by Sora Leigh
In a recent op-ed, Phoebe Maltz Bovy, author of “The Perils of Privilege,” is ruffling feathers.
While perhaps I could have tolerated a piece entitled “Why I Chose Not to Protest With the Vagina Symbol,” her perspectives piece “It’s time to drop the vagina as a protest symbol,” honestly made my blood boil.
Telling other womyn how they should and should not express themselves is simply not feminism.
Calling the vagina “subversive,” Bovy tears down its use as an uninclusive and ineffective protest symbol. Doesn’t this beg the question as to why this life-giving anatomy should be considered subversive? That the female anatomy continues to be taboo is all the more reason to continue to lift it up within our patriarchial context. Think back to grade school. How many penises did you see drawn on notebooks, etched into bathroom stall doors? More than a few. How many vulvas? Any? Is it time to leave this symbol behind? Some would say that it has only just arrived, in the mainstream that is.
I intentionally tend toward the word “vulva” in this post—the proper term for the external female genetalia often pictured in drawings, graffiti, and depicted by costumes, as opposed to vagina, short for “vaginal canal.”
Breaking down her argument step by step, let me first address what I consider to be Bovy’s most problematic statement:
- The obvious problem with vagina-motif protest is that it leaves out some women — namely, trans women. Not all women have vaginas, and not all vagina-havers identify as women.
This is absurdity. Not every symbol can or should include everyone. Also, it assumes that trans women, men, and others cannot stand in solidarity with those rocking the vulva. While space must be protected for other symbols that might more fully express the lived experience of trans and queer womyn, we cannot continue to silence cis-womyn in the meantime. To borrow the words of one of my favorite feminists, Chamanda Agozi Adichie:
I think of feminism as Feminisms. Race and class shape our experience of gender. Sexuality shapes our experience of gender. And so when I say that I think trans women are trans women, it is not to diminish or exclude trans women but to say that we cannot insist – no matter how good our intentions – that they are the same as women born female.
Nor do I think that we need to insist that both are the same.
To acknowledge different experiences is to start to move towards more fluid – and therefore more honest and true to the real world – conceptions of gender.
Examining the second part of Bovy’s statement, that “not all vagina-havers identify as women,” I must ask: why should someone’s gender identity markers automatically make them less able to own their genitalia proudly? Trans peoples with vaginas may menstruate, give birth, and share other vagina-related experiences. That female-bodied people should be offended by the vulva is an assumption.
2. And an anatomical focus also erases women’s experiences. Women are a caste within society, not the owners of a particular body part.
Caste. What poingnant word choice. Yes, womyn are a “caste,” the lower caste, having been systemically oppressed for thousands of years. Bovy points to the experiences of women that are theoretically seperate from genatila, such as the erasure of women’s voices in the office setting. But is this not a “white feminism?”
While many feminists have dialed in upon equal work for equal pay to the exclusion of other issues, women across the world continue to be the victims of rape, sex trafficking, and war-time sexual assault. Listening to yesterday’s NPR story on the plight of young women and girls abducted by Boku Haram militants—raped and empregregnated, only to be returned to their communities and face ostracization—I cannot help but think, would not the vulva be a symbol of liberation for these womyn?
Throughout the “developing” and developed worlds, womyn continue to fight for health care, maternatity care, birth control, abortion rights, maternity leave, the destigmatization of menstruation, and more. Womyn continue to be the primary victims of sexual violence worldwide. So many feminist issues center around female reproductive health, I wonder why we would downplay the importance of the vulva?
3. The claim that women voting for Clinton were voting with their vaginas was off-putting because it implied that preferring a female candidate wasn’t a political choice, but rather an irrational animalistic imperative.
Oh dear. The vagina as a symbol is not problematic because it associates womyn with irrational thinking, it is problematic that “irrational” and “animalistic” thinking are associated with the vagina! Let us not shy away from owning our own bodies lest we play right into the hands of the oppressors!
Not only did critics imply that womyn were voting with their vaginas, we even heard that Clinton would be governing with her vagina, or her hormones, if elected. This trope, I hope, is in its death throws. If my vagina could vote, I’m sure it would favor candidates who respected women’s health issues, and that is okay, because women’s issues should be important policy concerns, regardless of the the voter’s gender.
The vagina and vulva have been and will continue to be important symbols of womyn’s liberation. I’ll leave you with Pussy Riot’s recent “Straight Outta Vagina,” a stirring anti-Trump anthem that your yoni will surely enjoy.