The Female Body

(Heuvels van het paradijs)

Mineke Schipper

A History of Power and Powerlessness

Since time began the female body has been desired, admired, used and abused. Even advertising can’t do without it. Men and women have always needed each other but why did men end up with more power than women? Answers to this question have a lot to do with female anatomy. Through the ages male narrators, artists and scholars have shone light on those body parts they do not have: breasts, wombs and vulvas – the topics of this book.

The female sex has given birth to human life and sexual lust but also to anxieties: fear of the magic of nipples, hymens and menstrual blood. Fear of dark passages, in which that most vulnerable of male parts must heroically find its way. Fear of dependency on mothers and other women. To calm these fears mythology has come up with male creators not only of the world but also of human life,and women have been denied access to public spheres because of their ‘distracting’anatomy.

Anyone who delves into this richly varied legacy of power and powerlessness will be overcome by intense compassion for humanity. This revealing and sometimes hilarious history offers not only clear insight into the world before #metoo, but also in the way we, consciously or subconsciously, still interact with each other today.

‘Schipper’s book is a profound contribution to understanding the origins of inequality between men and women, which lie, first of all, in the physical sexual differences they exhibit. What cultural meaning has been given to menstruation, the vulva, the clitoris, breasts, breastmilk, the womb? As we meet the historical and the cross-regional male gaze on the female body in art, proverbs, myths, teachings, “science,” and scripture, we see as never before the desperate and persistent male urge to subordinate the female body that is so unlike his own and yet has the power to produce life where his cannot. The story of how men through the ages have denied the bodily power of women, at the same time seeking to control, dominate, and even usurp it, is enough to make one weep for the whole human family due to the sheer misery this horrible quest has engendered. Schipper asks us to reconsider and seek a better path, one where sexual difference is not made an excuse for hierarchy, but rather a justification of the absolute need for diarchy.’ Valerie Hudson, University Distinguished Professor, Professor and George H.W. Bush Chair; Director, Program on Women, Peace, and Security, Department of International Affairs, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University

‘The book offers a wealth of refutations of the idea that women are by nature the weaker sex: women were in all sorts of ways a threat to the power of men, and should therefore be systematically tamed.’ Het Parool


  • Prometheus NL
  • Klett-Cotta Germany
  • Sefsafa Arabic
  • Durieux Croatia
  • Guangxi Normal University Press China

Material: Dutch PDF (293p), Substantial English sample and translated interview and press