An Alphabet of Feminism #21: U is for Uterus
There are some letters in the dictionary that are more Latinate than others. In consequence, u, v and, to an extent, o are largely dominated by medical terminology (because doctors, bless ‘em, love a bit of Caecilius est in horto).
Uterus derives from a Latin homonym meaning ‘womb’ or ‘belly’, with reference to the proto-Indo European udero (= ‘abdomen’), and, possibly, a Slavic usage, vedro, meaning ‘bucket’. Much like the ‘bucket’ (and indeed the shape of the letter u with which the word commences), the first sense of uterus is as a vessel – ‘the organ in which the young are conceived, developed and protected till birth; the female organ of gestation; the womb’.
Much has been made of this ‘protective’ element – it has been frequently observed that the ‘fetal’ position babies adopt to fill the uterus endures into adulthood as a comforting or even instinctual reaction to anxiety, pain, distress or cold – a kind of retrospective communion with the mother’s body. This sort of thing, it seems, is not above a bit of marketing, and the uterus is often invoked as a place of calm, darkness and peace.
Opposed to this, we have the sort of ambiguity nowhere better demonstrated than through tanks. (yes, tanks). The Mark I tank, the world’s first combat tank, was renamed from ‘Big Willie’ to ‘Mother’ (…), and its successors were colloquially dubbed ‘Mother’ throughout both world wars. The reasons are obvious: the inside of a tank is small, hot and protective. Childlike, a crew could be forgiven for considering themselves invincible within it – yet once the fuel tank is hit, the men inside suffer a hideous, incestuous death, incinerated by their own machine. This sort of thing runs right the way through conceptions of the mother’s body, particularly in psychoanalysis, which is never tired of exposing the deeply conflictual nature of many mother-child relationships, and with mapping those onto the cisgendered female body – we might think particularly of Melanie Klein’s famous ‘good breast’ and ‘bad breast’. If we’re going there.
HOWEVER. BACK TO THE RENAISSANCE. In its early incarnations in English this ‘womb’ is rarely so clearly gendered (as you may remember, King Lear thinks he has one), and, true to its ambiguous etymology, early modern minds frequently considered the uterus to be a generic bodily pouch. Thus it was often conflated with the gender-neutral belly (ah, Isidore of Seville), and in this form it was thought to be proof of the body’s retentive faculties. So even when considered as a specifically reproductive organ, the thinking went, the uterus still resembles the digestive system in how long it takes to do its business, since it creates infants over a leisurely period of nine months. While I doubt it takes quite that long for your morning Alpen, digestion is certainly something of a gradual process – consider, if you will, the hangover.
Horn of Plenty
If you remember the Alphabet post on ovary (to which this is in many ways a companion), you may also remember that until the seventeenth century sex organs were considered to have analogues across the genders (penis = vagina, labia = foreskin and uterus = scrotum). Along with its reproductive and sack-like qualities – I am reminded of the beautifully named ‘Mermaid’s Purses‘ – in this model the uterus also matches the scrotum in its creative properties. After all, reproduction is six of one and half-a-dozen of the other.
But this was not just something tossed around in the Renaissance lab and subsequently ignored: the scrotum-uterus comparison actually spread into what we might consider a bizarre arena – fashion. I am, of course, talking about the codpiece, ’a bagged appendage to the front of the breeches; often conspicuous’. This was a sartorial fave of Henry VIII (above, right), who clearly took his outfits very seriously – but I note that sexy Jonathan Rhys Meyers has avoided the sexy codpiece throughout the BBC’s Sexy Tudors. Too sexy?
Originally a modesty device to get round the, ahem, ‘shortcomings’ of the hose, this strange appendage quickly grew to a size that redefined it as a disturbing kind of hyper-masculine power-dressing. Yet the word derives from the Old English codd (+ piece), which came to mean ‘testicles’ in early Medieval times (quite possibly because of exactly this phenomenon) but originally meant simply ‘a bag, pouch or husk’. Indeed, the codpiece was frequently dubbed a belly, and, through fun with synonyms, the womb could become a cod: my good friend Thomas Laqueur highlights the Pardoner’s exclamation ‘O wombe! O bely! O stynkyng cod!’, in the Canterbury Tales, and also points out that the codpiece quickly started to resemble…(I like this bit)… ‘a finely embroidered and bejewelled horn of plenty’.
So it seems that, while Henry VII might not thank you for it, we could observe that this most macho of garments is in fact drawing attention to the womb-like, generative, and retentive properties of what lurks within (which, of course, it also helped protect – gender-ambiguous Russian dolls, anyone?). Indeed, glancing at a couple of examples in portraiture, a lot of these men look rather like they have an artificially constructed uterus poised over their genitalia (love how he’s pointing, just in case we miss it). Less Blackadder, more… actually, I don’t know what that is.
Bag for Life
But, of course, eventually someone had to seize on anatomical differences to posit a definition of gender, and thus it that (around 1615) the uterus started to be considered something exclusively female – as regular readers will be aware, this was a chain that began with independent naming of the organ in question and eventually reached the pitches of hysteria in the nineteenth century. There is also a strange quasi-legal term, uterine, apparently first spotted in the seventeenth century but not dictionary-cited until 1816, meaning ‘related through the mother’. Thus, ‘the property devolves to his brothers or uterine uncles’, with the body of the mother here serving a dynastic link, since all these uncles can be proved to have shared a uterus. They could even be half-brothers, since an alternative meaning for uterine is ‘having the same mother, but not the same father’. Working on a similar premise, if you are particularly toolish, and your sister has a son, you would (in pre-paternity test times) have been best off leaving your money to your nephew: his link to you is purely uterine, unlike your link to your son, who could be anyone’s spawn.
As we draw near the end of the Alphabet series, threads begin to resolve themselves. Uterus has been the final word of three (hysteria and ovary were the other two) all of which address the issue of mapping the cisgendered female body. Following the three, we have seen a model of sex and gender that does not conform with what many experience as the current status quo. Conversely, the distinction between genders does not seem to have been primarily based on the body until the nineteenth century (or even later). Thus, we have seen women turning into men with comparatively little contemporary comment, the female orgasm (and in some cases her entire sexual appetite) vanish from the everyday realities of heterosexual sex, and now, and perhaps most bizarrely, an epidemic of hyper-masculine men apparently walking around with giant uteri affixed over their genitalia. (Yes, I did just say ‘uteri’). Perhaps this is worth thinking about…
NEXT WEEK: V is for Vitriol