Michelle Browder, Mothers 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

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Key points

  • Artist and activist Michelle Browder’s monument reclaims the history of the enslaved Black women who underwent non-anesthetized medical experimentation by Dr. James Marion Sims in the late 1840s in Montgomery, Alabama. The monument includes a sculptural group that portrays the only three enslaved women whose names were recorded in Dr. Sims’ documentation of his experiments: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. The identities of other enslaved women who suffered under Dr. Sims, whose names he did not record, are unknown. 
  • Dr. James Marion Sims has long been celebrated as the father of gynecology for, among other things, developing a procedure to remedy vesicovaginal fistulas. The excruciating and repeated experimentation on enslaved Black women that led him to perfect this procedure, however, reflects the racist devaluation of Black humanity and prevailing perception of Black people as property in the mid-19th century. Sims justified these experiments in part because he, along with many other white people at the time, believed that Black people didn’t feel as much pain as white people (a racist belief which still impacts medical treatment for Black people today).
  • Browder’s monument includes larger-than-life-sized figures of the three women and the displaced womb of Anarcha. The bodies and womb are made from discarded metal materials that reference their inhumane treatment by Dr. Sims and other whites who perpetuated slavery. The women’s postures, hair, and adornments, however, serve to reinstate their identities and celebrate the power and resilience of Black women.

Go deeper

Learn more about the Mothers of Gynecology park at The More Up Campus

“‘Father Of Gynecology’, Who Experimented on Slaves, No Longer On Pedestal In NYC”, from National Public Radio (April 17, 2018)

Linda Matchan, “The statue of a doctor who experimented on enslaved women still stands in Alabama. But now there’s also a monument to his victims.” The Washington Post, October 2, 2021

Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology”, episode of The Hidden Brain podcast, episode 20 (2016)

“‘The Mothers of Gynecology’ remembered in Montgomery monument,” from The Atlanta Journal Constitution (February 20, 2022)

Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (University of Georgia Press, 2017)

More to think about

A 2017 Alabama law, enacted to safeguard Confederate monuments, states that no monuments erected on public property for more than 40 years may be removed. With her ability to advocate for the removal of a 1939 sculpture of Dr. Sims in the city of Montgomery restricted, Michelle Browder chose to make a new monument to reclaim the history of the women upon whom Dr. Sims experimented. Discuss the impact of retaining monuments to individuals who perpetuated harm verses removing them. How can Michelle Browder’s new monument function in relation to the older monument to Sims*? Consider the choices Browder made in materials, size, and composition. 

*The Sims monument is discussed and shown in the Mothers of Gynecology video.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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