From non-consensual vaginal microbiome transplants to misconceptions about the G-spot, Rachel E. Gross discusses the sexism and biases that have led to our fragmented understanding of the female reproductive system
JOURNALIST Rachel E. Gross was working as the science editor at Smithsonian.com when she developed an “obnoxious” vaginal infection that set her on a mission to better understand her own body. It may have started with her genitals, but in her new book, Vagina Obscura: An anatomical voyage, Gross not only unravels many misunderstandings about the female body, but also rewrites the history of the science of gynaecology with women and LGBTQ+ researchers front and centre. She spoke to New Scientist about why this matters.
Catherine de Lange: What made you want to write this book?
Rachel E. Gross: I was doing a lot of coverage of women in the history of science. These themes kept coming up of women in scientific fields that had been left out of the conversation or blocked from attaining certain levels. And at the same time, there were all these questions about women’s bodies and bodies [of people] with a uterus and ovaries that weren’t being asked. I made the connection: the deceptively simple reason why these questions weren’t being asked was because women weren’t at the table.
How did you find these incredible stories of women who were written out of the history books?
The darkest section of the book is about James Marion Sims and the development of the speculum. It’s well known that he was a southern slaveholder who made his advancements on the bodies of enslaved Black women. But there is a lot more to that story. I relied a lot on historians who had excavated the stories of some of those women, namely Betsy, Lucy and Anarcha. Deirdre Cooper Owens is the historian …