women’s history

Breadsticks to Rabbits: A History of the Dildo

1918 Sears Roebuck ad

1918 Sears Roebuck ad

by Jenni Podolski

It is difficult to explore the history of female sexuality even if you look for it, let alone find it represented in popular media. There’s a sense that we are either the first to embrace sex and pleasure, or are taking it further than our female ancestors.

If anything, our inheritance is mostly dominated by anti-sexual archetypes: The Virgin Mary, the Virgin Queen (Elizabeth), blushing prudes in Victorian novels, and the ultra-puritanical Joan of Arc. The secretive and little-documented nature of female sexuality becomes an interesting mystery, however, when you look at the history of the dildo.

Earliest records of sex toys originate 15,000 years ago, with sculptures of penises found in places like Germany and Austria. It’s still unclear whether these were used for ritualistic purposes (as many things were) or personal pleasure, but both are likely.

When the ancient Greek and Roman eras come along there is suddenly plenty of documentation of all manner of sex toys being used. Plays and texts by such famed writers as Aristotle and Aristophanes have women talking about oblisbos (wooden or stone dildos) candidly, using olive oil as lube, and even the borrowing and lending of such tools. They even came up with the idea of using leather or animal intestine on these oblisbos to create a more natural feel – something manufacturers still struggle with.

There are also depictions in art, and it seems like sex toys were an acceptable and common part of everyday life in these cultures. Vicki Leon, in her book The Joy Of Sexus even claims that in poorer or more sheltered communities, where oblisbos were hard to find or acquire, breadsticks and other foods were used. The origin of the word dildo comes from the Italian word for delight, diletto, and open wide, dilatare.

A lot of us have a back-of-the-mind thought that progress occurs on a linear, forward-looking scale. Looking at how open, discussed, and unproblematic sexual devices were in these societies makes the world right now look a long way off where it could be. But it’s worth remembering we can go backwards sometimes too. Read more

Posted on by Jenni Podolski in Feminism 2 Comments

Gender Focus Reads: Conversations with EVE

Cover of Conversations with EVEby Lisa Lo Paro

Conversations with EVE, by Barbara Cuthbertson, attempts to isolate when and how women lost their cultural equality to men, and to describe how women can regain it in the modern age. The book is a product of a lifetime of working closely with women through Planned Parenthood.

Cuthbertson describes how she met many women who were unaware of how badly they are treated in a patriarchal society. She says this book is her way of reaching out to as many women as she can, to hopefully change the status quo.

The “EVE” of the title stands for “Every Vagina on Earth.” Cuthbertson explains that her stylistic decision to call women “EVE” instead of “women” or “female” is rooted in linguistic structure: “women” or “female” denotes only that women are not men or not male, not what they are in essentials.

The logic of this move is sound but the decision to use a Judeo-Christian term undermines its effectiveness, especially since she indicts religious structures for subjugating women. The term also assumes that a woman’s identity is rooted in her biology, a theory that naturally excludes intersex and trans women. Moreover, reading “EVE” instead of “women” or “female” throughout the book disrupts the flow of the prose and reduces its rhetorical strength.

Word choice aside however, Cuthbertson has written a well-organized, historical study on the position of women since pre-historic times. The book begins with a section entitled “Culture Before the Myth,” a well-researched look at a time when society organized itself through mutual respect between the sexes, co-operation, and the near worship of women because of their innate power to bring forth new life. She cites societies such as those of various First Nations as late as the seventeenth century, and ancient hunter-gatherer societies of 50,000 years ago.

Though her research is well-documented in endnotes and her sources are strong, the information is presented simply, perhaps too simply. Cuthbertson is very clear that she believes these societies were all good all the time, that women were revered and respected and everything was perfect. There are many “probablys” present in her argument, and the oversimplification of the information calls into question the hard facts. It creates the feeling that Cuthbertson is manipulating historical facts to make a point. The result is a pseudo-intellectual historical study. Read more

Posted on by Lisa Lo Paro in Books, Feminism 2 Comments

FFFF: Rosalind Franklin Rap

Funny Feminist Friday Film square logoIn this Science History Rap Battle, some super skilled seventh graders use rap to tell the story of Rosalind Franklin and how she contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA, which was then credited mainly to Watson and Crick.

For a full transcript of the lyrics, click here. And if you’re interested in learning more about the history of Watson & Crick vs. Rosalind Franklin, Science with Tom has recommendations for books and websites to check out.

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in FFFF Leave a comment

New Passport Design Leaves out Canada’s Diversity

Image from 2013 Canadian passport redesign of "The Fathers of Confederation"

Image from 2013 Canadian passport redesign of “The Fathers of Confederation”

by Librarian Karen

In July 2013, Passport Canada introduced a re-designed passport containing new security features and watermarks, which Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird claims “tells the world who we are: a nation built on freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

While I also have some concerns about the security features, I’d like to share some of my observations about the watermarks, which certainly offer a fair depiction of Canada’s history, geography and industrial growth. But they depict a historical Canada, not a modern, diverse country rich in culture. There are no pictures of modern cities (was Toronto, Canada’s largest city, intentionally omitted?).

