Reproductive Justice & Artwork

In 2018, The Resilient Sisterhood Project commissioned Black American artist Jules Arthur to tell this important story through three formidable paintings entitled Foremothers of Gynecology.

As well, in recognition of Juneteenth, we at the Resilient Sisterhood Project have chosen to draw a parallel between racial and systemic injustices and the Greek Mythology of the Rock of Sisyphus—a rock that clearly belongs in the hands of oppressors through a drawing commissioned from artist Elijah Marshall.

Foremothers of Gynecology: A Series of Paintings Commissioned by RSP

Mothers of Gynecology, 2019, by Jules Arthur
A Bond of Sisterhood, 2019, by Jules Arthur
Sisterly Resilience, 2019, by Jules Arthur

In 1840s Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. James Marion Sims, exercised inhumane and unethical experimentation on nearly a dozen Black enslaved women including Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy, known only by their first names. Dr. Sims personally noted that he conducted thirty experiments on Anarcha. In an era when anesthesia was already beginning to be used for operations, the surgeries were done without the benefit of any pain prevention. Dr. Sims asserted that black people could not feel as much pain as white people.

In 2018, The Resilient Sisterhood Project commissioned Black American artist Jules Arthur to tell this important story through three formidable paintings entitled Foremothers of Gynecology.

With the creation of this group of three powerful artworks, Jules has portrayed an authentic account of the tragic events and honorable lives of our ancestors: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. One of the objectives of the paintings is to recognize the lack of ownership these enslaved women had over their own bodies and the horrors they faced as human chattel in a racist system. Moreover, the relevance of these paintings resonates today, as the U.S. addresses the medical and socio-political concepts of race and gender with regard to reproductive health of Black women.

RSP is deeply grateful to all of the women who generously supported the commission of these paintings.

Artist Jules Arthur has painted three portraits pertaining to the lives of enslaved women Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy who were the nonconsensual objects of J. Marion Sims’ medical research, relating to vaginal fistula and the creation of the modern Speculum. The central theme of the collection is the three women, connected in solidarity. Arthur portrays their poignant struggles, born of shared trauma.

Arthur dignifies the experience by reframing the narrative from one typically reported as the “scientific importance of Sims’ corrective gynecological developments”.

The curators hope to communicate the relevance of this work in relation to both racial and gender-based injustice. More often than not, the medical community has not prioritized the needs of African-American women, these paintings illuminate the foundation of this claim and inspire those with power to take action to remedy that. These paintings aim to spread knowledge of people and events previously unexplored, by enlightening the viewer of these women’s sacrifice for the greater benefit of all women.

Remembering Our Foremothers Event

Request permission to use images of RSP for your presentation:

The Path Up: The Rock of Sisyphus Does NOT Belong in Our Hands

The Path Up, by Elijah Marshall

Many mountains to climb. Juneteenth, a day marked for the Emancipation Proclamation— even such an important event was handed to us with heavy boulders. 

In recognition of the historical importance of Juneteenth, we at the Resilient Sisterhood Project, have chosen to draw a parallel between racial and systemic injustices and the Greek Mythology of the Rock of Sisyphus—a rock that clearly belongs in the hands of oppressors. Undeservedly, and for 400+ years, Black people living in the United States have been handed the Rock of Sisyphus in the form of these injustices.

For his great offenses and misdeeds, Sisyphus was punished by the gods. For eternity, he was forced to push up a great boulder toward the peak of a mountain only for the boulder to roll back down whenever it neared the top. Oftentimes, the struggle to achieve racial equity in this country resembles a Sisyphean effort as we perpetually carry and resist the endless burden of white supremacy.

The drawing above is by the artist, Elijah Marshall. This drawing was commissioned by RSP for this specific communal lament event. Mr. Marshall titled this piece “The Path Up.” In this work, we observe four figures, each heaving a boulder to the peak of a mountain in a similar fashion to the tragic disgraced Greek king Sisyphus. Mr. Marshall explains that he designed four figures struggling for the cause of racial equity. The figures represent the four hundred years of mistreatment and subjugation that black people have endured. As these people in the drawing traverse the mountain, their boulders become smaller and more jagged. The smaller boulders reflect the progress made throughout our history and the jagged ones to show the resistance to white supremacy that exists to this day.

However, Mr. Marshall wants us to see a different ending to the Sisyphus myth. The purpose of this drawing is not merely to remind us of the suffering endured—but to affirm the possibility of reaching the summit of the peak that lies ahead. In this light, communal lament leads us to condemn the oppressive weight of the boulders and to gather strength through our hopes, resistance, and solidarity.

We invite you to look closely at the drawing and create your own meaning.

RSP celebrates Juneteenth annually. If you would like to join our events, you can sign up to receive updates here.