Monday, July 09, 2018

Patriarchal names for women's body parts

From fallopian tubes to the Pouch of Douglas, women’s body parts have been named by – and after – men. But the masculine language of medicine doesn’t end there. Does it matter?

Take a tour of the female pelvis, and you’ll encounter a few incongruous people along the way. How did James Douglas end up tucked behind the uterus? What is Gabriel Fallopian doing hanging around the ovaries? Why is Caspar Bartholin the Younger attached to the labia? And can we trust Ernst Grafenberg’s claim that he actually found the G-spot? Whether you know it or not, each of these dudes have ended up immortalised in the female pelvis – as the Pouch of Douglas, Bartholin’s glands, fallopian tubes, and that elusive Grafenberg spot.

The truth is, men are all over women’s bodies – dead, white male anatomists, that is. Their names live on eponymously, immortalised like audacious explorers for conquering the geography of the female pelvis as if it were terra nullius.

The gods are engraved on women too. The masculine Greek god of marriage, Hymen, who died on his wedding night, has lent his name to a uniquely female anatomical structure. Hymen is derived from the Greek word ‘hyalos’, or membrane. But it was the father of modern anatomy, Vesalius, who in the 16th Century first used the term specifically for the covering of the vaginal orifice.

After all, until the last century, women were almost excluded from academic medicine. But the continued use of these mostly male eponyms not only reflects the gender bias in our medical knowledge base. It may continue to perpetuate it.

The controversial question of whether language shapes thought has long been debated. Still, plenty of examples exist where describing something in a certain way changes our perception of it. Ghil’ad Zuckermann, professor of linguistics and endangered languages at the University of Adelaide, points out that in languages where the word for ‘bridge’ has a feminine gender, people describe bridges as elegant. But in languages where the word for ‘bridge’ has a masculine gender, people refer to bridges as sturdy.

It raises the question of whether our perceptions of the body, and its conditions, are also skewed by gender biases without us realising.



Anonymous said...

It *IS* after all men who are most interested in female anatomy so it should not be a surprise that they would have been researching it "in the name of science".

Anonymous said...

Total nonsense !

Anonymous said...

The vast majority of the populace has no idea where the names for various body parts originate. How can my perception of women be skewed by information I don't have?

Stan B said...

How do they know that any of these researchers identified as men? Did the author just assume the gender of long dead people?