Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova show the court's verdict as they sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia.
Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova show the court's verdict as they sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia.
Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf is published by Virago.
Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf is published by Virago.

London - 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 US Democratic state senator Lisa Brown was barred from speaking in the Michigan state courthouse just for using the word “vagina”. The Speaker told her 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 has unveiled her much-anticipated cultural history of the world’s sometimes worshipped, sometimes reviled and rarely mentioned female body part.

Vagina: A New Biography came out in the UK this week.

Vaginas are always good for a laugh. As Kate Harding of feminist website Jezebel wrote, saluting the news 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.”

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 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.”

Wolf’s tome could not have been better timed. As the Russian government found itself trapped in an international PR disaster, while it quashed its 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 p***y power. Wolf claims there is “an increasing body of scientific evidence that suggests 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 UK-based artist behind The Great Wall Of Vagina, an 8m plaster-cast frieze of genital close-ups of 400 women, was criticised for naming his sculpture inaccurately, he acknowledged his critics were right.

“I can’t fight every battle. And The Great Wall Of Vulva wouldn’t really have worked.”

But perhaps it’s not surprising a woman’s most intimate parts are held in awe and fascination when they are, to borrow from 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. The Story Of V: Opening Pandora’s Box by Catherine Blackledge tells us the word “vagina” was first used in English in 1682. In her review, novelist Joanna Briscoe saw the entire, meticulously researched book as proof that “we’re stunningly vaginally ill-informed”.

Before Western religion introduced the pesky concept of shame, female genitalia were venerated in ancient mythology. Egyptian and Japanese goddesses would lift their skirts and give a flash of their privates to increase crop yields and ward off evil. A 17th-century drinking mug, referenced in The Story Of V, shows Satan poleaxed by the sight of a vagina.

The Munduruku tribe of Brazil’s Amazon basin calls it “the crocodile’s mouth”. And early Christian theologian Tertullian wrote in about 200AD: “Woman is the gate to hell and her gaping genitals the yawning mouth of hell.”

In the most olden of olden days, in prehistoric times before men’s role in procreation was understood,women’s genitalia – not men’s – were celebrated as symbols of fertility.

This continued into the medieval ages with Sheela Na Gigs, figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva pulled open. These are thought to have originated in France and Spain in the 11th century and can be found in medieval churches across Britain and Ireland.

Midwifery guru Ina May Gaskin – author of several best-selling home-birth bibles and recognised as the world’s leading authority on natural childbirth – is obsessed with the figure of the Sheela Na Gig, which for centuries would have been the only context in which you would have seen a vagina depicted.

Gaskin writes about how contemporary society’s horror at the vagina – and the taboo of depicting one anywhere except in pornography – has contributed to women’s fear of labour and the increasing medicalisation of childbirth.

“My idea is this figure (the naked Sheela Na Gig) was probably meant to reassure young women about the capabilities of their bodies in birth.”

She writes in Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth: “As you can see, the vulva of the crouching figure is open enough to accommodate her own head. Such a sight is quite encouraging to a woman in labour. I’d like to see a large rendition of a Sheela Na Gig as part of the decor of birth rooms in maternity units.”

Church leaders in the 19th century destroyed many of the carvings as “obscene” and most people have no idea what these strangely informative little gargoyle figures look like. Dozens survive, though.

Even through the 20th century, the vagina did not have a very high profile. In fact, things got worse. American feminist Gloria Steinem tried to point out that it didn’t matter what you had, it mattered who you were as a person.

“There are really not many jobs that actually require a penis or a vagina, and all other occupations should be open to everyone.”

But elsewhere it was too late and the vagina was on its way to becoming an insult. (And not just the usual four-letter version, which feminists, including Greer, have also tried to champion.)

But times change. As Miranda once said in Sex And The City: “What’s the big mystery? It’s my vagina. Not the sphinx.”

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the “Vaginal Revolution” Greer wrote about in 1973: “A woman’s pleasure is not dependent on the presence of a penis in the vagina. Neither is a man’s.”

And apart from Wolf’s book there are already other signs the vagina is undergoing some rebranding.

