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Alumni

Educating Women

May-June 2005

In October, Thunder’s Mouth Press released Vaginas: An Owner’s Manual by Liz Topp ’98 and her mother, obstetrician/gynecologist Carol Livoti. Topp dedicated herself to publicizing the guide, but soon discovered that including its title in e-mails was sending spam filters into overdrive. The former English concentrator solved the problem with phonics. “Electronically, we’re hamstrung,” she announced in January. “Until something better comes along, we’ll be using V’JAYNAS.”

The explicit title also spooked FCC-wary TV and radio hosts who told Topp and Livoti they couldn’t risk uttering the V-word on air. Even a Planned Parenthood chapter in California called it “too racy.” But changing the title was never an option for the authors. “It’s important to use the word,” says Topp, who edited a women’s humor magazine, the Harvard Tampoon, when she was in college. “It’s part of us, part of our structure. We want it to be something where women can say, ‘Yes, I have one of those.’”

Manual authors Carol Livoti and Liz Topp
Courtesy of Liz Topp

The book project originated years ago at the family dinner table, where Topp listened to her mother chronicle her workday. By the age of 14, Topp was already certain that a book imbued with her mother’s candor and expertise would have broad appeal. The manuscript finally came together 13 years later, when Topp offered to do the writing—Livoti would only have to show up and talk.

The chatty, irreverent result of that collaboration combines just-the-facts medical details, anecdotes from Livoti’s 30 years of private practice on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and intergenerational banter about women’s sexuality. “All you have to do is read a paragraph to find out that it’s not what you think,” says Livoti. “It’s a medical health book.” The 15 chapters cover “the standard equipment,” gynecological visits, and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as common problems of the cervix, uterus, and ovaries. An index provides easy reference, while short commentaries on piercing, waxing, and bathroom courtesy keep the tone light.

The mother-daughter coauthors explore the politics of women’s healthcare in a chapter focused on abortion. Topp recalls her first pro-choice rally—when she was 12—and Livoti describes treating women after botched operations during her medical residency in pre-Roe v. Wade Manhattan. “This is an issue that Mom and I feel so strongly about,” Topp says. “But we wanted to be clear that it’s a choice.” And even though the pair don’t shrink from controversy, Topp says they took care not to tell readers what to think: “This is a book that tells any woman—no matter where she stands—what she needs to know.”

Critics have been enthusiastic. Publishers Weekly called Vaginas a “winning mix of spunk and practicality”; Eve Ensler, author of Vagina Monologues, declared the effort “a fabulous resource for the undiscovered country.” Within three weeks of its release, Vaginas was in its second printing; international editions are planned for Britain, France, Russia, Portugal, and the Czech Republic. Livoti says that even though they targeted younger readers, the book has been a hit with women of all ages—including the 82-year-old mother of a friend, and her friends: “They’re waiting on line [for it] at the assisted living facility. These are women in the twilight of their lives, and there’s stuff in there they didn’t know.”

In February, Topp and Livoti began a monthly column for Playgirl magazine. “It’s very women’s health,” explains Topp. “Menstrual cramps, PMS, bladder infections, the morning-after pill.” This spring, the pair started research for Vaginas: A Visitor’s Guide, a sequel that Topp calls “the Kinsey Report meets Joy of Sex” for straight men. Unlike the Owner’s Manual, the Visitor’s Guide will incorporate an intergenerational, cross-gendered approach to its topic, with more direct reporting and less interpretation offered by the authors. During their Owner’s Guide book tour this past winter, the pair held focus groups with men and women around the country to collect material for the new book. “We’re going out and talking to high-school girls in Los Angeles, middle-aged women in New York, young single men in Austin,” Topp says. “Across generations and genders there are so many areas of disconnect and places to learn.”                        

   ~Sharon Tregaskis