Female Genital Mutilation in the U.S. Discussion (Sept/Oct 1996)

Query From Peter S. Fosl foslp@minnie.hollins.edu 27 Sept 1996

I wonder if anyone might be able to help me answer a few questions about the mutilation of women in U.S. history.

The background is the recent decision by the U.S. to grant political asylum to a young woman from Ghana who was fleeing attempts to subject her to FGM against her will. I've been discussing the case with students and colleagues. One of my colleagues has claimed that similar practices persisted in the U.S. until the 1920s. I have consulted Freedman and D'Emilio's Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America as well as Apple's Women, Health, and Medicine in America (1990). The texts, it seems, do not support this claim. It looks as though clitoridectomy was practiced widely in Britain in the early 1860s but that its popularity declined precipitously beginning in 1866 after critical legal actions, turns in popular opinion, and professional criticism.

Although there was some imitation in the U.S., the practice did not gain widespread acceptance; the article does not address African-American practices. Oopherectomy, or the removal of the ovaries, however, did become popular in U.S. medicine in the 1870s. By 1902 somewhere between 15,000 and 150,000 women had healthy ovaries removed for purportedly therapeutic reasons. By that time, as well, however, the practice fell into general disfavor. Rubin claims that no historical analyses have been done on the development and extent of hysterectomies. (Can this be true?)

My questions, then:

  1. What do you know about the ritual or therapeutic mutilation of women among persons of European and/or African descent in the U.S. and colonial American history---especially in the 20th century.
  2. What other sources should I consult beyond the texts I've mentioned?
  3. Is the information I've gleaned so far accurate?

Yours truly.


>From Debra Michals dam3385@is.nyu.edu 27 Sept 1996

I think this topic is fascinating, but the way to get at female genital mutilation in the U.S. is really a matter of semantics. That is, for some reason, when we look at Third World cultures, we call such practices genital mutilation. You won't find anything described in the U.S. in these terms, so in order to find what you are looking for, you need to remember the way the west Orientalizes the rest of the world--even when the practices here look much the same.

Women's magazines recently have been writing about "plastic surgery" to reduce the size of the clitoris or labia here in the U.S. Woman are complaining that their labia are "too fat"-which is all part of the body image stuff we hear so much about (the move to waifish-ness as an ideal--though unattainable--body type.) Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan magazines have both run articles on this kind of surgery in the last year--you might phone the magazines and ask for Reader Services to get a date for these articles. I have them in my files but have been unable to locate them. The one in Marie Claire ran this summer and it has a fascinating sidebar on male genital surgery (penile enlargements) as well. The publisher may even agree to fax you a copy of the article if you say you are a subscriber (they never check this, by the way).

In any case, you need to think of different key words in doing your search for the U.S. In addition, you need to refocus the question--for example, feminists would argue that mastectomies are a form of genital mutilation when practiced, as they have so often been in the history of breast cancer, without regard to other medical options. Dr. Susan Love has written a book simply entitled The Breast Book which talks about the way in which male surgeons have treated breast cancer and preferred mastectomy without regard of the breast as it is perceived by women. In other words, for women, the breast is very much linked to their sense of sexuality and femininity, but to male doctors it is no different than an elbow when it comes to treatment. So, my suggestion to you would be to look at feminist critiques of these practices to get at the larger question of genital mutilation. Also, you might want to look at a trend that began in the late 1980s and continues--which is hymen restoration surgery (women who want to restore their virginity to be viable in the marriage market). It happens here, too. Nut the new trend toward labia reductions--which I would argue is genital mutilation--is the most recent and fascinating version of this practice in the U.S.--and again, we never call it genital mutilation here. Good luck.

>From Maria Elena Raymond 73113.1362@compuserve.com 27 Sept 1996

A couple of weeks ago the Sacramento Bee ran an article about FGM on-going in the US among immigrant families. I will look it up and post it . Best wishes.

>From Kim Klausner klausner@sfsu.edu 30 Sept 1996

For more information about genital mutilation of intersexual people in the US contact the Intersexual Society of North America at cchase@isna.org

>From Kathleen Sheldon ksheldon@ucla.edu 30 Sept 1996

A very thoughtful and insightful article addressing issues of Western women's attitudes to genital surgeries, including a discussion of breast reduction as an aspect of this, is found in Isabelle Gunning's "Arrogant Perception, World-Travelling and Multicultural Feminism: The Case of Female Genital Surgeries," Columbia Human Rights Monitor v.23, Summer 1992: 189-247. I believe she has written another, more recent article on this topic, but I cannot find the citation.

