Historians have debated whether the clitoris disappeared or persisted in anatomy books and medical knowledge from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. But what did women know about this part of their own bodies? The coded diaries of Anne Lister, an early nineteenth-century gentlewoman who wrote in detail about her romantic and sexual relationships with women, can illuminate this question. Although Lister had clearly been experiencing pleasure through the clitoris and giving pleasure to other women for years, it took her until age forty to find ‘distinctly for the first time’ the clitoris, that is to name her own anatomical part as represented in anatomy texts. I will show that she had been quite confused for years about where and what it was. In turn, examining the anatomy texts she read will illuminate changing understandings of female anatomy and lesbian sexuality in the early nineteenth century.
Anna Clark is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and the author, most recently, of Alternative Histories of the Self and Desire: a History of Sexuality in Europe (2nd ed).
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