FGM in the USA – a forgotten phenomenon: an interview with Sarah Rodriguez

by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik e.V. – Female Circumcision and clitoridectomy were a quite common practice in the United States during 150 years. So FGM is not just an “African” phenomenon. The historian Sarah Rodriguez cast light on this dark side of history. I interviewed her about her book and her research about FGM in the USA, a forgotten story. 
Milena Rampoldi: Why did you decide
to investigate Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States?
Sarah Rodriguez: When I was an undergraduate student, I read Alice
Walker’s 1992 fictional story, Possessing
the Secret of Joy
. For those unfamiliar with the novel, it is the story of
Tashi, an American who is also a member of a fictional African tribe, her
decision as an adult to undergo female circumcision in an effort to reconnect
with her heritage, and then how she tries to come to terms with having been
circumcised. What piqued my interest, though, was when Tashi met a white woman
in the United States who lost her clitoris as a child at the hands of a
physician in the early 20th century who used the procedure to treat
her for masturbation. I was surprised by this part of the story, and initially
thought Walker had made this up. But, being both curious and in need of a
research paper that semester for a women’s studies class I was taking, I went
looking in old medical journals for references to clitoridectomy as a therapy
for masturbation. And I found some – actually, far more than I anticipated I
would find. Intrigued, I ended up not only writing a paper on this for my
class, but also writing on the topic for my undergraduate honors thesis. I
eventually wrote a book: Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States: A History of a MedicalTreatment.

Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States

MR: For me personally
fighting FGM is an important aspect of being a feminist. Which are the main
reasons of the diffusion of female circumcision in the USA?

SR: First, some context: in the United States, female
circumcision as performed by physicians entailed removing the clitoral hood
(also known as the foreskin of the clitoris), but the clitoris itself remained.
When clinicians performed clitoridectomy, they removed the external nub of the
organ. The clitoris is principally an internal organ that extends, rather in
the shape of a wishbone, underneath the labia; physicians removed the external
part of this organ (for visualization, the connecting part of the wishbone) when
they performed clitoridectomy.

Second, it is impossible to verify how often
these procedures – as they were both simple and quick to perform, and could be
done in a physician’s office – were used to treat girls and women in the United
States. Because of this, I am uncertain how common it was for a physician to
use either procedure. It is, however, highly unlikely that either female
circumcision or clitoridectomy were performed in the United States as commonly
as what is typically regarded as FGC has been performed outside the United
Finally, in order to understand the use of female
circumcision and clitoridectomy in the United States, one must know something
about the history of ideas and beliefs about what was regarded as culturally
and medically ‘appropriate’ female sexual behavior in this country. A brief overview
of that history is below, in response to question three.

MR: Why is it
important to investigate the past of women’s mutilation to fight for a better
future for women?
SR: I am, I suppose, biased here, since I am a
historian, so I strongly value historical knowledge, and fundamentally believe
one must understand the past to understand the present as well as the future.
We can’t really understand an issue, especially complicated issues, without
understanding why they are even an issue, and for this we need to look at
I am not the first to have written about these
practices within American medicine; a handful of other scholars and activists had
before me mentioned how American physicians performed both. Mostly, though,
these scholars limited their examination to: 1) the late 19th or
early 20th century; 2) as therapy for masturbation or nymphomania
(the terms sometimes overlapped in the late 19th century); and 3) framed
the medical use of the procedures as either misogynistic practices, or, at the
very least, as based on an ignorance of female bodies. This frame, however,
doesn’t fully account for why they were used as therapy, nor does it account
for how long they were used as therapy.
First, some physicians performed female circumcision and/or clitoridectomy well beyond
the late 19th century as treatment for masturbation: as
illustration, the last published reference I found regarding the use of
clitoridectomy to treat masturbation in girls was in the 1960s.
Second, masturbation was not the only sexually
problematic behavior for which physicians treated women by performing female
circumcision: physicians also removed the clitoral hood as a therapy for a lack
of (marital) orgasm in heterosexual women. The first published use of female
circumcision for this reason dates to the 1890s, and female circumcision
continues today to be offered to enable orgasm during penetrative, heterosexual
sex. (Note that to promote orgasm, only
female circumcision was used.)
But how does this make sense – that the same
operation, here female circumcision – was used for what appears to be
fundamentally different reasons: the cessation of orgasm from masturbation, at
one end, and the encouragement of orgasm during sex with one’s husband on the
other? Some physicians acknowledged this seeming paradox. In his 1942 book,
Goodrich Schauffler, a Portland, Oregon physician who believed in the merits of
circumcising girls, noted that when circumcision was used in men and girls it
was meant to “diminish the sensibility of the glans,” whereas in “the adult
female” the “scientific intention of circumcision is the exact opposite; in
other words, to untent the clitoris is thought to increase the woman’s
sensitiveness to sexual contact.”[1]
The use of female circumcision makes sense here
if one sees the use of the procedure as based in, as Schauffler wrote, ‘scientific
intention’ or scientific knowledge: use of the procedure was based on medical understanding
of the clitoris as important if not central to female sexuality. The clitoris
was regarded as a sexually significant organ, but, if women acted sexually (or
failed to act sexually) according to cultural expectations, some physicians
looked to the clitoris as the reason.
During the 150 years I examined in my
book, sexual behavior outside the confines of married heterosexual intercourse
was widely regarded as deviant, abnormal, and unhealthy, particularly for women
who were white, born in the United States, and from the middle to upper class.
When girls and women masturbated or did not have
an orgasm with their husband during sex, they were not acting according to this
culturally important sexual script. And some physicians – often, it should be
noted, at the request of parents or the women themselves, who also obviously also
regarded their behavior as problematic – sought to treat the condition by removing
all or part of the clitoris.
By knowing the long history of the use
of female circumcision and clitoridectomy in the United States as a medical
treatment that both reflected and reinforced a culturally important sexual
script, and by incorporating this history into international discussions of FGC,
we can perhaps more readily make connections.

MR: I think we should
work for a de-culturisation of FGM to show that it happened in many countries.
What do you think about this idea?
SR: I think I understand
where you are coming from, but I think this subject has become too simplified,
at least in the American popular understanding. I would argue rather for a
larger dialogue about culture, and the ways procedures that fall under the term
FGM have occurred across cultures and times. And I hope this would then open up
a discussion about why certain practices are considered FGM while others are

MR: Which are the best
strategies to fight FGM today all over the world by starting from the reasons
why it is practiced?
SR: As a historian, I
don’t feel well qualified to answer this question, other than to say I think
the American historical use for the procedures needs to be part of the

MR: What are the most
important conclusions you have drawn until now, and what would you like to
investigate in the near future?
SR: I think one of the
most important conclusions to come out of my work is the simple fact that these
procedures occurred in the United States.

[1] Goodrich C. Schauffler,
Pediatric Gynecology (Chicago: Year
Book, 1942), 50.