Tribades and English Nationalism

In 1671 Jane Sharp, an English midwife, published The Midwives Book. In it, she purports to present a defense of the art of midwifery and also an much-needed accurate manual in the vernacular for midwives to reference. Her preface suggests that the true value in the book and the basis for its authority lies in her years of experience as a midwife. What currently interests me most about this text is Sharp’s description of the clitoris and the blatant English nationalism that pervades the description. I’ve been reading a lot lately on the figure of the tribade – essentially a woman with an exaggerated or obviously protruding clitoris. (Valerie Traub and Katharine Park have written the most thorough work I’ve read on this subject for those wanting to know more.) Both Traub and Park reference early modern anatomists’ debates about the “use” of the enlarged female clitoris, and it strikes me that Sharp (even though she’s a bit later than some of these debates) has a particularly interesting spin on the “use” of this organ. After a brief description of the size, shape, and feel of the clitoris that describes it as “commonly…but a small sprout,” she goes on to say: “yet sometimes it grows so long that it hangs forth at the slit like a Yard, and will swell and stand stiff if it be provoked, and some lewd women have endeavoured to use it as men do theirs.” First, the topic alone seems an odd tangent for a book on midwifery – I suppose it would be useful for midwives to know that the clitoris can sometimes be enlarged, but why the need to say that some women use it like a penis? What purpose could such conjecture serve for a midwife?

Just after this observation comes what I’m reading as a blatantly nationalist statement: “In the Indies, and Egypt they are frequent, but I never heard but of one in this Country, if there be any they will do what they can for shame to keep it close.” This is really the crux of my interest. First, what is the “they” Sharp refers to in the first part of this statement? Is the referent here the enlarged clitoris or the “lewd women” who use it improperly? This seems an important point because the “they” of the first clause is also the object of “shame” in the last part of the statement. Is the shame here coming from the exaggerated female genitalia, or the “lewd” acts these women are apparently performing with it? This distinction has direct implications for Sharp’s distinctly nationalist stance here. The women in the Indies and Egypt either often have distorted genitalia or are not ashamed about what they’re willing to do with this genitalia. English women, though, “keep it close” and don’t divulge either the existence of the genitalia in the first place or the shameful acts they are committing with it.

What, though, about this “one” Sharp refers to: ” I never heard but of one in this Country.” Again, is this a rumor about “one” woman who has an enlarged clitoris? Or about a woman who is using her enlarged clitoris in a shameful way? Whatever the status of this singular example Sharp references, her discussion of the tribade here makes a direct connection between English nationalism and the genitalia of female bodies. Either the fact that England does not have blatant monstrosities in female genitalia or, at the very least, that any of these women are not making their lewd acts apparent, are what sets England apart from foreign countries. The female body, and the genitalia in particular becomes the trigger site for Sharp’s argument about the “proper” structures of English society.

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