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Historian uncovers gynecology’s brutal roots in slavery

Q&A with Deirdre Cooper Owens, a professor in the history of medicine, who will speak at Berkeley on Friday, Feb. 21 at noon

A portrait of historian Deirdre Cooper Owens

Deirdre Cooper Owens is Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Nebraska and author of the book Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology. (Photo by Edward Cooper Owens)

Even well into the 21st century, black women in the United States must grapple with persistent medical racism and the ongoing health disparities that result from systemic discrimination. This is especially true for black mothers, whose maternal mortality rate remains a staggering three-and-a-half times higher than that of their white counterparts.

This Friday, as part of UC Berkeley’s 400 Years of Resistance to Slavery and Injustice initiative, historian Deirdre Cooper Owens will be on campus to discuss her work tracing the origins of medical racism back to its roots. In her book Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the origins of American Gynecology, Cooper Owens reveals the ways the field of gynecology, pioneered by 19th century medical men, was deeply intertwined with the institution of slavery.

Berkeley News spoke with Cooper Owens about the conflicting roles enslaved black women played in the growth of this field and how her work is helping to inform contemporary doctors and nurses about the origins of medical racism today. Cooper Owens will speak from 12 to 1:30 p.m. this Friday, Feb. 21, in Sutardja Dai Hall’s Banatao Auditorium.

Berkeley News: In your book, you uncover the ways in which the origins of American gynecology are intimately linked to slavery. Could you describe how slavery helped drive the development of U.S. reproductive medicine?

Deirdre Cooper Owens: When the Constitution banned the international African slave trade, there became an issue with how the U.S. was going to maintain and grow this very lucrative system of slavery. The solution was to concentrate on “natural increases,” which simply meant making sure that enslaved women had children who lived past the age of one, because slavery was a condition that was passed to the child from the mother. What this did was lay at the feet of black women an added responsibility to have more children.

In addition, because modern gynecology advanced quite rapidly in the South, these doctors, many of whom were slave owners themselves, had access to black bodies, particularly black women’s bodies, to experiment on, to examine, and to, in their words, “cure” or “fix” diseases and disorders.

You coined the term “medical superbodies” to describe how black women were seen by white medical men in the 19th century. What were some of these conflicting views and beliefs?

I coined the term “medical superbodies” because black women stood at this crossroads of being a universal norm for healing — because clearly these doctors could use these women to cure any women — and yet their bodies still held these racialized fictions. For instance, (that) black women are more hypersexual or lascivious, black women don’t experience pain, black women are immodest. All of those things tie into this belief that, somehow, black women were intellectually inferior to white women, but also physically stronger, without any linkages being made to the fact that most black women were agriculture slaves.

A black and white photo of a dilapidated building

Many enslaved women recovered in slave sick houses or hospitals, like this one on a former plantation in Melrose, Louisiana, after giving birth. (Marion Post Wolcott photo accessed via the Library of Congress digital archives)

John Marion Sims is known the “Father of American Gynecology” for pioneering the repair of vesico-vaginal fistulae in the 1840s, yet, you argue the 10 or so black bondwomen who lived and worked in his hospital should rightfully be known as the “mothers” of American gynecology. What role did these women play in the establishment of this new field?

James Marion Sims, who was known as the father of gynecology after he died, was abandoned by the two white male surgical assistants who worked with him. And so, like any other slave owner, he said, “Oh, let me train these women.” But once again, there is the racial hypocrisy that crops up. Women were supposed to be a subset of men, not as intelligent as men. Surely black women were even lower on the kind of racial hierarchy. And, yet, he was training these black women to serve him in the same capacity as white men.

These developments [in gynecology] did not come about simply because Sims was a hard-working genius, but Sims was dependent upon a staff, and that staff was a group of experimental patients who he also owned or leased. And so, if he is rightly one of the fathers of American medicine, then so are those women, who were the team of surgical assistants and nurses that actually helped him develop the successful surgical technique.

You mention that one of your goals in the book is to give face and voice to women who were experimented on and treated by early American gynecologists. Do you have any specific stories that you learned and that you’d like to share?

In my book, I’m centering women who, by and large, were illiterate, so they didn’t leave written sources. So, I’m trying to make sense of their lives through the men who either owned them or experimented on them. And that makes it difficult to humanize these women in the ways that are needed to make them three-dimensional flesh-and-blood historical actors and not just flat slaves.

There is one case with Nanny, who was a pregnant, black, enslaved woman who was described as fragile by the doctor. Nanny had a community of people rallying behind her who went to the doctor on their own intention and volition and said, “Nanny is fragile because she was made to breed a lot.” For me, it shows the sense of community and care and the protectiveness that the slave community had for one of their members. I thought that that was a really telling, touching and also a teachable moment, to show that even in the midst of their own bondage, they still were advocating for her, medically.

Black women still face significant disparities in health care settings. Does your work help us understand these ongoing inequities and discrimination?

You know, at first, I wasn’t sure. When you write a dissertation, it’s not even a book yet, so you write it alone, in isolation, and you don’t know how people will respond. When it became a book and was published, there was such a positive response from various community members. I was really shocked by the number of nurses who were like, “We never learned this. I wish we had known this before. We were taught Florence Nightingale in nursing!” They told me that now they understand why patients are reticent to see them, or they understand now the ways that race, class, ethnicity, immigrant status or nationality are all linked together to a longer and deeper history that is rooted, unfortunately, in exploitation and some really questionable ethical practices.

Doctors also are telling me that [the book] is helpful because this helps them to put the pieces of the puzzle together in understanding why the practice of blaming and victimizing patients for their own bad health or ill health or illness or sickness is something people are concerned about.

It lets me know that, despite the ways that some [historians] like to think that America’s a history wasteland, or people aren’t interested in history, there is actually a real desire and thirst for knowledge, and people want to know history in order to better understand the legacy of medical racism that exists today.