I currently work for the Telfair Museums’ Owens-Thomas House and research things that relate to the history of this museum. During the month of March, which is Women’s History Month, I researched the experiences of enslaved women. During this time I stumbled upon the book Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. (1) The cover of the book captivated me and led me to some of the most interesting research I’ve ever done.
Birthing a Slave focuses on events that took place after 1807 when the British abolished the slave trade in their colonies.(2) This period was crucial to the lives of enslaved women, because the slaveholders’ focus turned to the future of the slaver system. If an enslaved woman had children, those children belonged to the slaveholder who held them at the time of the birth.
After 1808, slaveholders increasingly forced women to produce children as a way of growing the number of slaves, allowing them to replace the older slaves who could not work anymore or the ones that had already passed away. Some women gave birth to up to 12 children in a lifetime. Enslaved women who could not reproduce weren’t as valuable and would often be sold off, meaning separation from family and friends.(3) Because these women produced so many children, they sometimes had very traumatic births. Many women never received medical attention. Other times if they did, they were often treated poorly.(4)
The cover of Birthing a Slave features an illustration of a black woman who wears a simple blue dress and has a red bandana on her head. She sits on a table with her feet under her buttocks, while her hands rest on her thighs. In front of her stands a white man with folded arms wearing a long frock coat, a white shirt, and a bowtie. There are two other men present in the room. One of these men stands behind the black woman and the other stands to her right with one hand on his hip and the other resting at his side. There are also two other black women peeking through a curtain that divides the room. Both black women look curiously towards the woman on the table and the doctor.
The man who stands in front of the woman on the table is Dr. J. Marion Sims. Robert Thom(5) was the artist who created the book cover illustration, known as “J. Marion Sims, Gynecologic Surgeon”.
Dr. Sims is often referred to as the father of gynecology. He was born in Lancaster County, SC in 1813 and is known for having performed the first successful treatment for vesicovaginal fistula (VVF).(6) He was also the first doctor to have a statue erected in his honor in the United States (in Columbia, South Carolina).(7) Although he is given significant credit for modern advancements in gynecology, none of this credit is attributed to the women whom he experimented on.
During the years 1845 to 1849, Dr. Sims experimented on approximately 10 enslaved women, though we only know the names of three of them: Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey. I haven’t found any scholarship that says whether or not the three women depicted in the illustration are Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey but I would like to think that they are these women. As a way to commemorate them I want to tell you about Anarcha, the only woman I have found information on.
Anarcha was the 30th woman Dr. Sims operated on and the first one to have had her VVF successfully repaired by Dr. Sims. At the age of 17 she underwent a very traumatic delivery. In fact, some sources say that she was in labor for three days.(8)
Gynecology was built on the backs of these enslaved women, and yet we know very little about them. Slaves were not allowed to read or write so unfortunately most of the information I have found is white-washed. These women had rights over nothing – not even their own bodies – and many enslaved women practiced non-western medicine, which most western medical practitioners ridiculed. These women were forced to allow a man that they did not trust to not only experiment with their bodies, but also to allow others to watch while they were being experimented on.(9)
Doctors like Dr. Sims became successful because they exploited enslaved women’s reproductive anatomy. These experiences resulted, no doubt, in trauma and pain for the enslaved women. Unfortunately, their voices remain absent from this part of history and in the narrative of modern gynecology. Perhaps we can pay tribute to them by remembering them, not just as victims, but also as the women who contributed to medicine – as the Mothers of Gynecology.
While researching this topic my belief that art is powerful was reinforced. Through my years of experience working alongside artists and curators, I have found that the most successful works are the ones that challenge and educate you.
Artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Kara Walker continue to raise awareness and spark curiosity in the stories of disenfranchised and enslaved people. I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Carrie Mae Weems in which she spoke of her series “From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried”. This series of annotated photographs was printed with a blood-red filter and depicts the history of enslaved people. The photographs were appropriated from the Harvard collection and, through a series of her own quotes, Weems narrates the history of slavery from her perspective.
Another artist who encourages the viewer to learn about people who suffer from oppression, exploitation, and racism is Kara Walker. “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power” is a series of silhouettes that depict issues of race, gender, and sexuality. In this body of work, she focuses on the complexities and ambiguities of racial and historical representation. The Bellevue Arts Museum perfectly sums up Walker’s body of work: “[these works are] intentionally confrontational, sometimes delivered with a crude voice, and offer dissected representations of racial and gender stereotypes from America’s not-so-distant past.”(10)
This not-so-distant past is a part of history that we will never be able to erase, regardless of how ashamed we may be or how dark it may seem. The only way that we can move forward is from learning from this past – especially when it comes slavery. Throughout history there have been pivotal times that effect artists. These resulting artworks often awaken a sense of curiosity and thirst for knowledge in the viewer. Artists like Robert Thom, Carrie Mae Weems and Kara Walker are people who sparked my curiosity and who create art that refuses to allow people to forget about the complex issues of race and gender in this country.