Showing 1 - 2 of 2 annotations tagged with the keyword "Reproductive Health"


In Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, Owens argues that the emergence, practice, and professionalization of American gynecology in the 19th century were inextricably enmeshed with the institution of slavery and discourses of biological racism. “Modern American gynecology,” writes Owens, “could certainly exist without slavery, but slavery’s existence allowed for the rapid development of this branch of medicine, and especially of gynecological surgery” (6). As she shows, gynecology developed as quickly as it did only because white American physicians had access to women’s bodies marked as racially inferior. That gynecology’s maturation accelerated in the American South is no indication that its practitioners had a humane interest in enslaved women’s health (66). On the contrary. Owens argues that slave owners were invested in maintaining the reproductive health of enslaved women in the interest of increasing the size of their population: “Thus the repair of any medical condition that could render an otherwise healthy slave woman incapable of bearing children further strengthened the institution of slavery” (39). Additionally, there were broader implications, as medical research using enslaved women’s bodies produced knowledge about how to treat, in turn, white women: “Black lives mattered medically because they made white lives healthier and better” (107).

This leads Owens to argue why enslaved women should be esteemed as the maternal counterparts to the oft-celebrated white ‘fathers’ of American gynecology: “. . . black women, especially those who were enslaved, can arguably be called the ‘mothers’ of this branch of medicine because of the medical roles they played as patients, plantation nurses, and midwives. Their bodies enabled the research that yielded the data for white doctors to write medical articles about gynecological illnesses, pharmacology, treatments, and cures” (25). This is especially true, as she points out, when examining the medical research of the lauded gynecologist, James Marion Sims, who opened and operated a “sick house” for enslaved women suffering from gynecological ailments (36). Sims operated this clinic to devise a surgical solution to a serious and commonplace gynecological issue among enslaved women, vesico-vaginal fistulae. As an enterprising young physician, Sims took advantage of enslaved women’s bodies to conduct his surgical trials. Eventually, he triumphed and cured an enslaved woman, and published the results in a respected medical journal, thus enshrining his reputation (39). The point, Owen emphasizes, is that “[t]hanks in large part to his experimentation on enslaved black women, Sims had established himself as one of the country’s preeminent gynecological surgeons less than a decade after he began his gynecological career” (39). Medical Bondage thus strives, in part, to restore the lives and contributions of these enslaved women to the story of American gynecology’s genesis.

Owens’ study takes a surprising turn, arguing that “. . . the later development of modern American gynecology can no more be disentangled from Irish immigration than it can be separated from its roots in slavery” (90). This shift in racial and geographic focus parallels the similar roles of enslaved black women of the South and poor, immigrant Irish women of the urban North in the development of gynecology. Owens shows how racial alterity was “mapped onto” poor Irish immigrant women living in major urban centers, such as New York City (20). As many Irish immigrant women suffered poverty, inadequate (if any) medical care, sexual assault, and were drawn into prostitution (and the attendant onslaught of venereal diseases), they became ideal medical subjects for gynecologists. Physicians eventually published their Irish patient case studies, which “. . . helped to create the foundation for the racist laws that colored the Irish as not quite white and sometimes placed them alongside black people as biological models for racial inferiority” (90). Just as Southern gynecologists had access to enslaved women’s bodies, their Northern counterparts treated and experimented on racially othered immigrant women. In this way, Owens argues, “[t]he scientific and medical beliefs that doctors held about Irish women were nearly indistinguishable to [sic] those they held about African women” (115). Overall, Medical Bondage articulates a well-researched and sobering retelling of the dominant accounts of American gynecology.

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Annotated by:
Grogan, Katie

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


In her memoir Ask Me About My Uterus, science writer Abby Norman tells two intertwined stories: one about her fraught relationship with her own chronically ill body, and another about the fraught relationship between women and medicine. Norman is a sophomore at her dream college when a sudden, unrelenting abdominal pain sends her to the emergency room—and into a revolving door of medical appointments for years to come. Thus begins her diagnostic odyssey, protracted by an infuriating obstacle: not only must she endure excruciating pain, she must convince doctors that it’s real.

Norman is eventually diagnosed with endometriosis but has several frustrating clinical encounters along the way. Her symptoms are repeatedly minimized or disbelieved by doctors of various identities and specialties. One actually says the words that have long been inferred to Norman and so many women before her: “This is all in your head.” Finally receiving an accurate diagnosis provides some measure of clarity about Norman’s pain but little in the way of relief. She learns firsthand that medical knowledge about endometriosis is desperately lacking—a troubling realization given its prevalence. A commonly cited statistic suggests one in ten women have endometriosis but, as Norman notes, most studies have excluded marginalized communities, so the incidence is likely higher. Norman ultimately becomes an expert on the condition, setting her on a path to advocate for herself and others with endometriosis—and to write about it.  

The memoir is organized chronologically, beginning with the onset of Norman’s symptoms about seven years prior to the book’s publication, with occasional flashbacks that draw connections between her current crisis and her difficult childhood. She opens several chapters with descriptions of famous case studies and experiments, situating her own experience within a long and disturbing lineage of women dismissed, misdiagnosed, and mistreated by medical professionals.  

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