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10.25.138:30 PM ET

What Do Bea Arthur And Vagina Denta Have In Common?

Sally Kohn on her favorite gems from new feminist encyclopedia, 'The Book of Jezebel'.

The brilliant Anna Holmes and the extended family of the sharp feminist website Jezebel have compiled a modern encyclopedia for the ages—chock full of so much awesomeness it’s hard to know where to start. Honestly, what’s not to love about a book that, in the entry for “Macintosh”, reads: “Model of Apple computer, arguably preferable to a PC because of its superior oh my God shut up no one cares”? Which is a perfect example of the blend of pop culture and politics, all wrapped up in a feminist analysis, that makes The Book of Jezebel the intellectual equivalent of candy corn—fun and delicious while alluding to some form of nutrition. While I enjoyed the cleverly written entries on otherwise staid feminist fixtures, from Audre Lorde to Ann Richards, a few of the entries genuinely made me do a double take. Here are my 10 highlights:


10. Golden Girl Bea Arthur Was A Marine Corps Staff Sergeant

Suddenly, Dorothy Zbornak is a billion times cooler.


9. Scott Baio Helped Spawn The Term “Lesbian Shitass”

Somehow, I missed the feud between the one-time teenage heartthrob and the writers at Jezebel, beginning with Baio mocking First Lady Michelle Obama and ending with Baio’s wife attacking the Jezebel team as a “bunch of FAR LEFT Lesbian shitasses.” I’ll admit, I’m a bit crestfallen but better to know than not know, I guess.


8. Hair Is A Feminist Issue

Short hair signifies “feminist abandon, lesbianism, maternity or advanced age.” Long hair signifies femininity. Hair on the legs or armpits signifies “man-hating or lack of personal care." Sure, I had thought of black women’s hair as highly politicized (which the authors also address) but I really hadn’t thought of the “biomaterial that grows on the heads and bodies of mammals” as so fraught for all women.


7. “Harlot” Originally Applied To Men

The term apparently dates back to the 13th century as a phrase to describe a homeless man. It wasn’t until the 1730s that it became associated with women, after a popular series of engravings called “A Harlot’s Progress” depicted the transition of an “innocent girl” into a mistress. Which also taught me that the sexist social construction of language goes back quite a ways…


6. China Had A Female Dictator

Yes, I knew about Cleopatra (Egypt, 69 BC–30 BC) the first entry in The Book of Jezebel’s “History of Female Dictators”. But I did not know about entry number two: Wu Zetian, who ruled China from 624 to 705. Zeitan began ingloriously as the teenage concubine of the emperor and when he died, moved on to the emperor’s son. By the time the son died, Zetian had imprisoned or exiled so many of her male rivals that she was able to take over the throne herself. Sure she created a system of secret police and executed anyone who objected to her totalitarian power but…. still, kinda cool bit of history.


5. Bloomers Were Invented By A Woman Named Bloomer

I always wondered…. but now I wonder no more. Bloomers were created by an activist named Amelia Bloomer in the mid-19th century. Though the first aficionado of lady pants was apparently Marie Antoinette, who liked to ride horses in breeches, even though she was warned about becoming infertile. Ugh.


Grand Central Publishing

4. Pink Was Once A Masculine Color

The 1918 Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department publication in the United States said that pink was “the stronger color” and better suited for boys. Time to revive that idea, no?


3. Diane Keaton Has Never Married (But She Made Out With A Lot Of Hunks)

From the “Famous Spinsters, Past and Present” page comes the revelation that, although Diane Keaton “made out with Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino,” she never married. I guess I always though Annie Hall and Alvy settled down, so I got mixed up in the real world scenario. Yet another reason to admire Keaton’s fierce independence and self-defined identity. She also adopted two kids on her own. Two very lucky kids…


2. There Has Never Been A Wide-release Film About Wonder Woman


1. And Finally… The Legend of “Vagina Denta”

There are actual, wild imaginings about women who sprout teeth from around their labia. From The Book of Jezebel entry: “The myth feeds into a whole mess of male fears about women—the strange popular view of the vagina as an unfeminine, beastly organ; the male fear of literal and figurative castration when he enters into a relationship with a woman; the idea of a woman as succubi who rob men of their power.” In fact, apparently there was once a film about a teenage girl with a mouth between her legs. It was called Teeth.


There are just some things you can’t unlearn, people—things that at the same time encapsulate our society’s very tortured and troubled relationship to all things female. It’s a hell of a lot to swallow (if you’ll forgive the pun). Fortunately, humor is a great lubricant for taking in the horrid history of sexism in America and the world—and The Book of Jezebel’s positive stories and role models are a great antidote.