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Medical bondage: Race, gender, and the origins of American gynecology.

Cooper, O. D. B. (2017). Medical bondage: Race, gender, and the origins of American

gynecology.

Reviewed by Allison Kemeny


The history of gynecology and women’s health is not often discussed, as the field as a

whole remains somewhat taboo in modern society. Those who have been credited, such as J. Marion Sims who is regarded as the “father of modern gynecology”, often give no mention of the enslaved women who both assisted him and provided him with experimental cases for his study. These women were educated in the procedures he performed to the point that “it is no exaggeration to state that these enslaved women knew more about the repair of obstetrical fistulae than most American doctors during the mid-to-late 1840s.” (Cooper, 2017, p. 2). This book details the origins of the field of gynecology, as well as the role and experiences of enslaved women that changed the field as we know it.

Medical bondage: Race, gender, and the origins of American gynecology by Deidre

Cooper Owens provided enlightening and introspective information about the birth of

gynecology and the countless procedures that accompanied it. The enslaved women were

operated on, dissected, and studied as if they were another species, yet hypocritically this

knowledge was used to establish a baseline for the field of gynecology that addresses every

woman, regardless of race. Best stated by Cooper, “They knew the black female body could

serve as the medical exemplar for all women’s bodies because there was no real physical

difference in how black and white female bodies functioned. Yet they adhered to a racial

etiquette that dovetailed with medical and scientific ideologies that espoused black biological difference.” (Cooper, 2017, p. 13) This book is not necessarily trying to present an argument, but rather give a voice to the women whose lives were taken by and given to this field. Recounting the stories and experiences of these women serves as the acknowledgment, although severely understated, of their time and effort given to advance this understanding of women's bodies.

There are numerous strengths in the writing of this book, many of which are due to the

author’s sensitivity regarding the subject. The brutalization of these women is not an easy topic to talk about and the author addresses it with compassion and the intent to inform. One strength of this book is the way in which the content is formatted and presented. The diction is simple enough for the layperson to understand and the overall length of the book makes for a relatively short read. This book was to the point and did not devote unnecessary time depicting the mistreatment of women in a way that was gratuitously gory or vulgar, and prioritized the respect of those addressed in the book over the shock value of what these people endured. Cooper addresses these people with humanity and commendably states that “Slave women’s words intimate that their lives should not be encapsulated into neat and unsatisfactory binary categories of either victim or resistor” (Cooper, 2017, p. 58). The portrayal of these stories preserves dignity for those mentioned by providing context without unnecessary commentary on the events that these women endured.

Another strength of this piece is the way that the information translates to modern-day

medicine and gynecology. Cooper emphasizes the misconceptions that were established by the men who “founded” the field of gynecology that are unfortunately still present in recent

medicine. Dating back to the early 1800s, doctors believed that Black and White people

experienced pain differently according to race. Cooper writes that “Enslaved women played a central role in the advances made in gynecology by early pioneering gynecological surgeons, like Dr. Charles Atkins, who believed in the physical superiority of black women to bear pain easily” (Cooper, 2017, p. 9-10). This misconception is still present as recently as a 2016 study in which medical students were surveyed for racial bias in pain treatment, and it was recorded that race did impact a number of students’ choices in the recommendation of pain management. As unfortunate as it is, Cooper presents the misinformation that has permeated the medical field for centuries and illustrates the importance of bringing these stories to light to document the medical injustice that Black people have been facing for hundreds of years.

While the book thoroughly addresses the impact that Black women had on the field of

gynecology and their experiences, there is also the inclusion of Irish women and the effects of their presence in women’s health. While the accounts of these Irish women were informative, they seemed to stray from the established narrative of the enslaved women’s impact on gynecology. The records of the interactions between doctors and Irish women seem to portray the Irish women as nothing more than promiscuous, often visiting due to sexually transmitted diseases that were a result of their involvement in sex work due to the discrimination they faced.

While this is understood as another recounting of the early interactions between patient and doctor in women’s health, it seems out of place due to its late appearance in the book following the established narrative of the Black women’s experiences as both nurse and patient, as well as the intersection between racial injustice and misogyny. Cooper writes that “Because doctors believed in the inferiority of women and the double inferiority of black women, they considered natural biological conditions such as menstruation pathological.” (Cooper, 2017, p. 46) This established theme of misogynoir makes the inclusion of Irish women in the book seem disjointed and somewhat unfitting.

Cooper presents very sensitive information in a humanizing and understandable fashion. The context provided by this book is invaluable and gives a voice to those who have been silenced for centuries. It is necessary to hear these stories and learn from them in ways that writers like Cooper make accessible. The acknowledgment of enslaved women’s contributions to the field of gynecology is important and emphasizes the necessity of seeking out new perspectives in healthcare. The content of this piece makes it a necessary read for anyone working in the field of gynecology as well as those interested and involved in the medical field as a whole.




Sources:

Cooper, O. D. B. (2017). Medical bondage: Race, gender, and the origins of American

gynecology.

Hoffman, K. M., Trawalter, S., Axt, J. R., & Oliver, M. N. (2016). Racial bias in pain assessment

and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between

blacks and whites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States

of America, 113(16), 4296–4301. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1516047113

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