophe.
My own book Gender and Catastrophe is a collection of essays about catastrophes targeting women in situations from chattel slavery in the Americas, mass rapes in Bosnia, Japanese “comfort women” during World War II, the Irish and Bangladeshi famines, nuclear testing in the Pacific, major wars, the partition of India, women refugees in Australia, Israel and Russia, women and fundamentalism in Iran, women and cultural genocide in Tibet, as well as the Shoah. The book has not been attacked for “privileging feminism over catastrophe.” This kind of attack seems permitted only in the case of the Shoah.
I believe that the most important reason for continuing to study the Shoah is drawing universal, rather than Judeo-centric, lessons. Studying the Shoah and its gender implications can help us understand, and perhaps prevent, future catastrophes such as the recent Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, where the “enemy” was “ethnically cleansed” via mass rapes, or the cultural genocide of Tibetans and East Timorese via mass sterilizations, forced abortions and sexual mutilation. In all these cases, genocide is exercised on women’s bodies.
We cannot understand the nature of genocides without locating the experiences and images of women at the heart of the analysis. Only the feminist strategy of listening to women’s personal narratives as primary sources of knowledge will enable us to comprehend the political contexts of catastrophes, which tend to use women to alter the composition of ethnic groups and to wipe out future generations, and therefore the memory, of these groups.
by Ronit Lentin
…And From the Far Right
Deborah Lipstadt has made a name for herself by waging the good fight against the Holocaust revisionists. How inexplicable, then, that in the pages of LILITH she engages in a bit of revisionism herself, distorting beyond recognition the arguments I made in my article “Auschwitz and the Professors” in the June issue of Commentary and leaving readers completely in the dark about some of the shameful things that feminist scholars have been writing about the Holocaust (“Why Is The Wall Street Journal Now Devaluing Women’s Holocaust Experiences?” LILITH, Fall 1998).
In Women in the Holocaust, the book edited by Lenore Weitzman and Dalia Ofer that Lipstadt attempts to defend, for example, one finds an essay by a scholar named Joan Ringelheim, who advances the bizarre and defamatory argument that in the Holocaust “the sexism of Nazi ideology and the sexism of the Jewish community met in a tragic and involuntary alliance.”
Ringelheim’s essay is by no means the worst of its kind. In Making Stories Making Selves: Feminist Reflections on the Holocaust (1993), Robin Ruth Linden argues that the ecological impact of “thousands of pounds of human ash dumped into lakes and rivers” is no less urgent a subject than the study of the Holocaust itself, and inquiry into it would serve usefully to “decenter narrowly anthropocentric views of human destruction.”
I hardly see why I should be described as “devious” for calling attention to nonsense of this kind. The scholar and survivor Nechama Tec, writing in the Wall Street Journal this past summer, has also spoken out against “feminist zealots” and those “propelled by extreme feminist views” to interject “political agendas” into Holocaust studies. Cynthia Ozick has likened Joan Ringelheim to the Holocaust revisionists, suggesting she has been asking “a morally wrong question, a question that leads us still further down the road of eradicating Jews from history.” In fact, even an editor at LILITH herself, Susan Schnur, has lambasted some of the very same feminist scholarship I criticize, writing that Linden’s book demonstrates that the “guiding feminist principle—the personal is the political—might sometimes be in need of a restraining check.” All this leads me to wonder: Are Tec, Ozick and Schnur also part of the nefarious conservative clique that Lipstadt insists is bent on denigrating women’s scholarship?
I urge readers interested in seeing exactly what else of importance Lipstadt left out to consult my original article as well as the numerous letters and my response to them that appeared in the August 1998 issue of Commentary.
by Gabriel Schoenfeld
Senior Editor, Commentary
New York, NY
[Editor’s Note: We print Gabriel Schoenfeld’s letter in full so LILITH readers can see the attitudes that surface when women become the object of scholarly attention. Rabbi Susan Schnur’s comment on a book completely unrelated to the current collection, quoted by Schoenfeld from a review more than half a decade old, suggests that not all women’s writing about the Holocaust is equally valid; all the more reason why we (and Deborah Lipstadt) find the Weitzman-Ofer book so illuminating. That Schoenfeld denies the necessity of telling, finally, about what women experienced during that dreadful era should have us clamoring for even more publications on this subject. To order the issue with the original review, the comments by Schoenfeld and the many replies it generated, call 1-888-2-LILITH.]
Andrea Levin (Fall 1998) was not a graduate student in public policy prior to her involvement in the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America; she was an associate editor on a public policy journal at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She was said to embrace “conservative politics,” but she is not aligned with any political orthodoxy. Nor does CAMERA, which she heads, take position on policy matters.
Stars of David is a non-profit information and support network for Jewish and interfaith adoptive families. Their address was incorrectly given in the Summer 1998 issue; it is properly: Stars of David International, Inc., 3175 Commercial Avenue, Suite 100, Northbrook IL 60062-1915; 1-800-STAR-349 or 847-509-9929; fax 847-509-9545; StarsDavid@aol.com; website www.starsofdavid.org