Among artists and activists, the vagina has become a source of inspiration. There is a vogue among young furniture designers to make prototypes of “vagina chairs”, which enfold you when you sit in them.

In the US, there is a vogue for subversive crochet as part of the “Knit Your Congressman a Vagina” campaign. Yes, this really exists: “To protest the attacks on women’s health by the Republican Congress”.

In response to health-care cuts in Texas, the “Snatchel Project” is “encouraging craftswomen to send their congressmen knitted and crocheted bags, pouches and decorations in the shape of their favourite lady parts”.

One supporter writes: “Nothing scares a gynophobic congressman like when they open a box and discover what they think is a constituent’s lovely hand-knitted hat or scarf, only to pick it up and realise they’ve touched their hands upon the filthy, evil uterus they’ve been fighting so hard to destroy.” Participants are urged to include the message: “Hands off my v-jj. Here’s your own.”

Meanwhile, hip bakeries in London and New York have taken to making cupcakes and macaroons depicting the vulva and its adornments.

Dawn French almost choked with laughter when she was presented with an anatomically correct sponge on the BBC’s The One Show.

This all feels like the modern, more graphic equivalent of the vulval cakes carried at the Ancient Greek fertility festival Blackledge mentions in The Story of V.

There is a sense everywhere that young women are sick of not being allowed to talk about their vaginas or of the word somehow being taboo.

There was a social-media outcry when it was revealed the word, “vagina”, had been banned from a Kotex tampon advert in the US. (The ad was still rejected by two TV networks when the advert was reshot using the expression “down there”.)

On the stand-up circuit you hear young women comics gleefully use terms such as “gash” and “love burger” like they’re reclaiming them.

Events at the Michigan House of Representatives already represent some kind of turning point.

Brown concluded her speech with the words: “Mr Speaker, I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no’.”

She later said: “If I can’t say the word, vagina, why are we legislating [on] vaginas? What language should I use?”

One of her Republican colleagues explained: “What she said was offensive. It was so offensive that I don’t want to say it in front of women.”

The whole business is shaping up into a war of words in the US in which radio host Rush Limbaugh sent back the salvo “women vote with their vaginas”.

And it was Limbaugh who recently agreed with a television sitcom writer who complained at a conference: “We’re approaching peak vagina on television.”

The issue is increasingly political in the US, where the Democrats are pushing the idea that the Republicans are waging a “war on women” by blocking proposals protecting women from domestic violence, by cutting funding for preventive health schemes involving issues that disproportionately affect women (such as osteoporosis and arthritis), and by promoting anti-abortion measures.

Online activists have resorted to the tactics of the Tom Jones fan club by setting up a “panty raid on Congress”.

“Send a pair of panties to [Republican and Speaker of the House of Representatives John] Boehner and other members of Congress who are waging war on women.”

Hard to know which is worse. Or better, depending on your point of view – a G-string in the post? Or a crocheted clitoris?

In the UK, the stunts are no less cunning. McCartney’s Great Wall Of Vagina is the only artwork of its kind in the world, featuring women of all ages, shapes and sizes (and possessing various terrifying piercings).

Last year Harley Street saw the arrival of the Muff March, a campaign against “designer-vagina” surgery, aimed at celebrating la femme au naturel.

Last year more than 2 000 labiaplasties were carried out on the UK National Health Service and in the past five years there has been a fivefold increase. Many doctors blame the rise in demand for labiaplasty on the trend for extreme pubic grooming in the shape of vajazzling and Brazilians.

One beautician told me recently she was regularly asked to vajazzle women’s partner’s initials on to the freshly waxed area. Maybe this makes people happy. It does not seem a particularly friendly thing to do your poor pudenda.

Good luck, then, to Naomi – and to vaginas everywhere, whether or not they bear a husband’s initials in sparkling Swarovski crystals.

For now Wolf is defending her decision to put her Vagina in the world’s face. “In social settings when I say the title, there’s always a bit of a double take. Usually positive, but sometimes a bit alarmed. You could write this book with all kinds of other titles. But there is something important to me about just reclaiming that word.” – The Independent

* Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf is published by Virago.