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An Alphabet of Feminism #15: O is for Ovary

2011 January 24


Oh! Darling.

Ovary hopped onto the semantic stage around 1658 meaning ‘the female organ of reproduction in animals, in which ova or eggs are produced’ (ova being the Latin plural form of ovum = egg). Eggs, of course, are now generally recognised as a crucial part of reproduction in all species (a chicken ovulates every day, fact fans), making the ovary rather important for the construction of little’uns. Straightforwardly, the word derives from ovarium: ‘ovum’ + ‘-arium’ (aquarium, oceanarium, planetarium, toastarium). Consistency: it’s helpful. But hold! 1658? Really? What about before? Was there some mass genital evolution in the late seventeenth century that made early modern cisgendered Woman so drastically different from her medieval sisters?

Hartsoeker's drawings of sperm containing miniature adults, prior to implantation in the womb.

Hartsoeker's drawings of 'homunculi', or 'little humans' inside sperm. (1695)

Well no, but there was an evolution in what Scientists considered “Woman” to be. For hundreds of thousands of years previous, the established thinking had been that they were simply men ‘turned outside-in’: female genitals were held ‘up there’ by a colder body temperature than their male counterparts, and, thus, sex differences were a matter of degree. Women were men who hadn’t quite unfurled properly.

Oh My God

With this thinking, the vagina became an inverted penis, the labia a foreskin, the uterus a scrotum, and the ovaries testicles – and all these now-familiar gynecological terms date from the same period: the oft-maligned vagina (= ‘sheath’) is faux-Latin from 1680, labia (= ‘lip’) slightly earlier (1630s) and uterus the earliest, from 1610 (although, as already mentioned in these pixellated pages, it was conflated with the gender-neutral ‘womb’ or ‘belly’, its original Latinate meaning). Pre-seventeenth century ovaries were consequently referred to as ‘female testicles’ or ‘stones’, and the synonymity was so literal as to accept the possibility that if a girl got too hot through strenuous exercise, her entire reproductive system could accidentally pop out and turn her into a boy.

So if sex was a false distinction to make, how did male and female manage to breed? Seventeenth-century scientists approached this question firstly through Aristotle and his theory of epigenesis (= ‘origin through growth’). Aristotle reckoned male semen gave the embryo its form, and female menstrual blood supplied the raw materials.1 The ‘soul’ enters the embryo at the moment the mother first feels the baby kick.

However, by suggesting new people can spring into being organically, epigenesis risks dispensing with divine involvement. Not cool. So a much more palatable alternative, for seventeenth-century scientists, was preformation (the idea that the parents’ seed already contained a miniature adult, so all the embryo has to do is increase in size). Bit creepy, right? Nicolaas Hartsoeker (1656-1725) was well into this idea and even claimed he could see these ‘homunculi’ through the microscope (above, right).

But once this had been agreed, there came the inevitable Swiftian debate about how you like your eggs, with scientists divided into ‘aminalculists’ and ‘ovists’: those who were with Hartsoeker in believing the ‘germ’ of life to be in the sperm, and those who preferred the ‘egg’ (= ‘the female’). Arguing in favour of the latter was the (understandable) confusion about why God would be so wasteful as to create thousands of Hartsoekerean sperm-germs to be lost on every egg-ward excursion for the sake of one single fertilization: from the outside, the female looked a bit more efficient.

Oh! You Pretty Things

But clearly, all this Knowledge was better on the subject of males than females (and even the women themselves were hard pressed to explain menstruation or recognise pregnancy): ova were still shrouded in mystery, and ovulation a great unknown – it was not even certain whether human females could conceive without orgasm, or if they were more like cats, rabbits, llamas (now known as ‘induced ovulators’) and, er, men. Official advice erred on the side of caution and recommended that both man and wife reach orgasm during procreation – as a side-effect, a rapist could get off scott-free if his victim fell pregnant, since, until the nineteenth century, the law worked backwards and considered conception to imply enjoyment and, therefore, consent.

