'Mothers of Gynecology' monument honors enslaved Black women who were tortured to help advance science

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Pieced together from a mixture of recycled copper, brass and bronze metals and standing nearly 15 feet tall, a new monument in Montgomery, Alabama, honors the legacy of three enslaved women whose suffering helped advance modern medicine.

The monument, entitled "Mothers of Gynecology," features statues of three women--Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy--who were unwillingly experimented on by a white physician. It was unveiled last week.

“They represent the strength and resilient spirit of Black women,” said Michelle Browder, the artist who created the monument. “ We can’t let history forget their sacrifice and their contributions to medicine.”

Just a few blocks from the monument, under the shade of an oak tree at the Alabama State House, stands a statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, the doctor who experimented on their bodies. Without giving consent and without receiving anesthesia to numb the pain, these enslaved women suffered to bolster his reputation.

The statues of the women stand as a reminder of the pain Sims inflicted on enslaved Black women but also of a larger story of how Black women have been harmed throughout the history of reproductive science, experts said.

The three sculptures are welded together with all recycled materials, including door hinges, crews and surgical equipment. Bicycle chains are used for the cornrows.

“We used only discarded objects that symbolize how Black women have been treated in this country,” Browder said.

“I look at the objectification of women and how our bodies have been used to cleanse and cure women of all races. I look at them as being the strength and backbone of women’s health and gynecology.”

Sims, himself a slaveholder, is heralded as a pioneer for American medicine, often referred to as the father of modern gynecology.

“He gets the accolades, he has the statue, the hospital named after him, but it was because of these women’s Black bodies,” Browder said. “He’s the so-called father of gynecology, but what about these women? It’s time to recognize them and celebrate their strength.”

Lucy, from left, Anarcha and Betsey statues represent the "Mothers of Gynecology" at The More Up Campus in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Lucy, from left, Anarcha and Betsey statues represent the "Mothers of Gynecology" at The More Up Campus in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.

Sims’ unethical experimentation on Black women

Much of Sims’ work centered around vesicovaginal fistula, which results from a tear from the bladder to the vagina following labor and causes urinary leakage, according to a 1993 paper on Sims in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Unable to work or have more children in their condition, enslaved Black women with vesicovaginal fistulae were brought to Sims by slave-owners in hopes of a cure so that they could retain their economic value, said Nicole Maskiell, an assistant history professor at the University of South Carolina

Sims experimented on at least 11 enslaved Black women, many of them teenagers, without anesthesia in the mid-1800s, Maskiell said. After refining his technique, Sims began offering the procedure to white women under anesthesia.

One of the Black women, Lucy, endured “excruciating pain" during an hour-long surgery, according to the Journal of Medical Ethics. But the operation failed, and Lucy nearly died after becoming “extremely ill with fever resulting from blood-poisoning.”

“Lucy’s agony was extreme,” Sims wrote in his autobiography, "The Story of My Life." “She was much prostrated, and I thought that she was going to die.”

Anarcha endured at least 30 painful surgeries until in 1849 Sims successfully completed the procedure, according to the journal. These procedures were so painful that Sims had other men hold the Black women down. When they became too gruesome, the men began refusing to participate and the enslaved women were forced to hold each other down, Maskiell said.

Sims’ defenders say he was merely a product of his time, but historians today have raised concerns over whether the women he experimented gave consent -- or if they even could.

Details of the statue during the reveal of the "Mothers of Gynecology" statues at The More Up Campus in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Details of the statue during the reveal of the "Mothers of Gynecology" statues at The More Up Campus in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.

The women were not asked if they agreed to the surgeries, according to the Journal of Medical Ethics, and Sims instead got permission from their slaveholders.

"These experiments were done under severe coercion,” Maskiell said. “This man had power over these women's lives in a way we can't fully comprehend today.”

Long history of injustice in reproductive science

Sims is just one chapter of a larger history of Black women being harmed in the evolution of reproductive science, historians said.

