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Who Is The Mother?

Archimedes; I will always remember him because of a silly childhood gaff. I remember a teacher saying, "Archimedes is the father of mathematics," and in all of my childhood wisdom, I raised my hand and asked, "Who is the mother?" At the time, I wasn't showing myself to be a future feminist; I was demonstrating my understanding of what a family was supposed to be. If someone was a father, there must be a child or children, which requires a mother. While a silly childhood gaff, that question remains. In some instances, the answer is "The father" of something is just the term synonymous with "the founder/creator," but in so many instances, the real answer is "There is a mother, but we have deemed her unimportant to the story." Such is the case of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey. These names likely feel like random names to you, but they are not arbitrary; they are erased.

The name you are likely familiar with is J. Marion Sims, deemed the "Father of Gynecology." In the 19th century, Sims perfected a technique to repair fistulas, which, if left untreated, can lead to death. He is deemed a hero, a genius, and a "blessing to suffering women," with little to no mention of the women who suffered under his care.

Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey are the named slaves; others were left unnamed, on whom Sims experimented.

These women were slaves, so they could not consent to be a part of an "experiment." If the story stopped there, it would be bad enough but let's go ahead and add insult to injury.

Sims performed experimental surgeries on these women for years. One woman, Anarcha, was the recipient of 30 experimental surgeries.

I know you think the addition of insult to injury is over but let's pour a little salt on the wound. Sims performed his experimental surgeries while administering no anesthesia to his subjects.

So let's do a recap to make sure you have it:

  • Experimental Surgery

  • Non-consenting subjects

  • Repeated Surgeries

  • Near-death experiences and

  • No anesthesia

There are statues erected and titles granted for Sims, now known as the "Father of Gynecology." Simultaneously, the women who bore the brunt of his discoveries go virtually unheard of, uncelebrated, and erased from the narrative. The "Mothers of Gynecology" serve as an additional example of Black women's erasure from American history's narrative.

Now, let's break down how these women were erased, and let's start with whitewashing erasure. In my research and reading, everyone called the treatment of these women "experiments," "surgeries," "procedures" nowhere did I read anyone calling Sim's actions what they were; torture.

I once had to have a skin biopsy because of concerns about a medical condition. My dermatologist spent 15 minutes numbing an area about the size of a quarter to take a sample smaller than a centimeter, to conduct a procedure that took less than 2 minutes because, in her words, "you don't want to have to deal with that type of pain." Now, imagine a surgery far more complex and invasive than my skin biopsy conducted with no anesthesia. Imagine that surgery being forced on you 30 times, one where you were in so much pain that the treating physician was surprised that you survived. It does not fit a comfortable narrative to say our hero achieved his accomplishment via torture; instead, we whitewash what happened. History is often intentional about protecting the guilty actors and the guilty conscience, so in this instance, it has recorded Sims' work as "experiments."

The impact that slave women had on modern gynecology is immeasurable, yet they barely get an honorable mention. However, their tormentors get statues, plaques, squares, and streets named in their honor.

Now, let's talk about money. In a capitalist society, we cannot forget the money. These women were property, so whatever revenues their bodies generated were the sole earnings of their owners. A repaired fistula could allow slave women to continue conceiving babies; those babies could be sold for income. Aside from perfecting a medical procedure that would generate revenue, these women also contributed to other revenue-generating ventures but received no financial compensation for their contribution. These women were erased financially, which means the opportunity to create generational wealth was also erased.

But, as I said in my 3rd TEDx Talk: Seek What Has Been Erased, "The erasure stops here." Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey, and other unnamed slave women deserve their proper place in the narrative, and that is as the Mothers of Gynecology.


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