Michelle Browder, Mothers of Gynecology

This memorial honors three women who were victims of medical experimentation by the “father of gynecology.”

Michelle L. Browder (with Deborah Shedrick), Mothers of Gynecology, 2021, found metal objects and other media, roughly 15 feet high (Mission for More Up campus Montgomery, Alabama, © Michelle L. Browder)

warning: this video discusses racial violence

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] I am in Montgomery, Alabama, standing with Michelle Browder, looking at her amazing sculpture that honors three women whose sacrifice has been lost to history: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy.

Michelle Browder: [0:21] Anarcha was 17 at the time of her first experimentation. There was a vesicovaginal fistula.

Dr. Harris: [0:27] Marion Sims, a doctor in the early part of the 19th century, decided to try to cure this and used enslaved women’s bodies in order to find a cure, but also very much to promote his own career.

Michelle: [0:43] In some arenas, he’s known as the father of modern gynecology, but then if you’re aware of what he did, he’s known as Father Butcher.

Dr. Harris: [0:51] Anarcha was the first patient to be brought to Sims who suffered from fistula. The other 10 or so women that he experimented on were all enslaved women who he purchased or rented, a population who had absolutely no choice in the matter.

[1:09] This is before the development of anesthesia, so these women were operated on, sutured, all without anesthesia.

Michelle: [1:18] People make the argument, “Oh, well, they didn’t have anesthesia then.” It’s still…it was a crime against humanity.

Dr. Harris: [1:23] And it was something that white male doctors felt entirely privileged and had a right to do to Black women’s bodies, and not something that they felt they had a right to do to white women’s bodies.

Michelle: [1:37] Right, because there was the notion out there that Black women had a high tolerance for pain and/or that they didn’t feel pain at all, or that Black people had thicker skin, this lie that was told. And so, these doctors were able to do whatever they wanted to.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] The transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808, but that meant it was all the more important for the enslaved women who were here to have more babies.

Michelle: [2:00] If you’re no longer bringing enslaved Africans over to be enslaved, how do you replenish your stock? You make these women have children.

Dr. Harris: [2:08] If they had trouble after their pregnancy with something like a fistula, that needed to be repaired so that they’d continue to have babies and enhance their value to their enslaver. Let’s look closely at the three figures. Each figure is individualized.

Michelle: [2:25] We did that because each one of them had their own identity. On the back of Betsey, you could see the scarification, you could see the bodies of men.

[2:33] Then, on Anarcha, around her legs, there are bodies of people. Then, around Lucy, there’s bodies around her waist. That represents the slave ship. If you notice, their backs are straight. There’s a posture, a beauty about each one of them.

Dr. Harris: [2:48] Anarcha in the front raises her head, arches her neck, and looks up.

Michelle: [2:53] If you can imagine being in a horrific situation like this, you gotta have some kind of faith that one day it will end, and so she’s in a constant state of prayer. And each one of them has an adinkra symbol, and her symbol says, “supreme God.”

[3:07] Betsy’s is strength, and then Lucy’s is that of friendship, because they formed a friendship. On Lucy, you can notice the designs on her back represent the whippings, the beatings.

Dr. Harris: [3:19] I also see chains and other things that remind me of torture.

Michelle: [3:22] Well, her hair, made of bicycle chains.

Dr. Harris: [3:25] They have these porous surfaces that suggest the penetrating tools and gaze of the white men who operated on them. And then there’s a fourth part on the pedestal, the same shape as the space that’s been removed from Anarcha, and so we have a displaced womb.

Michelle: [3:46] That womb was done by Deborah Shedrick, a Black woman artist here in Montgomery. She wanted to show the trauma to the womb.

Dr. Harris: [3:52] I noticed inside specula, scissors, chains.

Michelle: [3:57] Which represents the bondage, not being able to be free.

Dr. Harris: [4:01] They’re cut off at the arms and legs.

Michelle: [4:05] Well, they didn’t have the capacity to help their situation. Sure, they could have killed themselves, but they chose to continue to live. Now because of their lives, other lives are now being saved because of the procedures.

Dr. Harris: [4:17] Today, these procedures help cure thousands of women. One of the things I notice is just how embellished the figures are. And I recognize tools like wrenches or scissors, but there’s also beautiful decorative forms, flowers and butterflies, and things that I associate with femininity.

Michelle: [4:38] Everything that you see were discarded items, but they still add value. I think it speaks to the situation in which they found themselves. They were stripped of humanity, their identity, and so the thought was to give them some identity, so the Bantu knots, the braids, the cornrows.

Dr. Harris: [4:56] And Betsy is also inscribed with names of very important women.

Michelle: [5:00] You have women like Big Mama Thornton, you have Augusta Savage, Fannie Lou Hamner, Tamika Mallory, and Barbara Ross-Lee. You have Eartha Kitt, you have Harriet Jacobs. Each one of these names are either enslaved women, or women who have struggled through the civil rights movement, or women who are making progress today.

Dr. Harris: [5:19] What we’ve done over the last hundred years or more is make monuments to white men that are very fraught, leaving these women out, it’s tragic.

Michelle: [5:31] But monuments must change and they’re changing. It’s taken a creative approach to do it, but I think now the season is ripe and ready to change the narrative using art.

Dr. Harris: [5:41] Even [if] the old monuments, and there is one right nearby to Mr. Sims, doesn’t come down, we still have your monument.

Michelle: [5:49] Absolutely. That’s what we’re hoping that people will get from this, is the history behind it. And that’s not what you’re going to get from these other statues around the city. You’re not going to get the real education as to what happened.

[6:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Michelle L. Browder and Dr. Beth Harris, "Michelle Browder, Mothers of Gynecology," in Smarthistory, January 19, 2022, accessed July 22, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/michelle-browder-mothers-of-gynecoloy/.