In the 19th century, most Caesarean sections in the South were performed on Black women, Sharla Fett, a history professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said in a March interview with USA TODAY. At the time, the operation was “usually fatal for either mother or infant, and sometimes both,” Fett wrote in her award-winning book, “Working Cures.”

These experiments on enslaved Black women “wouldn't have been done on white women because they would have been considered too risky.”

Much of our knowledge of reproductive science was built on unethical experimentation on Black women, Maskiell said. But that knowledge was also weaponized against Black women. For example, enslaved women who ran away could be punished through physical scarring, often affecting their reproductive capabilities.

Civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer spoke openly about a white doctor taking away her ability to have children when in 1961 she was given a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. She became one of history’s best-known examples of commonplace forced sterilizations of Black women in many Southern states, Maskiell said.

Myisha S. Eatmon, an assistant history professor at the University of South Carolina, said forced sterilizations of Black women occurred in North Carolina in her grandmother’s and mother’s generations.

“Black women have been used to advance the medical field as subjects,” she said. “They are used and exploited for certain things and then they are cast aside or thrown away or abused afterward by the very knowledge they helped create.”

Black women today have limited access to reproductive health

While reproductive science rests on the pain of Black women used in unethical experiments, Maskiell said the fruits of that knowledge remain less accessible to Black women today.

Pregnancy-related deaths among Black women was four to five times as high as rates for white women, according to a 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

Black women also have less access to prenatal care, contraceptive care and abortions, among a slew of other reproductive health access issues resulting from systemic racism in healthcare, Maskiell said. With current efforts to limit abortion access, including recent legislation in Texas prohibiting abortions as early as six weeks, she said these inequities may only get worse.

“Women of color are being adversely affected by policies that limit their access to life-saving technologies that stemmed from the forced labor of their foremothers,” Maskiell said. “That is just such a basic transgression of justice.”

Eatmon added that doctors are quick to dismiss Black women.

“The irony is that Black women's bodies are experimented on, but when Black women tell doctors what's wrong with them, they're not believed,” she said.

'Representatives of the forgotten'

Across from the New York Academy of Medicine in Central Park, a statue of Sims stood from the 1890s until 2018 as one of the best-known symbols of his stature in medical history. In 2017, a group of women stood in front of the statue in hospital gowns splattered with red paint, demanding the statue be removed. It came down in 2018.

People gather to watch as a statue of J. Marion Sims is taken down.
People gather to watch as a statue of J. Marion Sims is taken down.

Sims had once been honored with at least a half dozen statues across the country. But a statue of Sims outside Jefferson University, his former medical school in Philadelphia, was moved to storage. A painting of his at the University of Alabama at Birmingham came down in 2006.

At the University of South Carolina, student-led efforts are pushing to remove Sims’ name from a residence hall in the women’s quad. Maskiell teaches lectures on Sims and has seen many of her students join the movement.

But his name still graces the dorm, as well as a road and a park named after him in South Carolina. Maskiell calls it a continued form of violence.

“His name is everywhere,” she said. “There's an enduring legacy, even though the names of women he brutalized are nowhere, and it is impossible to ignore the history even if I wanted to forget.”

When Maskiell found out about the monument to the mothers of gynecology in Montgomery, it was a moment of joy. It was the first monument to the women in Sims’ experiments that she had seen and she hopes a similar one may one day come to South Carolina, reminding people of the pain inflicted on Black women in the history of reproductive science.

Eatmon said she hopes the stories of the mother of gynecology, among others who were subjected to unethical experimentation, find their way into more classrooms.

“While we honor Lucy, Betsey and Anarcha, we have to remember that there are so many other Black people who've had similar experiences whose names are either forgotten or buried in the archives,” she said. “So when we honor some as individuals, we honor them as part of the collective, representatives of the forgotten."

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern. Contact Javonte Anderson at janderson1@usatoday.com or follow him on Twitter at @JavonteA.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mothers of gynecology statues honor Black women tortured for science