Anne Koedt, Author of "The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm"
Anne Koedt was part of the radical feminist movement in New York in the 60's and 70's. In 1970 she wrote an article that, like a shot, became the "the feminist words that were heard all over the world". It was entitled "The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm."
She was willing to speak with me about that time in a recent phone call. When I said "I would like to speak with you about an article you wrote in 1970," she laughed gently and said, "Let me guess which one!"
Her first thoughts about the topic, she explained, had been outlined in a feminist newsletter in New York called "Notes From the 2nd Year." Her complete version was brought out and distributed as a pamphlet. It is that full copy that I read.
I asked about the reaction to the article. She replied, "I had no thoughts that it would have any effect at all. It wasn't that big a deal to me." She explained that she had been born in Denmark, and came to the US as a teenager. Discussion of sexuality was a much more natural thing in Denmark than in America at that time. So the storm of response she got (and still gets) was entirely unexpected.
In the 1950's and 60's the world was very different for women. Our G-spots had not yet even been discovered. Many of us didn't know about the distinct value of the clitoris, let alone that we even had one. Those of us who knew, were part of the world colored by Freud, who had very little respect indeed for that part of a woman's body. Freud theorized in 1905 with no scientific evidence, that there was a special thing that happened to a "mature" woman. She gave up the pre-pubescent clitoral orgasms, which were considered infantile, and transferred her orgasm to something experienced vaginally during penetration. More strikingly, if a woman could not make this transfer, she would be frigid. Worse yet, Freud stated that this change-over of orgasm from clitoris to vagina is what made a woman prone to to hysteria.
Of course, this meant she would need the services of people like Freud to help her become more mature in her thinking. The woman who failed to have vaginal orgasms was thought to be a "failure" sexually, and branded as frigid.
Let's go back in history to the Feminist Movement in the late 60's and early 70's. My friend Barbara was attending meetings that were called "Consciousness Raising" sessions. I was a newlywed still in college. Barb would come over to our apartment and talk to me about these meetings. I would eagerly read the printed handouts that were shared in those sessions, as though they were illuminating letters from a strange land.
One of those was printed with black ink on yellow paper. I can still remember it. Among the pamphlets written by Gloria Steinem, Ti Grace Atkinson, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Robin Morgan, was that yellow pamphlet by Anne Koedt, a radical feminist from New York. It was called "The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm."
Koedt's pamphlet circulated like wildfire. She spoke about Freud and about how widespread his beliefs had become. She quoted Frank Caprio
...whenever a woman is incapable of achieving an orgasm via coitus, provided the husband is an adequate partner, and prefers clitoral stimulation to any other form of sexual activity, she can be regarded as suffering from frigidity and requires psychiatric assistance. (The Sexually Adequate Female, p.64.)
She then spoke of specific Freudians who had written books saying that the best remedy might be to have surgery that would relocate the clitoris further into the vagina and would reduce the size of the labia.
Anne Koedt, by this point in the article, almost has women screaming "NO!" and she adds:
The worst damage was done to the mental health of women, who either suffered silently with self-blame, or flocked to psychiatrists looking desperately for the hidden and terrible repression that had kept from them their vaginal destiny.
I was stunned by this article, awakened on more than a sexual level. It was this article that gave me my first real feminist "CLICK" -- that moment made popular by the first issue of Ms. Magazine, that "CLICK" that says "Aha! This is what an unjust structure looks like." It was that moment that it was clear that false assumptions about who we were as women -- something as fragile as an "idea" -- had affected every aspect of our lives.
Koedt says further:
Again, perhaps one of the most infuriating and damaging results of this whole charade has been that women who were perfectly healthy sexually were taught that they were not. So in addition to being sexually deprived, these women were told to blame themselves when they deserved no blame. Looking for a cure to a problem that has none can lead a woman on an endless path of self-hatred and insecurity. For she is told by her analyst that not even in her one role allowed in a male society-the role of a woman-is she successful. She is put on the defensive, with phony data as evidence that she'd better try to be even more feminine, think more feminine, and reject her envy of men. That is, shuffle even harder, baby.
Why had this knowledge not been more widely spread? Koedt quotes Masters and Johnson's results that agree with her statements. Yet none of this had trickled out to the general public in any meaningful way. She says:
"Today, with extensive knowledge of anatomy, with Kelly, Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson, to mention just a few sources, there is no ignorance on the subject. There are, however, social reasons why this knowledge has not been popularized. We are living in a male society which has not sought change in women's role."
Well, Anne Koedt had an idea as well, and as fragile as any idea is, she framed it so well, and the need was so great, that it helped change the world -- not just in how many women learned more about their orgasms, but in how many of us "CLICKED" when we read her words, how many of us realized that the effects of the damage done by role assumptions had even reached into our most private moments. The personal could be also political.
As Koedt spoke of the response that came from her writing that article, she describes it as particularly shocking in its volume. Although she is proud of her work on that article, she is a very private woman, not one who seeks notoriety. As I mention to her how widely circulated it is on the web, she responds knowingly with a bemused laugh, and one can almost see her eyebrows lift in puzzlement even today. She points out her private nature again, and I feel very fortunate to have these minutes with her. She writes today, but in another field and under another name.
Anne Koedt, I want to thank you again for your work -- for coping with the storm of activity that followed, and for teaching us all once again about the power of a well-written idea.
~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool