The Purpose of the Pelvic: A Historical Analysis

Mar 24, 2023

04:30 PM - 06:00 PM

Iowa City Public Library,

123 South Linn Street, Iowa City, IA 52240

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Ever since the introduction of the pelvic exam as a gynecological procedure in the late 19th century, consumers and doctors have struggled to define the boundaries between preventive health and sexual impropriety. In the early 20th century, for example, cancer awareness programs were stymied by the failure of the press to print particular words deemed “inappropriate,” such as “uterus, cervix, discharge, bloody, or menses.” And despite the emergence of second wave feminism in the 1970s, discomfort around discussing female sex organs remains a major problem, even leading to a congresswoman getting banned from speaking on the House floor after using the term “vagina” in 2012. This shaming of women’s reproductive anatomy takes a toll on all women, who have picked up the cue that they, too, should remain silent about their bodies. Researchers have documented the impact this silencing has had on women’s care, including a lack of basic anatomical knowledge and the importance of routine gynecological care. In a 2017 U.S. study, for example, only about half of women surveyed about cervical cancer screening felt they knew the purpose of the routine pelvic exam.

This talk suggests that the pelvic exam is more than just a medical procedure; it is a window into a deeper, more meaningful set of questions about gender, medicine, and power.  From gynecological research on enslaved women’s bodies to practice on anesthetized patients, the pelvic exam as we know it today carries the burden of its history. By looking through that window, we can begin to understand why the pelvic exam remains both mysterious and contentious. 

Wendy Kline, PhD, Dema G. Seelye Chair in the History of Medicine at Purdue University, is internationally recognized for her scholarship in the history of medicine, history of women's health and the history of childbirth. She is the author of three major books: Coming Home: How Midwives Changed Birth (Oxford University Press, 2019); Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave (U. of Chicago Press 2010); and Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (U. of California Press, 2001). Her current book project, Exposed: A History of the Pelvic Exam, is under contract with Polity Press.  She has appeared in the Netflix documentary, Sex, Explained, as well as the PBS documentary, The Eugenics Crusade, and will appear in the Showtime documentary, Pharma, in 2023. Her research has been funded by major fellowships, including a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar fellowship, a British Academy Fellowship, and a Huntington Fellowship. Kline is also a professional violinist. You can learn more about her at www.wendykline.com.

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