Queen Elizabeth I of England with Sieve proving her status as virgin
In this seminar Prof Ferguson will speak about her current book project entitled “Myths of Hymen,” which analyzes a web of strange relationships between an ancient Greek god of marriage named Hymen and a body part (or “site,” as some feminists prefer to call it) that all human females are alleged to possess at birth and that has been fetishized in many different times and places. Although both ancient Greek and early modern (16th- to 18th century) European writers doubted that the hymen exists as a material or “histological” (tissue-based) entity, let alone one signaling sexual purity in all women, the traditions of hymeneal skepticism, as she calls them, which range from testimony by female subjects through gynecological treatises and Renaissance plays to studies by modern primatologists showing that our nearest relatives evidently lack hymens, are ignored by those modern surgeons who practice, and advertise, hymen “restoration” procedures (“hymenoplasties”) in cities around the world today. Initially described on the web in the 1990’s as surgeries that could save the lives of “strange” women (defined as those who lived in mostly Muslim societies where barbaric honor killings were regularly performed), hymenoplasties are now also sold to women (and couples) in places like Los Angeles who want to refresh their marriages by re-experiencing the breaking of the hymen, and its accompanying sign of blood. Drawing on the work of anthropologists, feminist theorists, and scholars in the emergent field of “security studies,” she will sketch some of the traditions of hymeneal skepticism and conclude with a consideration of the relations between hymenoplasties and those much debated surgical practices known as “female circumcision” or, more polemically, as “female genital mutilation.”
Margaret Ferguson is a Distinguished Professor Emerita of English at the University of California, Davis. She taught at Yale, Columbia, and the University of Colorado before coming to Davis in 1997. She chaired her department between 2006 and 2009, and served as President of the Modern Language Association in 2014. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she has co-edited thirteen books including, with Jennifer Wicke, Post-Modernism and Feminism (Duke University Press). Her book Dido’s Daughters: Gender, Literacy, and Empire in Early Modern England and France (University of Chicago Press) won awards from the Sixteenth-Century Society and from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women. She has received fellowship support for work on her current project, “Myths of Hymen,” from the American Council of Learned Societies and from the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study as well as—presently-- from the HRC.