>From Cheryl Chase cchase@isna.org 30 Sept 1996

Actually, genital mutilation continues to be widely practiced in the US and other industrialized countries. It is now reserved for infants whose clitorises are considered "too large". The Intersex Society of North America (http://www.isna.org) is a support group, many of whose members have been genitally mutilated. I attach a jpeg image with photos of the genitals of four such individuals. These photos were taken this month--Sept 1996--at a support group meeting.

We have been striving for three years, since the inception of ISNA, to make our story public, and to combat the continued use of genital surgery on infants. So far, reaction from most quarters has been stony, at best. I think that this may represent a cultural imperialist attitude which rushes to condone "irrational" practices in third world countries, but balks at examining the cultural underpinnings of "modern, rational" medical practice.

Clitoral surgeries of the type that are currently practiced were developed at Johns Hopkins in the 1940s under Lawson Wilkins, and in the 1950s and 1960s spread from there, mainly via his students, to hospitals throughout the US and the world.

Medical texts on pediatric endocrinology, and urological journals[should be consulted].

I've appended a few references. A more extensive bibliography is available at ISNA's website: http://www.isna.org. There are two sections in the FAQ which will point you to articles in which American women describe their experience of mutilating genital surgery (Where can I read first person writings of intersexuals?), and in which a very few social scientists examine the social motivation for these surgeries.

(Where can I find deconstructons of the medical viewpoint?)

Bellinger, Mark F. 1993 "Subtotal de-epithelialization and partial concealment of the glans clitoris: A modification to improve the cosmetic results of feminizing genitoplasty." Journal of Urology 150 (August 1993): 651-653.

Edgerton, Milton T. 1993. "Discussion: Clitoroplasty for clioromegaly due to adrenogenital syndrome without loss of sensitivity (by Nobuyuki Sagehashi). Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery 91 (5) : 956.

(Note that the authors describe surgical removal of most of the clitoris, have never performed long-term follow-up, and yet assert that sensation is preserved. The experience of our members contradicts that assertion.)

Gross, Robert E., Judson Randolph and John F. Crigler. 1966. "Clitorectomy for sexual abnormalities: Indications and technique." Surgery 59 (2): 300-308.

("Abnormalities" here means "too big, in the surgeon's judgment".)

Litwin, A, I. Aitkin and P. Merlob. 1990. "Clitoral length assessment in newborn infants of 30 to 41 weeks gestational age." European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 38: 209-212.

Oberfield, Sharon E., Aurora Mondok, Farrokh Shahrivar, Janice F. Klein and Lenore S. Levine. 1989. "Clitoral size in full-term infants." American Journal of Perinatology 6 (4 (Oct 1989)): 453-454.

(The purpose of establishing "normal" clitoral length is to be more objective in deciding which infants should have their clitorises surgically "reduced".)

Migeon, Claude J., Gary D. Berkowitz, and Terry R. Brown. 1994. "Sexual Differentiation and Ambiguity" in Wilkins' "The Diagnosis and Treatment of Endocrine Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence," ed. Michael S. Kappy, Robert M. Blizzard, and Claude J. Migeon. 1243. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas

Gearhart, John P., Arthur Burnett, and Jeffrey Owen. 1995.

"Measurement of evoked potentials during feminizing genitoplasty: technique and applications." Journal of Urology, 153 (February): 486-487.

Suregon Gearhart, of John Hopkins, and a specialist in genital surgery on infants, has characterized the membership of ISNA as "zealots" for our criticism of clitoral surgery as mutilating. ("Intersexual Healing", New York Times, Sunday 4 February 1996, Week in Review Section, p.14) We have been subjected to these surgeries and he has not. What authority should be ascribed to his opinion?

I will be very interested to hear your reaction to the above information. Please do distribute this information to your colleagues whose history is in need of updating, and as widely as possible.

Hope this helps! Yours truly.

>From Irene Stuber istuber@cswnet.com 30 Sept 1996

Check with the archives of the Seattle Times under "female genital mutilation" about a Seattle are hospital that proposed doing such operations there.

