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Jane Ahlin, Published June 30 2012

Ahlin: Women’s private parts: so political and popular, too

In the aftermath of Michigan Democratic legislator Lisa Brown being banned by her Republican counterparts from speaking on the Michigan House floor after she said “vagina” during debate over anti-abortion legislation, even the Republicans must wonder what they were thinking. It’s as if they missed the memo that the infamous V-word is at the heart of this summer’s campy hits.

Probably it had to happen. The tiresome (endless?) rightwing political focus on controlling the reproductive lives of women has kept women’s private parts front and center for so many years that shifting the spotlight to not-so-serious takes on the subject this summer has been as refreshing as a light lake breeze.

Of course, most legislation put forward (more than 350 bills this past year nationwide, an average of seven per state) concerned pregnant women’s private parts. However, the new obsession for far-right legislators is to tie contraception to skewed ideas of religious rights. Just this past March, the Arizona House passed a bill that would have denied insurance coverage for contraception through private health plans unless women could document medical conditions – such as endometriosis – and weren’t using birth control medication for – hmm – birth control. Had the Arizona Senate passed the bill, the condition of Arizona women’s private parts would have been every employer’s business, whether the employers liked it or not.

But let’s not digress. Consider current summer entertainment associated with the V-word. There’s the movie “Hysteria,” which is a fictionalized version of the life and medical practice of Dr. J. Mortimer Granville who patented the first electromechanical vibrator way back in Victorian times (the 1880s). The movie tells the story of a young doctor joining the practice of an older doctor who dealt with a malady of upper-class Victorian women, a disease called “hysteria.” Said to afflict more than half of those women, hysteria also was called “wandering uterus.” Treatment consisted of a doctor performing “pelvic massage” on a woman lying on a table, her feet up in stirrups, and a decorous layer of cloth between her and the doctor’s hand. The doctor’s job was to massage until the woman experienced “uterine paroxysm,” after which she went home feeling much better. Yes, indeed. The very idea of sex offended Victorian sensibilities, but ladies could get “treatment.”

The problem for the young doctor was that such vigorous massage on patient after patient led to his suffering carpal tunnel syndrome. What to do? What to do? Enter a wealthy friend with a passion for electrifying machines, and voila! The first vibrator was made. (Interestingly, the vibrator was invented before the vacuum cleaner or the iron.) For a long time, it remained a respectable device advertised in women’s magazines and the Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog. Indeed, hysteria as a medical condition was not entirely debunked until 1952. (The movie has romance, too, but that’s a sidelight.)

Moving on from naughty to smutty, a much bigger hit this summer is the novel “Fifty Shades of Gray.” Dubbed “mommy porn” (think S&M), the book is said to be red hot with women over 30. (Trust me, this also includes the over-50, over-60, and over-70 female demographic.)

I’m almost embarrassed to admit I haven’t yet read it although several friends have. Promising to lend me her copy, one friend said “You’ll be mad at yourself if you buy it because you’re going to hate it.” She paused. “I hate it; it’s disgusting – just horrible – and poorly written.” (She’s going to get it to me the minute she’s finished reading every miserable word on every rotten page.)

Maybe the self-righteous Michigan Republicans have forgotten that their party’s 1996 candidate for the presidency, Bob Dole, appeared on TV in 1999 ads for another V-word – Viagra. In the ads he talked about “courage” and Viagra’s role in correcting “erectile dysfunction” after prostate surgery. (As I remember the ad, his wife smilingly agreed.) Sometime later, Dole did an ad for Pepsi that wonderfully lampooned the Viagra ad. In other words, Dole had fun making fun of himself.

If they wanted to, Michigan Republicans could do the same.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.