Time for a Pussy Riot

Article excerpt

Vagina. There, we've said it. Yet so many won't. This vital organ, once revered, has become taboo. But could women be about to reclaim it?

IT HAS been a busy year for the vagina. First a group of Russian feminist punks became a global story, especially after Madonna got involved. And let's not forget where Pussy Riot got their name from. In Russian they're sometimes called "the uprising of the vagina".

Then Lisa Brown, a US Democratic state senator, was barred from speaking in the Michigan state courthouse just for using the word "vagina". She was told by the Speaker that she had "failed to maintain the decorum of the House of Representatives". Brown got Eve Ensler to stage a reading of her Vagina Monologues on the courtroom steps for 5,000 people. The word "vagina" was uttered more than 100 times.

Now, in a final rallying war cry, feminist icon Naomi Wolf is unveiling her much-anticipated cultural history of the world's sometimes worshipped, sometimes reviled and rarely mentioned female body part. Vagina: A New Biography comes out tomorrow.

Vaginas are always good for a laugh. As Kate Harding of feminist website Jezebel wrote, saluting the news that Wolf had been "beavering away" on a new book: "About time! For too long, historians have clammed up on this topic, snatching women's history from us and squirrelling it away in a box. I'll stop now."

But Wolf's book - "which goes to the very core of what it means to be a woman" - is likely to be more controversial than entertaining. In response to the Lisa Brown incident, Wolf asked playfully, "Are we seeing the beginning of a vagina lobby?" It's high time, says the author of The Beauty Myth: "The culture is just not letting women have a positive relationship to their sexuality, to their vaginas." An epic UK tour is planned, including an audience in front of 400 fans at Intelligence Squared at the Royal Institution in London on Thursday.

Wolf's tome could not have been better timed. As the Russian government found themselves trapped in an international PR disaster while they quashed their home-grown Pussy Riot, male politicians across the world were busy tying themselves up in knots over definitions of rape. At a time when Western women's bodies have never been more highly politicised, the one person who might be able to shine a ray of light into feminism's dark crevices has to be Wolf. (Sorry.)

Perhaps this history will do for 21st-century activism what The Beauty Myth did for 1990s feminists. This is an angry call to re- establish what women's libbers might once have called pussy power. Wolf claims that there is "an increasing body of scientific evidence that suggests that the vagina has a fundamental connection to female consciousness". With the focus clearly on the explicit and the unspeakable, Wolf is exploring territory we haven't heard about since Germaine Greer in the 1970s.

It's interesting that the subject is still seen as controversial. But when it comes to the vagina, any mention of the word - from the Latin for "sheath" or "scabbard" - is still problematic. It is not even an oft-used word and when it is used, it is often used wrongly. When Jamie McCartney, the Brighton-based artist behind The Great Wall of Vagina, an 8m-long plaster-cast frieze of genital close-ups of 400 women, was criticised for naming his sculpture inaccurately, he acknowledged that his critics were right. "I can't fight every battle. And 'The Great Wall of Vulva' wouldn't really have worked." Poor even-more-rarely-referred-to vulva.

But perhaps it's not surprising that a woman's most intimate parts are held in awe and fascination when they are, to borrow from the French artist Gustave Courbet, "l'origine du monde". Is there something almost too powerful about the place we all came from? The last book that attempted to chart the history of female genitalia didn't even want to use the word in its title. …