As a "compromise", the hospital suggested a sunna operation which they claim is "just a nick," but is the operation recently banned in Egypt. There is also a web site "Female Genital Mutilations" that has lots of material.

The reason you won't find anything about FGM in American medical literature is that it wasn't considered mutilation. It was a commonly done operation and was often done at the request of fathers or male relatives who found their daughters masturbating,etc., and no further authorization than the male relative's word was necessary.

>From what I have read and did witness somewhat first hand (not personally, thank GAWD) is that the clitorectomies were a way to control American women's sexuality...that was concurred with by some doctors, much as 19th and early 20thC women were sent to insane asylums on the word of a male relative and the concurrence of the institution's doctor, without any scientific or medical testing.

Other than California which just enacted a law against female genital mutilation, to my knowledge there are no rules against it anywhere in the US. U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder attempted to have a federal law passed but it died abornin' in the Gingrich Congress.

I am attempting to get a copy of the California law for dissemination to women in all the 50 to have the law made universal. There is freedom of religion but there is a limit. Mutilating a child in the name of religion is going too far. And there is a precedent with the banning of polygamy for Smith's followers.

>From Beth Nelson bethn@humanitas.ucsb.edu 30 Sept 1996

And a couple of weeks ago the L.A. Times ran an article on the same thing [FGM] - maybe it was the same article? Sorry, I don't have the cite, but it might be worth a try to skim back a few weeks. Sounds like an interesting project. Keep us posted on what you find!

>From David Doughan doughan@lgu.ac.uk 30 Sept 1996

One book that has some background on this, especially ovariotomies ("oopherectomies") and clitoridectomies, is by Ann Dally:Women Under The Knife: A History of Surgery (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1991). I don't know how available this is in the USA.

>From Maria Elena Raymond 73113.1362@compuserve.com 30 Sept 1996

Re; Peter Fosl's recent inquiry...altho I have no information currently at hand for the time-frame in question, here are names and addresses of people/organizations that might be helpful to you.

In California this past week, Gov. Wilson signed a law making FGM in California a felony. This law is a result of pressure from a woman named Meserak "Mimi" Ramsey, head of Forward USA, based in San Jose, CA. She may be one source of historical information. If you can't find her in San Jose, try the office of State Assemblywoman Liz Figueroa in Sacramento, CA. Figueroa sponsored the bill and would know where to reach Ramsey.

Another woman who might prove quite helpful to you is Fahizah Alim. She is currently a reporter at the Sacramento Bee and can be reached at P.O.Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852 or 916-321-1068. Her connections never cease to amaze me.

Two other sources of historical information would be: The Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Ave, NY 10017 and The Minority Rights Group, 237 Brixton Rd. London. Best wishes.

>From Debbie Nathan dnathan@utep.edu 30 Sept 1996

Re: FGM: see Jeffy [sp?] M. Masson's A Dark Science published about ten years ago, about gynecological and medico-legal practices vis a vis girls and women in 19th c. Europe and America. He translates a German OB-GYN article about surgical genital mutilation of a young girl who will not stop masturbating even after severe family and medical interventions; and recommends same for other girls with the "problem." Mason implies that this surgery was common as a response to the late 19thc. anxiety about masturbation.

>From Debbie Nathan dnathan@utep.edu 01 Oct 1996

People may be interested in Chapter 9, "The Medical Evidence," in a book I co-authored, Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt (Basic, 1995). The boo deals with the 1980s-1990s panic in this country and others over "ritual" or "satanic" child abuse in daycare centers and among poor people. Chapter 9 discusses a body of pseudoscience that developed in the U.S. in the 1980s, when doctors began closely examining girls' genitals (and the anuses of children of both genders), trying to determine what kind of shape and coloration was "normal" and what indicated abuse. Needless to say, there were no controlled studies of what NON-abused kids' private parts looked like; and in the absence of this data, all kinds of ideology took over about how the "normal" hymen or anus should appear. Prescriptive "normality" usually involved smallness, symmetry, and other Platonic ideals; and when the child didn't measure up, the police went on a hunt for perpetrators. Many people are still in prison as a result of this "science"--whose presumptions, I think, are related to the current discussion about genital mutilation.

The chapter also has a good deal of history (and citations) about 19th century attempts to define the congenital homosexual penis, the anus, the prostitute's facial physiognomy and hirsuteness, etc., FYI.