Even more concerning, there is a lack of representation of the people of Canada. Specifically, the new passport lacks images containing indigenous people, visible minorities and women. Out of the twenty-five individual images (on sixteen pages), only one clearly contains a woman, (which is not even a photograph of a person, it’s a photograph of a statue.)

Passport Canada paid $53,290 on a focus group to collect feedback on the images and the conclusion was: “Participants routinely suggested that the set of images should be more representative of Canada, with emphasis on including more women and better reflecting Canada’s multicultural character and heritage.”

If any changes were made to the line-up of images after the focus group, I wonder what the original selection was, because the final set of images is not reflective of the Canada I know.

For example:

Pier 21, Halifax, historic gateway to Canada, “was one of the most significant ports of entry for newly arrived immigrants,” and yet there are no images anywhere in the passport representing these immigrants, many of which worked on building the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Last Spike 1885, is a photograph depicting a group of men on the train tracks, most of which appear to be Caucasian; why not include some of the workers? (To note, the contributions of Chinese workers is mentioned in the description of this image on Passport Canada’s website.)

Another image I find questionable is the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, France, a Canadian war memorial which is in a different country. I understand the significance of this particular memorial, but why not use a picture of a war memorial in Canada, of which there are plenty to choose from? (Veterans Affairs has a list of Canadian war memorials located in Canada).

Nellie McClung page in new passport

Nellie McClung page in new passport

Most disappointingly however, is that there is only one image containing a woman: Nellie McClung, from the statue of the Famous Five is a photograph of the statue of Nellie McClung, in front of a print of the Famous Five (Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby). Where’s Laura Secord? Emily Carr? Pauline Johnson? And why use a picture of a statue rather than an actual photograph?

Considering Canada has more women than men, there is no reason not to have better representation in the passport. The omission suggests that females are not valued, haven’t contributed to the growth of Canada, and have no place in Canadian society. It’s a missed opportunity to promote gender equality.

Overall, I’m disappointed in the choice of images. I’ve done a bit of travelling, and some of the people I’ve met I’ve kept in touch with, so I asked them for their feedback on the new passport. I also asked for feedback from some of my Canadian ex-pat friends who are now living elsewhere. The consensus seems to be that it doesn’t accurately reflect their image of Canada, there is a lack of connection with the images, a lack of relevancy.

When comparing passports with other travelers, there is an opportunity for us to share the story of our country. If John Baird is suggesting that the images in the new passport are a way to tell the world who we are, how do we explain the lack of diversity in the people represented?

Posted on by Librarian Karen in Can-Con, Feminism Leave a comment

FFFF: Ask a Slave

Funny Feminist Friday Film square logo

Azie Mira Dungey used to work as a “living history character” at the popular historic site, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. She’s created the “Ask a Slave” webseries to hilariously call out some of the most idiotic questions she got when working there.

If you appreciated that, click here to watch Episode 2 on YouTube.

Transcript (after the jump):

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in FFFF, Racism Leave a comment

Sidesaddle: Protect Thy Hymen!


by Matilda Branson

I ride horses. I think I was first on a horse at the age of 8 or 9 months old. Horse riding comes as naturally to me as does breathing. Wherever I live, or travel in the world, my eye is automatically on the look-out for anything horse-related, be it a likely stable or potential horse jump (the front fences of houses are usually particularly promising), even if I don’t have a horse with me. When I see a golf course, I think how wonderful it would be to gallop across the pristine turf. Desperate for horse contact whilst living in Nepal, I rescued a small pony from a brick kiln factory. A few years ago, I rode 1000 km across Mongolia on horseback, because how could I not? A horse-mad feminist, through and through.

When I ride, I ride astride. Most people do. If you’ve ever ridden, you were probably riding astride too, one leg either side of the horse. Yet this is a pretty recent thing for women to do. If you look at mediaeval paintings, and even photos up until the early 20th century of women riding, you’ll often see them sidesaddle, seated with two legs on one side of the horse.

Have you ever used the phrase “bohemian” to describe something a bit alternative or unconventional? The earliest form of the sidesaddle is credited towards one Princess Anne of Bohemia who travelled across Europe on a primitive form of the sidesaddle to wed King Richard II, thus setting a bit of a trend particularly for those of noble birth, that to ride astride was unladylike and improper. Although a few feisty ladies through the ages bucked (ha ha) the trend – Catherine the Great, Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette, just to name a few – the sidesaddle became the principal mode of riding for women for a good half a century or so.

