For the next few weeks, we at the ACA McGill University Student Chapter invite you to join us for an immersive series of blog posts titled PeepShow and Tell: Sex in Archives. Through interviews with researchers and professionals working firsthand with explicit materials, we hope to illuminate the intrinsic value of sex and sexuality within the field of archiving and why these materials deserve to be preserved.
Ezell Carter, co-editor of this piece, is a graduate student with the School of Information Studies at McGill University and the Co-Coordinator of the ACA McGill University Student Chapter.
Mary Hague-Yearl is a published writer, speaker, curator, and instructor working within the history of medicine; she is also the Head Librarian of McGill University’s Osler Library of the History of Medicine. We recently discussed why sexuality and its presence in archives is vital, and how the lack of knowledge and resources, particularly in regard to female anatomy, have very real consequences for our health.
Can you tell me more about these pieces and how they add to the Osler collection? Did you acquire any of these items yourself?
The portable kit of obstetrical tools has been in the library for a few decades. They belonged to Dr. William Wright (Class of 1848), Canada’s first medical graduate of colour, who practised medicine locally and taught materia medica at McGill from 1854-1883. In terms of reproductive health, they are important for a few reasons: one is that they are very much male tools and reflect a history of medical professionalization, which marginalized female practitioners. At the same time, they are a reminder of the lack of attention given to women’s health. These tools are from about a century and a half ago, yet the speculum is clearly a speculum; forceps have barely changed since modern ones were popularized in the 18th century. (Figure 1)
Figure 1: Portable kit of obstetrical instruments. 19th-century. From the estate of William Wright, Prof. of Materia Medica at McGill, 1854-1883 and also Canada’s first Black medical graduate, McGill, 1848.
As for the Predictor home pregnancy test kit and the 3D printed clitorises, those are recent additions to the library’s holdings. In a way, they are connected to the Birth Control Handbook (not shown here), published under the auspices of the McGill Students’ Society in 1968. This publication proved to be so popular in Canada as well as the US, that it ran into several editions (including in French). Montreal has been an important location in the recent history of reproductive health and sexual education. The Predictor, which was the first effective commercially-available home pregnancy test kit, was invented by graphic designer Margaret Crane in New York, but it was test-marketed in Montreal in the early 1970s. (Figure 2)
Figure 2: Predictor home pregnancy test kit. Designed by Margaret Crane. 1971. https://mcgill.on.worldcat.org/oclc/1112495610
Today, important initiatives continue locally, such as SEX-ED+, which aims to make anatomically-realistic models of genital anatomies available for sexual education; being realistic means having a variety of shapes and sizes. We don’t yet have their models in our artifacts collection, but the 3D printed clitorises reflect the emphasis upon knowing what one’s anatomy looks like. (Figure 3) In some ways, the Predictor and the 3D printed clitorises are both about demystification, or providing women with direct access to knowledge that is important for their own health.
Figure 3: 3D printed clitorises. 2021. Printed at UVic for the Perfecta Colloquium (organized by Prof. Hélène Cazes, May-June 2021), under the direction of Dr. J. Matt Huculak. Design is available on Thingyverse thanks to Odile Fillod and Melissa Richard.
Do you find the sexually explicit nature of these pieces create unique archival difficulties compared to less erotically charged records (in terms of cataloging, exhibiting, and context)?
I don’t consider any of these objects to be sexually explicit. We do have a (modern) sexually explicit bookplate in our copy of Vénus la Populaire (1727) and there is some other content that is clearly playing with ideas of arousal, but I don’t see the items featured here in that light. They provide information or are associated either with a service or with basic anatomical knowledge.
Given that each of these items is a tool I don’t see them as posing a challenge for cataloguing. One can treat them in a matter-of-fact way, stating what they are, their provenance, their intended use, etc.
What do you think the collection is missing? Is there a perspective, group, or type of record underrepresented, or something you wish the collection had more of?
The items chosen here are mainly artifacts. It would be useful to have a better record of how, why, by whom they were created – documentation of the process that resulted in their appearance. What is harder for us to get at is work that is being done beyond the confines of the medical establishment (whatever “establishment” means). This means that we don’t have much reflecting underrepresented individuals or groups; since we are speaking of sexual health, we must acknowledge that the voices in our library are overwhelmingly white and cishet. What are communities producing and publishing for themselves? We would like to include those voices.
What are your thoughts on the preservation and presentation of sexually explicit items in archives? Do you feel they have a part to play in the shaping of culture, politics, and memory?
Of course, sexuality is a central part of the human experience for many people so it should be included. Some items truly are sexually explicit, and if they are telling a story that is important for history, there is really no difference in bringing in that material and bringing in something else. If such stories are part of the experience of someone whose papers we are acquiring, then to omit material simply on the basis of its being sexual in nature, would be to edit the record in a way that would go against supposed archival objectivity.
And lastly, what about these materials is unique/interesting to you?
In terms of items here, I’d have to go with the 3D printed clitorises. My answer here is far from objective. I am glad our colleagues at UVic sent us the clitorises because they should be ordinary and mainstream, but as a society we’re not there yet. They are a reminder that basic anatomy can be deemed “inappropriate”. How many individuals can properly label female external genitalia? How many women (self-defined) would be able to identify those as clitorises? Knowing the proper anatomical terminology shouldn’t be embarrassing. The scale of ignorance around female bodies has very real health consequences. The clitoris may play a role in sex, but that doesn’t mean that identifying it or seeing a model representing the clitoris, reflects anything other than providing basic anatomical information. The 3D printed models are a reminder of important work that is being done to normalize female anatomy; one hopes that such work will help to break down the stigma that too often has a negative impact on health.
You can learn more about Dr. Hague-Yearl and the Osler Library of the History of Medicine here:
Images courtesy of Dr. Hague-Yearl and the Osler Library of the History of Medicine .
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