Pride and Prejudice

Lady, love your cunt.

Forty-one years after Germaine Greer issued her infamous directive, the ladies seem to have complied. Greer lost her battle on the question of nomenclature—“cunt” has remained, despite her best efforts, the worst of bad words*—but “vagina pride” is now part of the common culture. Television celebrities like Oprah Winfrey speak publicly and with cheerful affection of their “vajayjays.” (The conservative watchdog group Parents Television Council calculates that the use of the word “vagina” on television has increased eightfold in the last decade.) The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s theatrical celebration of the female sex organ, has become an international franchise, endorsed and performed by glossy Hollywood stars and even Michigan state representatives. More than one website now exists for the sole purpose of allowing women to share and compare pictures of their vulvas in “a supportive context.”

Musée d’Orsay, Paris/Gianni Dagli Orti/Art Archive at Art Resource
Gustave Courbet: L’Origine du monde, 1866

To be sure, not every iteration of vagina pride represents an unambiguous advancement for the feminist cause. It is a matter of dispute whether Eve Ensler’s twee flights of fancy about vaginas that smell like “snowflakes” are really good for the sisterhood. And whatever Greer was hoping for when she enjoined women to “boast of…their venery,” it is safe to say that it was not “vajazzling,” the modern trend of affixing crystals to the shaven pudendum.

One might reasonably argue that the occasional outburst of snowflakery is a tolerable price to pay for liberation. But Naomi Wolf would counsel against such complacency. In her new “biography” of the vagina, she warns that her subject is in danger of being trivialized by its cultural ubiquity. The vagina, properly understood, is, “part of the female soul” and the medium for the “meaning of life itself.” In order to free female sexuality from patriarchal calumny, pornographic distortion, and some of the damaging myths of second-wave feminism, it is essential, she argues, that women reclaim the “magic” of the vagina and restore it to its rightful place at “the center of the universe.”

For those familiar with Wolf’s career as a polemicist and memoirist, it will not come as a complete surprise to find her attributing occult properties to the female anatomy. Wolf, who has always understood feminism to be a spiritual cause as much as a civil rights movement, has made several moony allusions over the years to the numinous character of female sexuality. In Promiscuities, her memoir of growing up in 1970s San Francisco, she proposed that “female sexuality participates in the divine image.” More recently, in 2006, she told a startled reporter from the Glasgow Sunday Herald that she had experienced a vision of Jesus during a therapy session and was now more certain than ever that her purpose on earth was to remind women of “what’s sacred about femininity.” Vagina, however,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.