The "Mothers of Gynecology" stand! #MichelleBrowder #TheWashingtonPost
The statue of a doctor who experimented on enslaved women still stands in Alabama. But now there’s also a monument to his victims.
By Linda Matchan October 2, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Michelle Browder is a Black artist and activist who runs a civil rights tour company called More Than Tours — so named, she says, because "it's an experience." A sobering experience: stops include historical lynching sites, the city’s former slave market and the old Greyhound Bus Station where 21 young Freedom Riders were viciously beaten by an angry mob in 1961. Still, no historic site on the tour riles Browder as much as a statue on the lawn of the Alabama State House. Not the one honoring Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy and defender of slavery. It’s the one across the lawn, commemorating a 19th-century physician most people have never heard of: J. Marion Sims, the so-called “father of modern gynecology.” “Having to recount the history is bad enough,” explained Browder, who said her heart races every time she swings her tour bus past it. “But having to see the iconography is triggering for someone like me who knows the truth about what happened.”
In the mid-1840s, Sims performed torturous experimental surgeries on approximately 10 enslaved young Black women, without anesthesia or their consent. (He sought consent from their owners.) An enslaver himself, Sims was credited with curing a distressing and humiliating complication of childbirth known as “vesicovaginal fistula” — a hole between the bladder and vagina — and developing other gynecological procedures and tools, including a type of speculum.
In recent years his legacy has been scrutinized by scholars and debunked. They’ve noted that the type of speculum he claimed to invent had long been in use by others and that some of procedures he utilized were not really his, or were dangerous. Many have also decried the racism and sexism inherent in Black women being used as guinea pigs.
Others have linked the story to the national debate over monuments to Confederate history: Protesters successfully lobbied for another statue of Sims to be removed from New York’s Central Park in 2018.
But the statue in Montgomery probably isn’t going anywhere. In 2017, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed legislation barring monuments from being removed if they’ve been on public property more than 40 years. (This one’s been there since 1939.)
“What am I going to do to change the narrative?” wondered Browder, 50, who’s been troubled by the Sims experiments since she first learned about them 25 years ago as a student at the Art Institute of Atlanta. On Sept. 24, she unveiled her answer.
Browder’s response to the Sims statue is a commanding counter-monument called “The Mothers of Gynecology” that immortalizes three of the women — known as Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey — who went under Sims’s knife in a ramshackle structure he grandiosely called the “Negro Hospital.” It was there, behind the brick building where he took care of White women, that he performed 30 surgeries on Anarcha alone.
In Browder’s rendering, the women are proud and defiant. Anarcha is a towering presence, rising 15 feet high — nearly double the size of the bronze monument to Sims, which has been estimated to stand eight feet tall. “Never again will anyone look down on these women,” Browder said. “This monument is meant to recognize and amplify the voices of the women used in experiments that have led to breakthroughs in gynecology today.”