It may be time to rename the kegel. After all, Dr. Arnold Kegel, the American gynecologist whose name has become synonymous with the world’s best-known pelvic floor exercise, didn’t really invent the move. What he did do, back in 1948, was publish the first study that showed that strengthening the pelvic floor muscles could help relieve symptoms of incontinence. Kegel also invented the now obsolete ‘kegel perineometer,’ a device that used air pressure to test how forcefully a patient could squeeze their pelvic floor muscles.
While we are indebted to Dr. Kegel for his contributions to pelvic health, we’d like to rightfully redistribute some kegel fame to a pioneering dancer, choreographer, and groundbreaking women’s health physical therapist named Margaret Morris — as well as her teacher and collaborator Minnie Randell, a women’s health icon in her own right.
The Women Behind the Kegel
Morris was born in London in 1891 and started her performance career as a child actress and ballet dancer. Her talent and originality won over critics and audiences, and she soon snagged principal dancer roles at major productions. By the time she was 19, she was a celebrated choreographer and theater producer. If that isn’t impressive enough, Morris had also created her own dynamic system of movement (which still has a devoted following today) that combined classical ballet with freer, athletic movements like jumping and skipping.
As Morris came into her 30s, she opened a school of performing arts and became increasingly interested in how movement impacted the posture and health of her female students. At the time, medical information on women's health wasn't easy to come by. Morris believed that exercise was powerful way for women to take control of their own health and well-being.
In 1925, Morris lectured on the health benefits of her system of movement to a group of doctors in London. Encouraged by how well her ideas were received, she decided to study physiotherapy at London's St.Thomas Hospital. One of her instructors was Minnie Randell, a midwife and head of physiotherapy and maternity care at St. Thomas, who would go on to become a founding member of the Obstetrics Physiotherapists Association.
Twelve years before Dr. Kegel published his spotlight-stealing research, Morris collaborated with Randell to publish the book Maternity and Post-operative Exercises – In Diagrams and Words. Among the exercises were instructions on how to consciously contract and relax the pelvic floor muscles to prevent and treat incontinence. She wrote that women should try to “invert the sphincters… until it becomes habitual.” Way ahead of her time, Morris also included a playlist in the form of a list of recommended gramophone records to accompany the exercises.
In 1941, still seven years before Kegel’s study, Randell published Training for Childbirth from the Mother’s Point of View, in which she describes squeezing the pelvic floor muscles before activities that increase intra-abdominal pressure (like sneezing or coughing), a type of kegel exercise that’s still used today (we call it the “knack”).
Many researchers have given Morris due credit for inventing pelvic floor muscle training (at least in Western society — yogis have known about the mula bandha for thousands of years), but the catchiness of ‘kegel’ has made it stick. And, we have to admit, there is something about the two-syllable name that works: Say it out loud and you can squeeze your pelvic floor muscles with the hard 'k,' and release them with the soft 'g.'
What’s in a Name?
Of course, the fact that Kegel became immortalized instead of Morris isn’t at all surprising. Even in this century, research suggests that when a man makes a scientific discovery, his name is more likely to be attributed to it. For example, in a 2010 study that investigated the names of some 900 varieties of Aloe plants, species named after the male scientist who discovered them outnumbered those named after female scientists at a rate of 10 to 1. A study of names given to new species of parasites between 2000 and 2020 found that of the 596 named after scientists, only 19% honored female scientists.
Recently, the question of whether we should start undoing the gender bias in medical terminology has come up, starting with female body parts that were named after men (Fallopian tubes, the Pouch of Douglas, and Bartholin’s glands, to list a few). The argument is that by maintaining these male names, we perpetuate the idea that men have some authority over not just the female body, but also over medicine, aka what’s ‘good’ for the female body.
Whether medical and scientific achievements are named after men or women matters, because it can influence our beliefs about which gender is more competent and even worthy of celebration, as evidenced by the fact that women are less likely to win awards that are named after men.
So should we find a new name for the kegel? Perhaps ‘maggies’ for Margaret Morris or maybe something more fun like ‘crotch crunches’? We’re open to suggestions. (Really: email your ideas to email@example.com with 'not a kegel' in the subject line).