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The Power of “Vagina”: The Structure and Meaning of Words

Structural symbolic interactionist argue that not only do words have meaning, they also have meaning based on the person who utters them and the historical and structural position of that person in relation to that word. In this post, Bridget Welch explains how this is the case for vaginas everywhere.

Axe wound, muff, bearded clam, fish taco, camel’s toe, beaver, roast beef curtains…[1]

As I write this, there are over 7 billion people in the world. About half of those have a cooch.

Sarah Nell has already written about the horrors of trying to discuss the clitoris. But I’m going to take it one further. Say the one word about a woman’s reproductive system SHALL NOT BE NAMED. You ready for it? Take a deep breath. Go get your security blanket and teddy bear. Here we go:


Say it with me:

Vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina.

Now was that so bad?

The answer is yes if you are Representative Lisa Brown, a democrat in the Michigan House. While debating legislation that would restrict access to abortions, Brown stated: “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.”

If that wasn’t enough of a horror for the House to have to deal with, Rep. Barb Byrum muttered the word vasectomy when she was restricted from speaking on her amendment that proposed that proof of a medical emergency and/or risk of death was required before a man could get the above mentioned procedure.

Barred from speaking in the House as punishment for this horrific act of using scientifically correct terminology, you may wonder how the vagina should be referenced in polite discourse. The press corps for Michigan House (well, at least the male members) have the answer for you.  As reported here, the men: “decided using cutesy slang like “v-word” and “va-jay-jay” were far superior to using a medically correct word.”


Jay Smooth can help us understand what is going on here when he explains the use of the “N-Word.” Here he debunks the argument that you can’t have one rule for one group of people about using the word (e.g. it’s okay for Blacks) and another for other people (e.g. Whites) because “that’s a double standard.” His response: “No. Just no… the meaning and impact of our words and the boundaries around them are always determined in part by the relationships involved. Our respective relationships with the subject matter and our relationships with each other.”

Wait a second. How did we get from “Vagina” to “N-Word”? You see, both are about the power of words — about symbolic interaction. It means something very different for a White person to say “N-” than a Black person. Why? Because of the history that exists between Blacks and Whites. For a very long time, Black people were named by Whites (slave, negro, “N”, colored person). The power to name symbolized that Whites were more powerful than Blacks. And the names themselves included this power structure as well as a degradation. For a White person to say that word today, they are bringing up the specter of that history.

“Vagina” is the same and yet the opposite. The structural realities of the “N-word” indicates who can and cannot say it. In today’s society, Blacks have mostly won control over the word (with debates emerging from time to time). With “Vagina” the case of Representative Brown indicates that women have not won control over their bodies — symbolized by men sanctioning women for using this scientific term.

What this means is that the meaning of words depends on the structural context in which the word is uttered and WHOM it is uttered by.

In the case of “vagina” and “vasectomy” these words were utilized by two women in a particular context. First, they where women in the political arena – an area that is traditionally (and STILL) male dominated. Second, they were demanding control over their own bodies in the same way that men historically (and STILL) have control over their bodies. This is what the vasectomy amendment is about (along with other amendments attempting to restrict access to Viagra and other erectile dysfunction treatments – along with this masterpiece that attempted to restrict male masturbation). Yet, in a social context and social structure were women have less power than men to make decisions, using a word like vagina or vasectomy in a claim to power. In this context, these words can be understood as meaning women should have legitimacy in speaking about issues related to control over their own bodies. And this meaning, if acknowledged, is a threat to patriarchy.

Just consider this. In response to these words being spoken on the floor, Ari Adler, the press secretary for the House Speaker said that the two women were having “temper tantrums.” Remember this post about Barack Obama being delegitimated by being treated as if he was a child? Safe to say, same thing is going on here. Who has temper tantrums? Children. Evidently two women using the words vagina and vasectomy are akin to a toddler throwing herself on the floor, crying and screaming uncontrollably, and banging her fists and feet on the floor. Do you listen to a child having a temper tantrum? Experts say the best thing to do is “ignore” until they start behaving appropriately again.

Using “va-jay-jay” or “vag” or “beaver” or (pick one of thousands of words) instead of vagina, isn’t that almost akin to a child “tinkling” or going “wee-wee”? And if this is so, does demanding them to use these other words, or even restrict them to the use of “uterus”, reduce the legitimacy of women to speak about their own bodies. Why can’t they use the real word? Vagina.

Formally sanctioning women for the use of medically correct terms is another attempt to silence them (much like calling a woman a “slut” for demanding access to birth control). It is an attempt to, in Jay Smooth’s words; create a “boundary” that removes women from the discussion of their own reproductive health. And denying them access to speaking on the floor in response is directly silencing them.

Fortunately, women are not quietly taking this sanction. On June 18th, a protest was held at the Capitol building. A performance of The Vagina Monologues, a play that celebrates the vagina, took place.

I live too far away from Michigan to have attended this protest. But, if I was closer, I think my sign would have said: “My name is Bridget, and I have a VAGINA.”  

Dig Deeper

  1. Think of examples of other words and terms that are restricted based on social structure and power. What are these terms? Who is allowed to use them? Who is restricted? What do these patterns mean about who has power in our society?
  2. Examine this twitter feed. How are the people posting to this feed attempting to make problematic the silencing of women from using these terms?
  3. Watch this monologue from The Vagina Monologues (beware, BAD LANGUAGE!). How do you think this play attempts to challenge the idea that women cannot have control over their own bodies?
  4. Compare this blog post to the one written by Sarah Nell on the clitoris. How are the restrictions on the use of the word clitoris similar to what occurred in Michigan? How is it different?

[1] I hate to admit it, but I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.