Stacy recommends: Medical Bondage, by Deirdre Cooper Owens

I had been wanting to read Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology for a while, but had been putting off doing so. I kept telling myself that I was not in the right mental space to read it, as if there is ever a right space within which to read about the abuse, exploitation, and denigration of Black women. What I did not realize was how much I needed to read this book. Reading about the violent roots of American gynecology revealed to me another layer of enslaved Black women’s experiences in the United States. It also helped me understand why the gynecologist’s office remains such a violent space for so many women even today.

Cooper Owens’ account is not a predictable indictment of┬áracist White men. During her February 10, 2022 talk at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, she herself pointed out that her book would never have gotten published had it been a simple calling out of 18th and 19th century White male doctors for doing what 18th and 19th century White male doctors were legally allowed and expected to do during their times. Treating Black women like they were born to be abused and painting them as morally and anatomically different from White women was business as usual then (and now). But Cooper Owens takes issue with the premise that these educated White men truly believed the false things they were saying. An insistent – and necessary – refrain in her analysis of antebellum-era gynecological practice is that these men indeed knew that the things they were saying and implying about Black women were not based in fact. For example, as she explains, they were using what they were learning from their experiments on Black women to treat White women who had the same maladies, which shows that they knew they were dealing with bodies that were anatomically the same.

What kind of mental and logical gymnastics did they have to engage in to hold such blatantly contradictory beliefs about a whole group of women? I suppose the same kind people engage in these days when practicing modern-day anti-Black racism: publicly minimizing and dismissing Black people’s creative, intellectual, and professional contributions (either directly or by omission or insinuation), while at the same time working overtime to suppress knowledge about these supposedly inconsequential contributions (or, inversely, taking credit for and mimicking the said contributions). These same people routinely take a paternalistic stance toward Black people, implying that we are too naive to manage ourselves and too dumb to know our own abilities, as they vigorously (or passively) obstruct any efforts by Black people to gain more power in politics or agency in the workplace.

Dr. James Marion Sims was one of those logical gymnasts who held contradictory racist beliefs in the work realm as well as the medical one. From Cooper Owens, I learned that Sims trained supposedly intellectually inferior and subhuman Black women to be surgical assistants after his White male assistants had moved on, while continuing to perform experimental operations on enslaved Black women’s bodies. Creepily known as the “Father of American Gynecology,” Sims was one of a number of White male doctors who operated on enslaved Black women in the South. Some of the hardest parts of the book for me were the ones where Cooper Owens talks about doctors performing the same surgery on an individual woman multiple times in an effort to “cure” her or make a medical “breakthrough.” She notes that Irish immigrant women in the North were also subjected to experimental operations and were denigrated in similar ways to enslaved Black women, due to the strong, anti-Irish racism of the time.

The writings of 19th century White medical doctors, published by major medical journals of the day, are one of the portals through which Cooper Owens gets to know these women whose stories and voices were so often silenced. The other portal is oral histories of formally enslaved people and their descendants recorded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Quotes from these oral histories were a highlight of the book for me, allowing me access to the actual words and the stories of Black enslaved women patients who were nurses, midwives, and healers in their own right, people who cared for people in the doctor’s office and on the plantation. In acknowledgement of their role, Cooper Owens calls these women the “Mothers of Gynecology.”

Medical Bondage was triggering for me, as I knew it would be. More than once, I had flashbacks to my own painful experiences in certain gynecologists’ offices. Mostly, though, I felt sad and angry about the stories I was reading of women who had had it so much worse.

By saying that enslaved women had it worse, I am not saying that today’s problems are insignificant. The Black maternal and infant mortality statistics Deirdre Cooper Owens cited during her February 10 talk (not to mention the frightening 2016 survey results from a group of medical students) prove that medical racism is still alive and raging in the 21st century. Thankfully, we now have a historian like Cooper Owens who is not forbidden from reading and writing, as so many enslaved women were, and who can honor their stories in ways that their White “masters” never could or would have.

I believe that one of the most powerful and subversive things a person can do is tell a true story that somebody does not want told. I am so glad that Cooper Owens is doing that work, and I can’t wait to see what she gives us next.

Reference

Cooper Owens, D. B. (2017). Medical bondage: Race, gender, and the origins of American gynecology. The University of Georgia Press.

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