‘Not’ the Wellcome Prize Blog Tour 2020 #1 – Vagina A Re-Education by Lynn Enright

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The Wellcome Book Prize is on hiatus this year – we really hope it’ll return in 2021 as this unique prize, which celebrates literature with health, illness and medicine themes, always highlights exciting books in its longlist. The accompanying blog tour and (unofficial) shadowing panel have been highlights of the awards/blogging year for Shiny Ed Annabel, who has participated for the past few years.

As the prize isn’t happening, Rebecca Foster of the blog BookishBeck, who runs the shadow panel and is a regular Shiny reviewer, got permission to run a ‘Not the Wellcome Prize Blog Tour’ this year. Shiny New Books is delighted to take part and revisit two books, which would have been eligible, that we reviewed earlier this year. Here’s one of them…

Vagina A Re-Education by Lynn Enright

Review by Hayley Anderton

Vagina re-education lynn enright

I might not have picked this book up if I hadn’t realised I was vaguely squeamish about saying the word vagina, or writing it, publicly. My family and friends are not noticeably prudish yet we talk in euphemisms, or don’t talk at all, about this one part of our bodies. A bit of re-education suddenly seemed necessary.

As a middle aged woman with polycystic ovary syndrome (so more than a few conversations with doctors over the years and a bit of reading around the subject) I thought I was reasonably well informed, but I came away surprised at how much I didn’t know. And even more surprised by how much I had accepted without question. 

I feel quite evangelical about this book on the subject of vaginas, but it’s probably useful to say that there have been a few published recently, and I’m assuming that they will all have a specific focus. Enright covers a lot of ground, from anatomy through politics and philosophy (feminism) taking in the hymen, clitoris, orgasms, appearances, periods, pain, fertility, pregnancy, menopause, and more, all in just over 200 pages. She draws heavily on her own experience and I think this book is as much about asking questions as it is answering them. There is a further reading list, links to other resources, and it’s well referenced, but it is also essentially an overview. 

As a starting point it’s brilliant though. The first, and possibly most important, thing it does is normalise using correct anatomical terms – by repeating them over and over again. If nothing else that makes it easier to have a conversation or pass on information be it to doctors, other women and girls, or work colleagues.

That’s got to be a big step forward. Currently it’s not many work places that acknowledge that plenty of women will struggle with periods. As an example, in the UK you’re legally entitled to an uninterrupted 20 minute break if you work more than 6 hours in a shift. That can mean 3 or 4 hours before you get a break of any sort (not every job allows for quick loo breaks) and that’s far from ideal for a lot of us. We need to be able to talk about these things openly without being accused of being manipulative, or feeling that we’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage.

To do that it also really helps to have a wider understanding of the range of experiences that women have, something that current education which tends to standardise everything, really doesn’t do. That’s the second great thing about this book. It really does start to explore that range, and depending on where your personal experience lies that comes in somewhere between being informative and comforting. 

The chapters on fertility and pregnancy are interesting too, again the range of experience within pregnancy, and its attendant risks seems to have been steadily understated over recent decades. That’s fine if things go well, but surely more frightening if they do not, especially when it comes to actually giving birth, when it’s not at all clear how well prepared people are for what might happen.

In some ways I found the chapter on fertility the weakest, mostly because it doesn’t really discuss women who choose not to have children, or to not pursue fertility treatment when they find they can’t, other than to say it’s a valid choice. I think a little bit more space could have been made to discuss that. What we do get is a useful reminder that discussion about fertility ought to include men’s fertility, and ought to cover what happens if conception proves difficult. 

In short I think there’s something for just about everybody to get from reading this. If you have a vagina, or know somebody who does, it’s worth considering Enright’s position on education, and the knowledge she has to share. There’s something about her tone that suggests to me that her  target audience is primarily younger women/teenage girls – and how I wish I could have read something like this when I was 14 or so. 

It’s still a case of better late than never, I can’t overstate how useful I’ve found reading this. I won’t  count the number of conversations it’s opened with friends and family, or how much we’ve collectively realised we didn’t know, or hadn’t challenged, but I can definitely say I feel better equipped to ask questions in the future. 

Hayley blogs at http://desperatereader.blogspot.com

Lynn Enright, Vagina A Re-Education (Allen and Unwin, 2019). 978-1911 630012, 228pp., paperback. 

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