The Fight of Our Foremothers

Sisterly Resistance by Jules Arthur

During the 1840s in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. James Marion Sims, long lauded as “the father of modern gynecology” by the medical establishment, exercised inhumane and unethical conduct through his experiments on nearly a dozen black women, three of whom he bought – known to us only as Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. In an era when anesthesia was beginning to be used for operations, these multiple surgeries were done without the benefit of pain reliever, with his stated excuse that black people do not feel as much pain as white people. Dr. Sims is credited with having invented the vaginal speculum and a corrective method for vesico-vaginal fistula—a severe disability often caused by prolonged labor in childbirth, particularly among young women. Vesico-vaginal fistulas were a common problem for all women in the 19th century, but frequently were by-products of slavery due to repeated rapes and unspaced pregnancies demanded by slave owners. Dr. Sims personally noted that he conducted thirty experiments on Anarcha, whom he owned before he finally perfected the techniques to repair this condition.

Dr. Sims moved to New York in 1853 and, with the benefit of his research, founded the Women’s Hospital, eventually becoming the president of the American Medical Association. His marble statue, erected in Harlem Central Park on 5th Avenue and 103rd Street in 1894, was the first for a doctor in the United States.  Last year, New York City Mayor De Blasio accepted the recommendation of the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Monuments and Markers to remove Dr. Sims’s statue from Central Park. RSP was among the many groups which collected signatures and submitted a formal letter for the statue’s removal. 

On May 11th, the Resilient Sisterhood Project took a leading role in the nationally significant agenda that brought to light the contributions to modern gynecology of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy.  Over 300 people gathered into Alumnae Hall on the Wellesley College campus to celebrate these foremothers and the countless other unnamed enslaved women who made tremendous sacrifices, without their “informed consent” as subjects in influential medical experiments by Dr. James Marion Sims.

My role in the planning of this event felt insignificant, but I knew it was helping to create a larger mosaic of work that made this celebration possible. Alongside my sister who helped curate the paintings commissioned for this symposium, I saw firsthand the effort put forth by all those who had a stake in the day. I sat in anticipation of the event to come, that morning was spent running around doing last-minute errands in preparation for the afternoon. Stressed smiles greeted me as all the pieces of the celebration came together. After all the prep was done, I returned back to the hall to see it completely transformed and full of life. Esteemed guests, donors, and sponsors mingled in the ballroom before the start of the event. As we traveled to the main hall my excitement grew. Seeing all the hard work come together was truly a spectacular sight. The opening notes given were nothing short of stellar. The youth choir gave a performance that left the room feeling somber and reflective. Hearing the first speech from author Deirdre Cooper Owens made me feel emotions of anger and hurt, yet her words inspired me to continue in my journey for reproductive justice.  This speech was the one that stuck out to me the most, considering the author delivering it wrote one of the pieces of literature that completely changed my life. Her words about her research touched a part of me that wasn’t yet known to myself. This generational ache I felt for my foremothers who beared the atrocities of slavery and medical abuse. The event closed with the unveiling of three pieces of artwork specifically commissioned for this celebration by a group of women supporters of RSP to a well-known African American artist, Jules Arthur. The paintings beautifully depict Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy at their core. This joyous occasion brought together groups of people with the same goal in sight, reproductive justice for all. No matter your race, sexuality, gender identity, or ability, this event was a turning point in the fight for justice.

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