Hottentot Venus, Vagina Dentata Bibliography/Discussion July 1996

Query From Julie Guard 05 July 1996

I am revising a first-year course that I have previously taught as feminist history in a new way, focusing on historic images of women, mostly negative, and how women have responded to and resisted them.

I want to find some reading material to assign students, most of whom are, I have found, not particularly skilled readers, about Sarah B?, the so-called Hottentot Venus, an African woman who was displayed as a curiosity in Europe, and about the idea of the "vagina dentata" or vagina with teeth. Can anyone suggest short, uncomplicated articles about either of these subjects that I could assign to my students? Thanks.


Alexander, Elizabeth The Hottentot Venus (a poem)

Fausto-Sterling, Anne "Gender, Race and Nation: The Comparative Anatomy of "Hottentot"

Women in Europe, 1815-1817", in Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla, eds:Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture (Indiana U Press, Bloomington, 1995)

Gilman, Sander Sexuality: An Illustrated History (Wiley:NY, 1989)

"Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female

Sexuality in Late Nineteeth-Century Art, Medicine and Literature" in

H.L. Gates' "Race", Writing and Difference.

Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness (Ithaca, Cornell U Press, 1985)

Gould, Stephen Jay "The Hottentot Venus", in his collection of essays The Flamingo Smile: Reflections in Natural History (NY, W.W. Norton & Co): 291-301. (ca. 1987); smaller article in Natural History (ca. 1985-86)

New York Public Library and Suzan-Lori Parks production of "Venus"; reviewed in The Village Voice by Michelle Wallace; 5/21/96, p.31

Ms. Magazine A poem about her on the inside cover...n.d.(some years ago)

Raitt, Jill an article on "vagina dentata", Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 48(1980), 415-431

Yale University recently produced a play on the Hottentot Venus...n.d.

Coming Events: November 1996: African Studies Association Meeting in San Francisco, California, a panel is being presented on the theme of the cultural and racial context of Saartje Baartman's South African and European worlds.

Other Background Info/Other Contacts:

>From Charlotte Borst 05 July 1996

The so-called "Hottentot Venus" was a southern African woman named Saartjie Baartman. Lynette Jackson, at Barnard, has done some research about her, and Jackson presented a paper at the Berks about Baartman and her encounter with the 19thc. French physician, Georges Cuvier. You might want to contact Jackson.

>From Arne Baker 05 July 1996

As a matter of fact, I *can* suggest something in the vagina dentata category. Last year I gave a presentation of folk stories involving the vagina dentata(not to mention castration, penis envy and other freakily Freudian themes). It was easy to explain the "original myths" of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, opium and venereal disease to my audiences, but I had difficulty coming up with a reason for the odd popularity of this particular folk motif. (NB: The Santals are a matrifocal tribe in which women have considerable influence.)

As ever, science provides a window of insight. The notorious anthropologist Verrier Elwin wrote quite a bit on this and other Sental obsessions, and selections from his Myths of Middle India would spruce up any women's study class--as long as his history of sampling the native wares is discreetly swept under the carpet, and his bizarre stories frankly acknowledged. It should also be noted that Allen Dundes at Berkeley has a major fixation on this topic. A bibliography of any of Dundes' works will provide a plethora of dubious(but entertaining) research on the vagina dentata. Lastly, either Baly's or Stith's and Thompson's folk motif indexes will give you a *shocking* idea of the prevalence of these themes in Indian folklore, with Propp's or Aarne's indexes serving the same function for Europe. Don't take my word for it: Freud didn't just pull all that misogynistic shit out of thin air. Good luck.

P.S. There's a book in the library, something like The History of Sex Through Illustration, that has an eye-opening section of the Hottentot Venus and the mysteries of steatopygy in general. Try Nexus-Lexus for some juicy articles on the recent controversy between South Africa and France with respect to the Hottentot Venus.

>From Rob Kruszynski 06 July 1996

...the woman who became known as "The Hottentot Venus" and whose baptised name was Saartjie[which is 'Little Sarah' in Afrikaans and pronounced "Sar-key"] Baartman.

>From David Rayson 08 July 1996

...If you are not familiar with Gould, he is a paleontologist by training who also is an extraordinary evolutionary theorist and historian. He also writes a monthly column for Natural History magazine. Gould's article focuses on why Europeans were so fascinated with the woman baptized as Saartjie Baartman, who later became famous as the Venus Hottentot. Gould's short article also introduces the reader to the scientific racism of the time.

>From: Mary Pickering, mpickeri@email.SJSU.EDU

Regarding the question about the Hottentot Venus that appeared some time ago, I recently came upon great material in Londa Schiebinger's Nature's Body, esp. chapter 5. She shows how early anthropologists conceptualized the intersecting categories of race and sex. The chapter on apes is good too.

Return to H-Women Home Page.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]