>From Peter Fosl foslp@minnie.hollins.edu 01 Oct 1996

Dear friends from H-SAWH and H-Women lists,

I am very grateful for all the transmissions about FGM in the USA. I am especially thankful to Cheryl Chase, Executive Director of the Intersex Society of North America, P.O.Box 31791, San Francisco, CA 94131, ,,cchase@isna.org>, http://www.isna.org, for important and shocking information about continuing U.S. practices of FGM. Yours truly.

>From Cheryl Chase cchase@isna.org 03 Oct 1996

Anyone who is interested in seeing modern clitorectomy surgery may purchase a training video, with close-up videos of actual surgery being performed on two infants, from Cine-Med:


Re: Irene Stuber's comment about current laws in the U.S....Actually, I believe that there have been some laws passed--one in a smaller jurisdiction of New York state, and also in North Dakota. However, each of these laws has made specific exception for cases where doctors assert that the genital surgery is necessary--i.e., genital mutilation of intersexuals, as depicted in the video mentioned above. E-mail me if you would like a jpeg of the outcomes of such surgeries, from photos taken at recent ISNA support group meetings.

Representative Schroeder, as well as Lisa Marino, her aide in charge of this legislation, and Anita Raman of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy who helped draft the bill, have ignored all communications from ISNA, from individual ISNA members, and from Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling (professor of Medical Science at Brown University, and a strong supporter of ISNA) about ongoing, medically sanctioned genital mutilation in the US.

Genital mutilation is already illegal--it is clearly mayhem ("the crime of willfully inflicting an injury on another person so as to cripple or mutilate"). Thus, Schroeder's FGM bill seems redundant. It should be quite possible to prosecute immigrants who clitorectomize their daughters here in the US under existing laws.

It is not possible, however, for those of us who have been mutilated by medically sanctioned practices here in the US to take legal action against the physicians responsible because:

The statute of limitations (generally three years) has expired by the time we are old enough to take action.

It is "standard medical practice," and as such not susceptible to effective prosecution.

It is essentially impossible to get physicians to testify against other physicians. In the case of genital mutilation of intersexed infants, the medical profession is in agreement that it must continue, and that it cannot be considered mutilation, because a) it is better than the alternative of leaving the child with intact genitals, but different than most other children, and b) it is performed by a surgeon, not a layperson.

In view of these facts (FGM bills restrict their attention to immigrant practices, which are already prosecutable; and specifically exempt American practices, which are not now prosecutable; and advocates of such bills have steadfastly refused to acknowledge the existence of such American practices, or of organized resistance among their victims,) I would like to posit the following:

The actual goal of such legislation, rather than to save children from genital mutilation, is to label third world cultures as barbaric.

>From Genevieve G McBride gmcbride@csd.uwm.edu 04 Oct 1996

Such a law (against FGM) was proposed (and, I think, passed) in recent months in Wisconsin by State Representative, Sheldon Wasserman--an OB/GYN and the only physician in the state legislature here...and I'm proud to say, also an alum of my campus, the Univ. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he credits a pioneering woman professor in biology as one of his significant influences. (I won't give her name here, since I don't have her permission, but she is author of a widely used text on women and biology.) Rep./Dr. Wasserman's office address is Room 316, State Capitol, P.O.Box 8953, Madison, WI 53708.

>From Mary Ann Irwin mirwin@sfsu.edu 04 Oct 1996

For the original inquiry re: search words for genital mutilization in the U.S., has anyone suggested *cauterization*? See the article "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl"--It deals with the medical uses of clitoral cauterization as "treatment" for masturbation, I believe in the U.S. The essay is in James Chandler's Questions of Evidence: Proof, Practice, and Persuasion.

>From Mary D Dysart dysarmd@mail.auburn.edu 07 Oct 1996

Prof. Fosl may be interested in the following information from an article on genital cutting in Africa (by Celia W. Dugger) that appeared in the electronic version of the New York Times 10-5-96. Two web sites dealing with this subject were mentioned in this article: The Global Action Against Genital Mutilation and The Female Genital Mutilation Research Home Page. The accompanying index of articles seems to deal only with this practice in other countries today. If the article index is no longer available on the net I have a copy I would be glad to pass along.

Return to H-Women Home Page.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]