Honoring the mothers of Gynecology and Acknowledging the Horrors They Endured

By Scotty T Reid

In the streets of the capital of Alabama, towering at 15 feet, stand the sculptures of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Crafted from a blend of mixed metals meticulously welded together, these statues symbolize the enslaved Black women and girls, dubbed by art activist Michelle Browder as the “Mothers of Gynecology.” They endured agonizing experimental surgeries without anesthesia, contributing to the evolution of reproductive care tools and techniques used today.

Until 2021, there was no memorial acknowledging their sacrifice. Michelle Browder, with support from donors including the Southern Poverty Law Center, erected statues to honor these women. A short distance away, on the state Capitol grounds in Montgomery, a monument venerates J. Marion Sims, known as the “Father of Modern Gynecology.” Sims achieved this title through involuntary experimentation on enslaved women and girls between 1848 and 1849, a history that many find disturbing.

Born in 1813, James Marion Sims attended medical school in Philadelphia before settling in Alabama to practice medicine and conduct cruel experiments on enslaved women in 1835.

The memorial to Sims, dedicated in 1939, has come under scrutiny for neglecting the suffering of the women subjected to his procedures and ignoring the brutal history of white supremacist violence in the United States. Michelle Browder, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the American Medical Association (AMA) advocate for relocating Sims’ statue to his former office site, where they believe a more accurate historical context can be provided.

This initiative, tied to historical health care inequities faced by Black women today, was the focal point of the three-day event, “Chart the Course: Changing the Narrative Through Policy & Relocation of J. Marion Sims,” hosted by Michelle Browder and sponsored by the SPLC and the AMA.

On the final day of the program, coinciding with the start of Women’s History Month, Michelle Browder invites the public to Bicentennial Park, near the state Capitol, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. to learn more about the effort to relocate the Sims statue and contextualize his work historically.

Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the SPLC, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the “Mothers of Gynecology” and reclaiming their story to inspire action against ongoing health care inequities for Black women.

The alarming disparities in reproductive care, particularly for Black women, underscore the urgency of addressing systemic issues. Black women in the U.S. face a threefold higher likelihood of maternal mortality compared to white women, even when socioeconomic factors are considered. Studies reveal implicit biases among physicians, contributing to false beliefs about pain tolerance among Black individuals.

Alabama is grappling with hospital closures and a shortage of OB-GYN providers, putting women and children at significant risk. In 2022, a quarter of the state’s counties lacked comprehensive OB-GYN services, and 21 had limited access to maternity care. The threat of hospital closures looms over the state, adding to the challenges faced by communities.

Michelle Browder has organized this event for the third consecutive year, aiming to draw attention to the healthcare crisis. It serves as a platform for medical professionals to engage in discussions about changing the narrative on health care disparities.

The location where Sims practiced will soon transform into the Mothers of Gynecology Clinical Museum and health provider—a pioneering initiative in the country. Michelle Browder envisions it as a teaching clinic for medical students and a resource for low-income individuals seeking reproductive care from doctors, midwives, or doulas.

Contrasting with its dark history as the Negro Women’s Hospital, where enslaved women were brought without regard for their well-being, the clinic seeks to provide inclusive and compassionate care. To support this cause, donations can be made at anarchalucybetsey.org, where a petition advocating for the relocation of the Sims monument is also available.

Rivka Maizlish, historian and senior research analyst at the SPLC, emphasizes that memorializing Sims covers up the painful history of enslaved women and their contributions. Celebrating Sims’ achievements without acknowledging his racism and violations of Black women perpetuates a distorted narrative that needs to be rectified.

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