Smithsonian magazine’s Rachel Gross tells the story of how early anatomists charted and named (and shamed) our lady parts — and how a new generation of explorers are redrawing and reclaiming the map.
by Rachel Gross
W.W. Norton, Spring 2022
The Latin term for the female genitalia, pudendum, means “parts for which you should be ashamed.” Until 1651, ovaries were called female testicles. The fallopian tubes are named for a man. Named, claimed, and shamed: Welcome to the story of the female body, as penned by men.
Today, a new generation of (mostly) women scientists is finally redrawing the map. With modern tools and fresh perspectives, they’re looking at the organs traditionally bound up in reproduction―the uterus, ovaries, vagina―and seeing within them a new biology of change and resilience. Through their eyes, journalist Rachel E. Gross takes readers on an anatomical odyssey to the center of this new world―a world where the uterus regrows itself, ovaries pump out fresh eggs, and the clitoris pulses beneath the surface like a shimmering pyramid of nerves. Full of wit and wonder, VAGINA OBSCURA is a celebratory testament to how the landscape of knowledge can be rewritten to better serve everyone.
Rachel Gross is a Visiting Scholar in the Women and Gender Studies department at MIT and has just finished her year-long term as a Knight Science Journalism fellow.