It is William Harvey (1578-1657), most famous for ‘discovering’ the circulation of the blood, who is commonly credited with realising the importance of an ovary-thing, and the frontispiece to his treatise on the subject blazons the tag ‘ex ovo omnia‘ (‘everything from the egg’). But he was thinking less of a modern day ‘egg cell‘ and more of a ‘spirit’: an egg was the mother’s ‘idea’ of a fetus which was ‘ignited’ in her womb during sex. It was a general generative catalyst, not technical anatomy – as is clear from the image (below, left).

An engraving depicting Zeus opening an egg, out of which flies all creation.

Can of worms... The frontispiece to Harvey's Treatise on Generation (detail). Image from

Oh My Gosh

After kicking around for just over a century, ovary suddenly became enshrined in anatomy books as an independent organ that somehow encapsulated ‘woman’: in 1844 Achille Chereau declared that ‘it is only because of the ovary that woman is what she is’ (oh dear). In part, this was to do with a retreat from the previous centuries’ idea that women and men were anatomically the same and an advance towards the notion that sex equalled gender (a surprisingly modern invention, if you listen to Thomas Laqueur). With this came an increasing focus on specifically ‘women’s’ problems via hysteria (= ‘womb trouble’), and, neatly (if disturbingly) a favourite cure for this pre-Freud was the bilateral ovariotomy, also dubbed ‘female castration’: removing a patient’s healthy ovaries to man them up a bit (just as men become ‘feminized’ through removal of the testicles). The ovariotomy would thus, it was believed, act not just as a cure for hysteria, but also for behavioural pathologies including nymphomania, and even general aches and pains. Of course, it also stopped menstruation, rendered women infertile and carried risks endemic to c19th surgery methods. WE DON’T KNOW WHAT THIS DOES, SO LET’S JUST TAKE IT OUT.

It was not until the 1930s that scientists got near a hormonal understanding of ovulation, how it worked and how it could be controlled. Here we really should give a nod to that symbol of 1960s sexual liberation: the combined oral contraceptive pill, a great source of division between parents and children, as epitomised in the backstory to the seminal Beatles song She’s Leaving Home (1967). See, children of the 1920s and 30s must have found the idea of their daughters silently and imperceptibly controlling their ovulation terrifying, whereas the children of the 1960s saw such control as simple empowerment. In miniature, this gives us the whole history of ovary and its linguistic cognates: what cannot be seen is inevitably free for appropriation by a host of meanings. Meaningarium.

O is for Ovary

Further Reading:

  • Making Visible Embryos – an ‘online exhibition’ from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. And Thomas Laqueur, of course (as linked).

NEXT WEEK: P is for Pussy

  1. Yes, menstrual blood. []
14 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    January 24, 2011

    I’ve just read the whole section again in Laqueur’s discussion of Marie Germain and found the quote by Gaspard Bauhin:

    “… we therefore never find in any true story that any man ever became a woman, because Nature always tends to what is most perfect and not, on the contrary, to perform in such a way that what is perfect should become imperfect.”

    This contrasts interestingly with all that courtly idolising (cf. “L is for Lady”), or Milton’s description of woman, who is pretty perfect pre-fall (“Under his forming hands a creature grew / Man-like, but different sex; so lovely fair / That what seemed fair in all the world, seemed now / Mean, or in her summed up, in her contained”). And Wilde has in An Ideal Husband a line that goes: “The strength of women comes from the fact that psychology cannot explain us. Men can be analysed, women … merely adored.” I know it’s “merely”, but the key thing is the adoring. I’ve read a lot of things a la the Wilde that rather patronisingly set up the woman as the perfect, more spotless version of the man, even though she has less freedom as a part of that state. This is not that sort of subtle misogyny at all; it’s quite full on!

