In many ways, the GOP presidential candidates have leveraged fear to their advantage in 2016. They’ve called for stopping Muslims at our borders and urged Americans to arm themselves against every imaginable threat. But there’s one specter so frightening that even Republicans dare not speak its name. Carly Fiorina alluded to it in an interview Tuesday, accusing the Cruz campaign of calling her “the V-word… Yes V, and I won’t say that word either.”
No, the Cruz campaign did not compare Fiorina to the infamous Harry Potter villain. They called her the other V-word (shudder): “Vagina.”
Fiorina isn’t the only Republican wary of the V-word’s loathsome maw. When Donald Trump learned that Hillary Clinton was late returning to her podium during Saturday’s Democratic debate because she had to use the ladies’ room, he swiftly blocked any thought of her dangerous nether region from his mind: “It’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting.” So malevolent is the V-that-must-not-be-named that even acknowledging its existence threatens the moral fabric of our society. On Tuesday, Bernie Sanders pondered how the thrice-married Trump has gone this long without exposure to the gritty truth that women pee: “I don’t know what his relationship with women has been like, but he has discovered that women go to the bathroom, and it’s very upsetting for him.”
A quick scan of the historical record suggests that a mind unsullied by the details of female anatomy is a prerequisite for running on the GOP ticket. An Idaho legislator made headlines last winter when he asked in a hearing whether women could swallow tiny cameras to facilitate gynecological exams. “Fascinating. That makes sense,” he said, when the testifying physician explained that, no, ingested objects do not land in the vagina. (The lawmaker still considered himself sufficiently expert in lady-parts to declare abortions too unsafe for telemedicine.) Conservative politicians are also longtime boosters of the absurd idea that women can’t get pregnant from rape. As then-Rep. Todd Akin famously explained it in 2012, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” These displays provide a window into the mythos of the vagina that so haunts Republicans, and men, and maybe humankind in general. Witness the strange synthesis between the fear of a bottomless hole and the fear of a portcullis that could snap shut at any time.
Until recently, there was the active Twitter thread #Vagina2016, on which Clinton-haters summarized the likely Democratic nominee’s message to America as “Vote for my vagina!” To the participants, the joke needs no further elaboration: Vaginas are not good retail politicians; they are the stuff of nightmare. The literary tradition supporting this idea is far longer and more exalted than I’d wager Trump, Fiorina, and the denizens of #Vagina2016 realize.
Not long after the Old Testament declared menstruating women “unclean,” Rome’s Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, expressed a similar sentiment in a more purple fashion:
Contact with it turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seeds in gardens are dried up, the fruits of trees fall off, the bright surface of mirrors in which it is merely reflected is dimmed, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air.
In Pliny’s passage, the source of blight is the function that enables new life. Did he resent the fact that the vagina’s occult ability to take in raw material and conjure—voila!—progeny is inseparable from its more fun-loving persona? Certainly, the Christian right of today remains angry at the impossibility of neatly dividing the vagina’s role in procreation from its role in the sin that is sex-for-pleasure.
In literature and folklore, the vagina is punished for refusing to be thusly confined. Tales from many cultures include the figure of the vagina dentata, which lures men in before baring its fangs. See, for example, its sinister aspect in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale,” where the sexuality of a deceitful young wife named May is compared to “the scorpion” whose “tayl is deeth.”* “Paired with swete and venym, May’s vagina becomes both pleasing and poisonous,” writes the scholar Tory Vandeventer Pearman, ready to both “sting” her husband and “suck” the life out of him. Similarly, in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the dragon antagonist is a beautiful woman from the waist up, a monster below. This creature’s name is Error, which is exactly what being seduced by her entails. As is explained in high school English 101, the Renaissance poets referred to orgasm as “death.” But “death” seeds life—proof, yet again, of the vagina’s witchery and devious contradictions.
Trump and Fiorina don’t need all this history to convince many of their listeners that the existence of lady-parts is better denied. But if they insist on fanning the flames of vagina-hatred, maybe Democrats can put it to good use. This October, Planned Parenthood supporters in Oregon broke up an anti-choice protest by chanting “Yeast infections!” Apparently, the specter of a diseased vagina is kryptonite for the right—a weapon that the even Donald Trump truly fears.
Correction, Dec. 24, 2015, 8:28 p.m.: This post originally referred to Chaucer’s “Merchant’s Tale” as “The Miller’s Tale.”