Speculums, mirrors and lady gardens*
Posted on November 28, 2008
Contrary to popular belief I’m not actually old enough to have been involved in second-wave feminist activism; by the time I hit my early teens and started showing an interest in women’s politics, the second-wave had all but petered out and Thatcherism was casting its dark shadow across the land. You could still get hold of Spare Rib of course, and Ms magazine (I’ve still got my collection of these, although regrettably I didn’t keep hold of my Spare Ribs), so despite the absence of the Internet there were still ways of keeping up with what was going on, but it was nowhere near as interesting a period for women’s activism as what had just gone before.
Anyway, I was reminded of what I’d missed out on the other day when I picked up this gem of a book in my local Oxfam shop. The Women’s Directory, by Carolyn Faulder, Christine Jackson and Mary Lewis provides a fascinating glimpse into the Women’s Liberation Movement of 1976. As well as chapters on health, work, childcare, “battered wives” (and just as a reminder that some things have in fact moved on, in legal terms at least, here’s a depressing quote: “The law doesn’t recognise rape by a man of his wife unless there’s a separation order from a magistrates’ court, with a non-cohabitation clause or an agreement to separate which contains a non-molestation clause) and the newly introduced Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay acts, there’s also a chapter on The Women’s Movement, which lists all the different women’s groups and women’s centres up and down the country, and details national and regional women’s conferences that appear to have been a regular feature of the time.
One aspect of seventies consciousness-raising that’s always fascinated me, and that’s explained in the directory, is what I tend to jokingly refer to as “vagina gazing.” I’ve got to be honest and say that I’ve never understood why a group of women who barely know each other would consent to having others peering inside them, or why they would want to grab themselves a speculum, a lamp and a mirror, and delve about down there..
It’s something I’ve never managed to get my head around, although I’m willing to accept that those are my issues – I would certainly never scoff at other women who wanted to do it, or who felt there was something enlightening and liberating about it (well okay, I would and I have done, but not in a judgemental “ugh that’s revolting!” way). Indeed, a friend of mine has taken part in this activity, in a group, and her strongly held view is that: “a woman can’t claim to know herself unless she knows her own cervix.”
So I was reading the bit in the book that deals with this: Women together: self-help and health groups:
“Men can look at their genitals, handle them, examine them, play with them and compare them with others because they hang down outside the body, while women’s sexual organs are relatively hidden and inaccessible, except by touch. Perhaps you remember lying on a bed as a girl, in front of the mirror, parting your outer vaginal lips (labia) with your fingers and anxiously trying to peer up that dark hole; if you did you will also remember you couldn’t see very much. You had to rely on friends then and later your doctor, using a cold, steely instrument and a strong light to tell you what s/he saw. Many women have their first internal examination when they are pregnant, and it can come as a shock……
…About 6 years ago a group of women in Los Angeles who were meeting regularly for consciousness-raising sessions realised that it didn’t matter how vaied their sexual experience might be; if they were fundamentally ignorant about their bodies, as they were, they were not only vulnerable to exploiting doctors, but they were limiting themselves as full human beings.
So was born the truly revolutionary idea of self-help through self-knowledge. At last the mystique of doctor-as-god, with exclusive knowledge, was being challenged. SELF_HELP CLINIC ONE was established and gave guidance to other groups wanting to do the same….
To overcome your inhibitions, to look, learn and be learned from, and then to share the same experience with other women in the group is to make you understand what your own womanhood means to you.”
And suddenly it all made sense. Not that I think I’ll ever be prepared to do it of course, well, not in public at least, but I can see now why and how this practise developed as part of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
But that’s not all I learned from this section of the book. How about this:
“To get the group going you need an experienced woman to demonstrate these skills. It may take up to 3 weeks before all the women in the group feel at ease with their speculums, which they will be using at home between meetings as well as keeping a chart of the changes they notice. Some stop at that point. Others will decide they want to learn advanced self-help procedures including menstrual extraction. This is a simple, painless, safe method of extracting the menses on or about the first day of the period month, using a kit called the Del-‘Em…..which eliminates a 5-day nuisance….”