    The Laqueur also has me considering, on a different point which I know we’ve talked about, GQ/intergendered people/people with intersex conditions (though I acknowledge that these are not necessarily, according to ISNA, the same issues as what Laqueur is researching), and their treatment through history, as I can’t help but think that some of those accounts spring from actual experiences, though they’ve uniformly been described in a typically sensationalised tone as these sudden, public “transformations” from one state to another (usually in the space of a few minutes). I am wondering if there are any books that look at this from the angle of trying to unearth the human experiences underneath these accounts…

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      January 24, 2011

      “… we therefore never find in any true story that any man ever became a woman, because Nature always tends to what is most perfect and not, on the contrary, to perform in such a way that what is perfect should become imperfect.”

      contrasts oddly with:

      “The male is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, has an incomplete set of chromosomes. In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples.”

      — Valeria Solanas: SCUM Manifesto

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        January 24, 2011

        “… we therefore never find in any true story that any man ever became a woman, because Nature always tends to what is most perfect and not, on the contrary, to perform in such a way that what is perfect should become imperfect.”

        also contrasts oddly with the modern cult of youth. It is a readily observable fact that young people become old people. Not only does the quotation imply that men are perfect and women imperfect, but that old people are closer to perfection than young people.

    • Hodge permalink
      January 24, 2011

      Would recommend the Laqueur to anyone. One interesting point he makes is that the discovery that women are *not* induced ovulators opened the door to ‘the angel in the house’, and suddenly they became beings who could, in theory, live their whole lives in blissful ignorance of that thing called sexual desire that so afflicted their husbands. But, he points out, this was a *social* change, not a scientific one, because the late nineteenth century also saw new discoveries about how babies formed in the womb, including that the clitoris and the penis begin as the same organ – even though this was mighty convenient for a one-sex model, it wasn’t interpreted that way.

      All that said, women as asexual beings to be adored obviously does occur before the victorians (whose influence on it can probably be overstated), and I should guess this has something to do with the social pressure on women to be sexless beings for fear of illegitimate children and disrupted inheritance (in Milton’s case, of course, pre-fall Eve is also pre-sex Eve).

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    January 24, 2011

    Shying away, perhaps, from the weird constructs of the female body and reproduction, I was struck by this:

    “Straightforwardly, the word derives from ovarium: ‘ovum’ + ‘-arium’ (aquarium, oceanarium, planetarium, toastarium).”

    It left me with the idea of an ovarium as a tourist attraction. I also wondered what a toastarium was, tried Googling it, and (as so often with Google) emerged little the wiser. (In this case, my bafflement had to do with references to the word occurring mostly on French language sites.) I’d like to believe that it’s a place where tourists go to gawp at slices of toast… perhaps when the excitement of Disneyland Paris is too much for them.

    • Hodge permalink
      January 24, 2011

      Ho ho, toastarium is a Hodge invention. I had indeed imagined it as some kind of toast-based attraction. Yeah, toast!

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        January 24, 2011

        Yeah, toast, indeed! But the weird thing is that “toastarium” brings up 86 results on Google. The first is:

        Whitney Stern (whit) on Myspace
        Whitney Stern (whit) on MyspaceShare this profile Add Comment·Send Message. Sorry, the profile of toastarium is only viewable by friends. … – Cached

        Are you Whitney Stern, Hodge?

        “An Alphabet of Femininism #15: O is for Ovary | Bad Reputation” is the 7th link in the Google list.

