published October 2019

Female genital mutilation in the United States From the 1800’s to the present

by Diane Bairstow

Every month we are following the ratification of the 19th Amendment and considering women’s issues then and now. In October 1919 the states ratified the Amendment.

We think of female genital mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision, as something that goes on in middle eastern and African tribal cultures, but it also has a dark history in England and the United States. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was regularly performed and touted as a legitimate medical procedure to treat myriad health issues experienced by women.

FGM includes a variety of mutilations performed on female genitalia. This article deals primarily with clitoridectomy, which is defined as surgical removal, reduction, or partial removal of the clitoris. In some instances, only the clitoral hood is removed, in others the entire clitoris.

During the Victorian era, masturbation was taboo and considered a perversion—even more reprehensible in women than in men.  Medical opinion was that women would never admit to masturbating, however, if women complained of, “leucorrhoea, uterine haemorrhage, falling of the womb, cancer, functional disorders of the heart, spinal irritation, palpitations, hysteria, convulsions, haggard features, emaciation, debility, mania . . .” masturbation was the cause, according to the editor of the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal. The remedy was clitoridectomy.

Clitoridectomy performed to help the husband find the clitoris

It’s difficult to know how widespread the practice was as it is a relatively simple procedure that can be done in a doctor’s office. According the Sarah Rodriguez, author of the book Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States, it began in the mid-1800s and continued through the 1950s. In 1959 W. G Rathmann, M.D. published “Female Circumcision: Indications and a New Technique” in which he proposed clitoridectomy (removal of the entire clitoris) as a remedy for masturbation in young girls and (removal of the clitoral hood) as a marital aid to help husbands locate their wives’ clitorises, however, according to women who have had this second procedure, they reach orgasm immediately and any further physical contact becomes painful; contact with undergarments or clothing causes pain and irritation also.

Clit clipper.

An unintended consequence (I presume) of all types of FGM is difficulty in childbirth. Genital scar tissue doesn’t stretch and this makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to give birth naturally, and the life of the mother and child are endangered.

Federal ban on FGM ruled unconstitutional

Two Michigan doctors, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala and Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, accused of FGM were brought to trial last December in a federal court. They were accused of cutting at least nine minor girls in Attar’s Detroit clinic. U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman dismissed the case, and in his 28-page decision, he concluded that the Federal government “overstepped its bounds” in its 1996 law. It was Friedman’s judgement that FGM is a “local criminal activity,” and thus should be regulated by the states, but 24 states do not regulate it.

Although Rodriguez says FGM ended in the 50s, there is evidence to suggest it continues to this day in white, Christian communities. Jennifer, a woman in her forties, has launched a campaign to ban FGM in her home state of Kentucky. She grew up in a conservative evangelical church where her father was a minister. She and her sister were cut when Jennifer was five. “We were taught men were the leaders and God made women to be submissive,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

In search of the perfect vagina

In an article for Women’s Health Care, “Female Cosmetic Genital Surgery: In Search of the Perfect Vulva,” (December 2018), Brooke M. Faught states that the U.S. “dominates all other countries in the annual number of aesthetic and cosmetic surgical procedures performed.” In 2016 “there were more than 4 million aesthetic and/or cosmetic procedures performed, an increase of 9% over the previous year.”

Artists have taken up the cause of drawing attention to the differences and the beauty of the female anatomy.  “The Great Wall of Vagina,” by Jamie McCartney is a sculpture made from plaster casts of 400 vulvas dedicated to “Changing female body image through art.” It was intended to “push back against the idea of surgically ‘perfecting’ female sexuality and biology.”

Does anything ever really change?

Here we are in the 21st century and a male judge decrees the federal ban on FGM to be unconstitutional. Women are still being cut in the United States, Christian women as well as Muslims and other immigrants. And, in this age of female empowerment, women seek to sculpt their genitals into some imagined idea of perfection instead of celebrating their beauty and differences.