“This is a simple, painless, safe method of extracting the menses on or about the first day of the period month.”
Then why the hell has no one told me about this before!
Why is this the first I’ve heard about it? Why did I accidentally stumble across this information in a book I picked up in a second-hand book shop? Why haven’t all women been taught how to do this by their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and friends?
These were the questions that sprang to mind as I read this, especially as I’m a woman who has to endure horrendously heavy periods, and who every month thinks: “Sod the goddess, there’s nothing to celebrate here.” So I decided to investigate menstrual extraction a bit further.
“Menstrual extraction and early termination abortion are similar technically, but menstrual extraction is not performed in a medical setting. When done by an experienced group, it can be used simply as a home-care procedure by women wishing to gain knowledge about their bodies and menstrual cycles and to exert more direct control over their reproductive lives…
…Menstrual extraction can be done in a woman’s home or a self-help group’s meeting place and the woman having her flow extracted controls all aspects of the procedure. Women generally learn the technique by participating in groups with more experienced women, first observing and then having their own menstrual extractions. Although the rudimentary aspects of the procedure can be learned in a few weeks, the knowledge and skill necessary to the reasonable safety of the procedure usually develop over a period of several months or even a year. Without this body of knowledge, the isolated woman, who generally has little or no familiarity with her own body, is risking the dangers commonly associated with self-abortion….
…Menstrual extraction should not be viewed as an attempt to avoid menstruation or short-circuit natural functions. It is a means for a woman to exert influence over changes in her body, which she could not control before, in order to eliminate occasional discomfort or inconvenience or an unwanted pregnancy.”
Women’s Health Specialists of California
Here’s an interesting article about the procedure, which details the cons as well as the pros to having it done.
Here’s a picture of a scary looking menstrual extraction device:
And here’s a Wiki page all about it.
After reading through all that, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to give it a go, or should I say, I’m not sure I know a group of women who’d be prepared to get to know me that intimately. But I’m certainly not ruling it out as an option. Not yet anyway.
Watch this space.
*The title is my desperate attempt to introduce this subject without attracting a load of pron surfers over here. It’ll probably fail, as I’ve used the vag word in the piece, but it was worth a try.
excellent piece Cath. Lets hope the third wave embrace this consciousness raising approach and we can look forward to womens groups around the country springing up to spread the knowledge.
It wasnt long ago I saw a documentary on tv (cant remember which journalist did the programme) about womens anatomy and I was really saddened by the number of women who had no idea what a real vulva looked like and as a consequence some were seeking plastic surgery to get changes made so they looked more like the women they had seen portrayed in soft and hard porn magazines.
So if its not too late, when you write your wish list for Christmas presents – ask for a speculum. Cervical smear tests become much less intimidating and dehumanising when you know exactly what they are looking at!
Heart over at Woman’s Space has an interesting piece regarding Lorraine Rothman who pioneered this concept and practice of “guerilla gynecology”
Speaking as someone who spent way too long in nursing and male ran gynecology It’s really good stuff.
Sounds like something that could give you a nasty infection to me -as of course many back street abortions did.
It’s hard to remember as far back as the Seventies now, (though I can remember Spare Rib being sold in WH Smith), but generally speaking women’s knowledge of their bodies was parlous then. Not that it’s much better now, I saw a Daily Mail article the other day describing intercourse as ‘The main event’ in sex. So I think the consciousness raising groups were simply to allow women to know what bodies looked like. And I don’t think they’d be a bad idea now, what with women having surgery because they think their labia are deforme.d
I remember desperately asking my friends and family as a teenager if there was a way to get all the blood out at once during my period. I’m shocked to learn that it is, indeed, actually possible. Gynecologists terrify me, and being partially in control and having trusted friends do some of the work instead sounds much better.
Menstrual extraction = birth control pills minus the risks
*Endometriosis sufferer whose birth control is causing intolerable side effects
I don’t know how to find these groups, but if I do, I would love to try it