        • Miranda permalink*
          January 24, 2011

          I’m pleased that we’re that high for the people seeking toastariums :D

          To my knowledge Hodge isn’t a Whitney. But she may well go by many names ;)

          • Pet Jeffery permalink
            January 24, 2011

            I’ve now clicked on — and just about all one can see of the MySpace profile is a photograph. But, by clicking on the photograph, I learnt that Whitney Stern lives in Las Vegas. While I shouldn’t stereotype the people of Las Vegas, there is something about Hodge’s posts that suggests to me their emanating from elsewhere in the world. The fact that I can’t see more of Ms Stern’s profile allows me to imagine that there’s an actual toastarium as a Las Vegas visitor attraction.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    January 25, 2011

    “For hundreds of thousands of years previous, the established thinking had been that they were simply men ‘turned outside-in’…”

    It seems to me that hundreds of thousands of years is a long time, and I wonder whether this weird concept is really so old. There are medical works surviving from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and I wonder whether they have anything to say on the matter. The most relevant thing I have so far found is this (of ancient Egypt):

    “The essentials of reproduction were clearly understood and the relationship of sexual intercourse to procreation was well known. However, the ovaries were probably not recognised and no Egyptian word is known for them. The uterus was sometimes known as mut remetj (the mother of mankind) and its role may have been perceived purely as the environment for the maturation of the male seed, without any recognition of the genetic contribution of the mother. Nevertheless, inheritance through the female line was important to the ancient Egyptians.”

    John F. Nunn “Ancient Egyptian Medicine”. British Museum Press, 1996, page 56.

    It maybe doesn’t take us very far. I suppose the relevance of the final sentence is that, in the absence of biological inheritance, inheritance of property and titles through the female line makes little sense. That might be some evidence that the Egyptians did not, at least, believe in ‘homunculi’, or ‘little humans’ inside sperm. But, if U is to be for Uterus, perhaps a discussion of this would fit better in that place.

    • Miranda permalink*
      January 25, 2011

      Yes, I think it’s worth stating that we’ve focussed here on Western science/history predominantly (mainly because Hodge is using the OED as her starting point for all the Alphabet articles, so there is a skew in the direction of usage history in the UK). What we do next, post-Alphabet, with our Monday article slot, is an interesting question – I’m hoping we’ll go round the world a bit more.

      That quote about Egypt is fascinating. I’m sure I read somewhere that their knowledge of medicine is often said to have been quite far ahead of Greece/Rome (maybe partly because of all the detailed, ritualised embalming procedures they had for their dead), but I should go fact-check that…

    • Hodge permalink
      January 25, 2011

      This is interesting: I was, of course, generalising (and perhaps ‘hundreds of thousands’ wasn’t *quite* the right phrase: in fact, looking at it again that looks like it might have been dodgy editing on my part, as it’s more like ‘a couple of centuries’). What various societies and cultures have thought about anatomy is often, I should imagine, a kind of zeitgeist for how they feel about gender, which is one reason I wanted to do an anatomy post. That idea about the womb as ‘the environment for the maturation of the male seed’ is something I came across in my research of c16th and c17th Europe too, actually (I think there’s some stuff about it on that Cambridge website I linked to at the end, which is highly recommended) – in this sense the ovary is interesting because of the symbolic association eggs have (as in that frontispiece), which is not a million miles away from how the womb was perceived, I suppose… Hmm..

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        January 25, 2011

        Egyptian doctors seem to have been regarded to be the best in the world (at the time), and perhaps their reputation was justified.

        I also note that, although a patriarchal society, Egypt accorded women more rights and freedoms than other parts of the ancient world. At least theoretically, women and men had the same rights in law. I have a suspicion that the rights and freedoms accorded to women played a large part in the negative view of Egypt presented in the Old Testament, and other Jewish writings. A few years ago, I watched a television documentary in which an Israeli lesbian was sent to some religious bloke. The text he drew to her attention made negative references to specifically Egyptian women.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          January 25, 2011

          But, returning to the idea of the womb as ‘the environment for the maturation of the male seed’, I wonder how such an idea could ever have been sustained. It might seem reasonable in Much Mithering in the Marsh, where the local people had been inbreeding for centuries. But there were more cosmopolitan places, where some children had parents of diverse ethnicity. Surely, it should have been observable that such children owed characteristics to their mothers, as well as their fathers. And what of oriental potentates who drew their harems from a wide area? How could they have failed to observe that their children inherited physical characteristics from their mothers?

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