The female reproductive system is a complex system made up of multiple organs, responsible for growth, development, and reproduction. This article will help you better understand the female body, the various reproductive organs, and their specific functions - from determining and making up the characteristics of the female sex, to carrying out pregnancy, and more.
What constitutes the female reproductive system?
The female reproductive system has unique organs that distinguish it from its male counterpart. Some organs are considered external organs since they are visible to the eye. While others like the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix and vagina are considered internal organs.
Internal Organs in the Female Reproductive System
Ovaries Ovaries are a pair of organs located on either side of the uterus. Each ovary is oval in shape and about the size of an almond! But don’t let size undermine its importance. It is perhaps one of the most important and defining organs in the female body. The ovaries are considered the primary sex organs (all other organs, except ovaries, are considered secondary), and its function is analogous to the male testis. They are responsible for the maturation and release of the female egg cell (the ovum), and production of sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and androgens that in turn influence changes in different parts of the body. The ovarian function starts slowing down as one gets older. The ovaries have a set number of eggs that can be released throughout a female's life, and once these run out, the menstrual cycle halts, and the female enters "menopause”.
Fallopian tubes Also known as salpinges, uterine tubes, or simply tubes, these are a pair of organs connected to the sides of the uterus. The fallopian tubes have a narrow pipe-like structure, with the openings located in close proximity to each of the ovaries. The fallopian tubes are responsible for collecting the eggs released by the ovaries during ovulation and are the site for fertilization. During sex, the male sperm cell travels to the fallopian tube and, if an egg is present, fertilizes it. The result of the fusion of these two cells is a zygote, which is then transported by the tubes into the uterus for further growth and development.
Uterus Most commonly known as the womb, the uterus is a hollow pear-shaped organ about the size of a palm. It is flanked on both sides by the fallopian tubes and ovaries. It is made up of 3 layers - endometrium, myometrium, and perimetrium, from innermost to outermost, and consists of 3 parts - fundus, body, and cervix. The perimetrium is the outer coat or lining of the uterus. The middle layer, called the myometrium, is a muscular layer that is primarily responsible for contractions during labor. Lastly, the innermost layer, called the endometrium, responds to estrogen and progesterone during the menstrual cycle. It grows and sheds in response to these hormones, and creates a suitable environment to host the zygote if pregnancy occurs.
Cervix The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus that forms a canal between the uterus and the vagina below. The cervical canal is the passage through which the sperm must travel to the fallopian tubes to fertilize the egg cell or ovum after sex. The cervical mucus varies in consistency throughout the menstrual cycle and creates a suitable environment for the sperm to travel during ovulation. The cervix also plays a crucial role during pregnancy. It acts as a protective barrier throughout the gestation, and begins dilating and thinning out as the date of delivery approaches. During vaginal childbirth, the cervix flattens and dilates to allow the fetus to progress along the birth canal.
Vagina The vagina is a canal that extends from the vulva to the cervix. It is an elastic and muscular canal that secretes a lubricant during sex. It is also responsible for the passage of the fetus during delivery. This is why it is also called the birth canal. People often confuse the vagina for vulva. The vagina is not an external organ. When someone is referring to the vagina, they are often talking about the vulva, which is the external organ that is made up of different parts, and the vaginal opening being just one of them.
External Organs in the Female Reproductive System:
The Vulva The vulva is the collective name given to the external female reproductive organs or genitalia. It comes from a Latin word, which translates to covering or wrapping. Although the word vagina is synonymously used for vulva, it is incorrect. In fact, the vaginal opening is just a part of the vulva. The vulva includes:
This is the most outward part of the external female genitalia. Its located just above the pubic bone and its size depends on the amount of underlying fatty tissue. This is the primary site for the growth of pubic hair that begins during puberty.
These are two skin folds that extend from the mons pubis all the way to the perineum (space between the anus and genitals). The term labia majora translates to “major lips”. Its also sometimes referred to as the outer lips of the vulva and is covered by pubic hair after puberty.
Enclosed within the labia majora, the labia minora are two folds on either side of the vaginal opening. They are also known as small lips or inner lips due to their appearance. Its important to note that the labia minora vary widely in size, color, shape, and general appearance from person to person.
Its a finger-like protrusion that lies below the point where the two labia majora meet. Its homologous to the male penis and exhibits the same erectile function and excitability as the penis. Its also known as the pleasure center in women due to its sensitivity and abundance of nerve cells.
This is the opening of the urethra, the site from where urine leaves the body, and is located just below the clitoris.
Located below the urinary meatus, the vaginal opening is frequently covered by the hymen. It is the entrance into the vaginal canal and the primary site of vaginal sex.
These are a pair of pea-sized glands located on the bottom left and right of the vaginal opening. They are responsible for secreting mucus which acts as a natural lubricant during sex.
These are a pair of glands located on either side of the urinary meatus. These are responsible for secreting a lubricating fluid and the female equivalent of ejaculate.
The female reproductive system is very intricate and way more complex in function than the male counterpart. The external female reproductive organs or genitalia vary from person to person in shape, size, colour, smell, and texture, and there is no such thing as the perfect vulva.
We hope you found this article useful. If you would like to know more about the female reproductive system and its functions, check out our other articles!
Richard L. Drake, A. Wayne Vogl, Adam W. M. Mitchell, Gray 39's Anatomy (4th edition.). Elsevier Inc., 2020. (pg. 415-521)
Frank H . Netter, Atlas Of Human Anatomy (7eth edition.). Elsevier Inc., 2019. (pg. 339-361)
John Edward Hall, Michael Edward Hall, Guyton and Hall textbook of medical physiology (14th edition), Elsevier Inc., 2021. (pg. 1027-1044)
Kasper, D. L., et al. Harrison's principles of internal medicine (20th edition.). New York: McGraw Hill Education., 2018. (pg. 976-978)
Ralston, Stuart H. Davidson’s Principles and Practice of Medicine. 23rd ed. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2018. (pg. 1290-1293)