But why the sidesaddle?  Why not a normal one? Was it because of the dresses they wore, or their perceived weakness as women in comparison to men and their inability to control their mighty steeds? Maybe a little. But the main motivation I think came with the social norm: A woman to straddle a horse – oh the thought of it! How unbecoming of a lady!

So what was underpinning such ideas? For all those anthropologists out there, it all boils down to ideas around a woman’s purity and chastity, and male control and regulation of female sexuality (perhaps the thinking behind this is if it’s left uncontrolled, women might just rampage across the Earth: wild, irrational and dangerous, hormones unbridled, ha ha).  Once the mediaeval times dug in, so did feudalism and all the patriarchal norms that go with it, including the utmost need for a girl (especially an aristocratic one like our Princess Anne of Bohemia) to remain chaste and a virgin until her wedding night. And how to prove she’s a virgin? Why, the old blood-on-the-sheets and broken hymen trick! Convinces the rellies every time. Riding astride? A big no-no if daddy, mummy and hubby-to-be wanted to keep the hymen intact.

It was only really at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, with the suffragette movement, the first World War and the general modernisation of things that the sidesaddle began to go out of vogue. Although today it continues to be used, and is a respected part of equestrianism in itself due to the skill required in riding sidesaddle, most women today ride astride.  Which I, for one, am very glad of, as otherwise I would fall off a lot. The point of this post is: don’t forget the seemingly obscure ways in which women have gained greater freedoms as part of the greater feminist movement. There are so many of them out there, which is great, and I would neigh for joy if I could.

Posted on by Matilda Branson in Feminism Leave a comment

Vintage Pregnancy Advice from the Canadian Government

canmotherby Jarrah Hodge

Thrift shopping with my mom and boyfriend in North Vancouver the other day I came across a real gem: a 1947 printing of the Canadian government’s handbook The Canadian Mother and Child, by Ernest Couture, M.D., Director of the Division of Child and Maternal Health.

A little context: this is the 7th printing of the 1st edition of the handbook, and it was a really popular guide that ended up being published and distributed every year for over 30 years. An article from Canadian Encyclopedia describes how important this book and other similar guides were to women in the 1940s:

In the 1940s, child-rearing was done, literally, by the book. Janet Berton vividly remembers the one she used -Canadian Mother and Child, a brochure from the federal health department that her doctor gave her when her first child, Penny, was born in 1948. “It had wonderful pictures of old, old, old-fashioned babies and nurses in black and white,” says Berton, who with her husband, author Pierre Berton, raised a family of eight children. “But it was pretty authoritarian. You had to do exactly what it said.” Berton says she tried to follow the rules for feeding an infant on a strict timetable, every four hours, and soon wound up “in a panic” because the baby did not seem to be getting enough milk.

I had an interesting time reading the guide and learning what women like my grandmother would have been advised to do when they were pregnant in that era, and thought I’d share some of the more interesting and maybe surprising lessons with you.

"While Awaiting a Baby", photo from Library & Archives Canada

“While Awaiting a Baby”, photo from Library & Archives Canada

On the Joy of Motherhood

“The birth of a baby is the most glorious achievement in the life of a woman, for, in becoming a mother, she completely fulfils the special purpose of her life as a woman.” (p. 3)

“There is nothing more fascinating for a mother than to read about the care of a baby.” (p. 84)

“The very presence of your baby, and your feeling of love for it, should prove more eloquent than any words to persuade you to breast-feed your infant, if you are able to do so.” (p. 108)

“When you bend affectionately over your growing infant, does not the contented joy of your heart tell you powerfully that you are gazing on the most precious of all your possessions? As the infant lies, charming but helpless, and dependent on you for everything, you feel that it was fully worth those special pains on your part to give it proper nourishment, to provide the benefit of fresh air and sunshine, the comfort of cleanliness and appropriate clothes, to guard it against digestive troubles, infections and contagious diseases and accidents, and also to direct with love the first manifestations of a budding character.” (p. 203)

On Lady-Parts

“Special local examination. On no account should you let false modesty influence you in the matter of this local examination. Unfortunately this is often the case, particularly with mothers expecting their first baby. You would not forgive yourself if, through neglect of this very important examination, some mishap occurred.” (p. 7)

“For local hygiene use a mild soap, or a mild antiseptic solution recommended by your doctor or a solution of baking soda or boracic acid (1 dessert spoonful to a quart of warm water). Make sure to dry the parts thoroughly.” (p. 40)

“In a married woman, the missing of a period is usually due to pregnancy.” (p. 11)

On Leisure Time

“There is, of course, no harm in playing bridge. Indeed it is a wholesome way of relaxing, if not abused, but it is fatiguing if indulged in too frequently or for lengthy sessions.” (p. 21) Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Can-Con, Feminism 3 Comments