Subjected to Painful Experiments and Forgotten, Enslaved ‘Mothers of Gynecology’ Are Honored With New Monument

The statues acknowledge the suffering of bondswomen overshadowed by the white doctor who operated on them without their consent

Mothers of Gynecology statue in Montgomery
Michelle Browder's Mothers of Gynecology monument in Montgomery Stephen Zucker via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

For five years in the late 1840s, Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and other unnamed enslaved women suffered at the hands of a white doctor who performed painful surgeries on the women without anesthesia, pain relief or consent.

Now, a monument honoring the Mothers of Gynecology stands in Montgomery, not far from where the procedures took place and roughly a mile from where a statue of J. Marion Sims, “the father of gynecology” who experimented on the women, still stands in front of the Alabama State Capitol.

Created by artist Michelle Browder from scrap metal, the monument includes three larger-than-life statues depicting Anarcha (15 feet tall), Betsey (12 feet tall) and Lucy (nine feet tall).

The statues incorporate meaningful—and painful—symbolism. Anarcha’s abdomen is empty, except for a single red rose where her uterus would be. Her womb sits nearby, full of cut glass, needles, medical instruments, scissors and sharp objects intended to help viewers feel the women’s pain and suffering.

Medical scissors are attached to one woman. Another wears a tiara created out of a speculum—a device Sims invented for vaginal exams. The names of Black women are welded to the statues.

Browder sculpted the figures from recycled metal objects because “these women were discarded,” she told the Washington Post’s Linda Matchan after unveiling the statues last year.

“Never again will anyone look down on these women,” Browder told the Post.

Close-up of 'Mothers of Gynecology' monument
The massive installation stands roughly a mile away from a statue of J. Marion Sims. Stephen Zucker via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

The striking installation was also designed to draw attention to the continued health disparities that Black women face. Black mothers are more than three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than their white counterparts—and are also more likely to experience pregnancy-related complications, be uninsured and give birth at hospitals with lower-quality maternal care.

The roots of those inequities date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when traders kidnapped people in Africa and sold them into slavery in the American colonies. There, enslaved women were often sexually exploited and forced to carry their rapists’ children. Regardless of their parentage, the vast majority of children born to enslaved women were immediately enslaved themselves. 

“The birth of a baby born into slavery meant profits that potentially lasted generations, a product requiring little investment,” notes social work and Africana studies professor Eric Kyere in the Conversation.

Yet enslaved women were usually denied formal medical care during pregnancy and childbirth—and an estimated 50 percent of enslaved women’s children were either stillborn or died within a year of birth.

White doctors who did treat bondspeople, writes historian Dierdre Cooper Owens, “did so to protect, if not increase, the economic interests of slave owners and also to perfect their own skill set as doctors and physicians.”

Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, who were forced to live and work near Montgomery in the mid-1840s, experienced that firsthand. Though they worked on different plantations in the region, they all suffered from vaginal fistulas brought on by childbirth. The painful condition occurs when holes develop in the vaginal wall, allowing urine and stool to leak out.

Their enslavers shamed the three women and kept them away from other enslaved individuals because of the condition, according to the New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History. The ill women couldn’t perform as much physical labor as others, which led their frustrated enslavers to eventually seek help from Sims.

Close-up of 'Mothers of Gynecology'
Artist Michelle Browder honors the enslaved women with statues made of recycled metal. Stephen Zucker via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Believing he could cure the women, Sims began experimenting on them without their permission. While other white doctors watched the painful surgeries, the naked women were restrained to the operating table, per the New-York Historical Society. Sims didn’t use anesthesia or even pain medication because he erroneously believed that Black people could withstand higher amounts of pain, a myth that persists to this day.

Most of his initial experiments failed, so Sims kept trying. All told, he spent five years operating on Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and nine other enslaved women, often repeating the same procedure over and over again. Anarcha endured at least 30 of Sims’ surgeries.

Eventually, the doctor moved north, where he published a paper about his new surgical technique. Though he inflicted years of agony and embarrassment on enslaved women—facts he never mentioned in his article—he was hailed as a pioneering “father of modern gynecology.” The speculum he invented is still routinely used during gynecological exams.

Criticism of Sims has grown louder in recent years—in 2018, crews removed a Sims statue from New York’s Central Park—but nevertheless, a monument to the doctor still stands on the lawn of the Alabama state house. Mothers of Gynecology is a historical counterweight, offering another side of the story.

It’s a story modern medical professionals are still grappling with. "The history [of modern medicine] is told from the point of view of those in power,” Veronica Maria Pimentel, an obstetrician gynecologist, tells WBUR’s Cristela Guerra. “ … those who were in power were men and those who were in power were also white.”

After Pimentel petitioned her field to recognize the lasting impacts of racism in gynecology, a coalition of 24 professional groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, issued a joint statement in 2020 acknowledging its contribution to systemic racism and recognizing Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy on February 28 and March 1 each year.

Womb of 'Mothers of Gynecology'
The enslaved women endured experimental procedures without anesthesia. Stephen Zucker via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

The artist and her nonprofit organization, More Up, received funding from Monument Lab and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as Smithsonian’s Livia Gershon reported in January.

Per the group's website, the monument “will act as a first step toward teaching and reimagining the true story of the nation, facing the injustice of the past and honoring the courage of overlooked heroes.” More Up plans to open a museum and educational center, too.

Sims wasn’t the only white doctor to gain recognition for exploiting enslaved women in the name of medical progress. As Smithsonian’s Kat Eschner reported in 2017, a bronze statue of Kentucky doctor Ephraim McDowell, who operated on four enslaved women in a bid to treat ovarian cancer, stands in the United States Capitol Visitor’s Center.

A Black artist, activist and tour leader, Browder first learned of Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy more than 25 years ago while studying at the Art Institute of Atlanta. After all this time, she never forgot their stories.

Now, she’s making sure no one else does, either.

“No one talks about these women and their sacrifices and the experimentations that they suffered,” Browder told Al.com’s Dennis Pillion during the monument’s unveiling in September. “ … if you’re going to tell the truth about this history, we need to tell it all.”