- Women's History, Women's Health
In response to the untimely death of Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the historian Ibram X. Kendi wrote, "There may be no more consequential white privilege than life itself. The privilege of being on the living end of racism." Kendi noted that black men have the lowest life expectancy in the United States. Black women also die years sooner than white women and are far more likely than white women to die during pregnancy.1 Bodies, particularly the bodies of people of color and women, stand at the center of politics in the age of Trump. Death, fear, and the loss of freedom, agency, and bodily autonomy shape the political present as people of color continue to die at the hands of police at disproportionate rates; a staggering number of Americans—including children—die in mass shootings; allegations of sexual assault create no barrier to public office; a growing number of states pass restrictions on abortion, which in some states have narrowed access to legal abortion to have effectively banned safe, legal access to the procedure; and mass incarceration and detention at the border disproportionately ensnare people of color living in poverty in a system where private corporations profit from their suffering. The scholars Deirdre Cooper Owens, Tanya Hart, and Jennifer Nelson bring a painful past into focus. They show that racism, nativism, and misogyny have shaped the development of American medicine, access to care, or lack thereof, and the quality of care as well as the context and tone of its delivery—a system that linked white privilege to "life itself." [End Page 164]
In Medical Bondage, Cooper Owens situates the growth of modern American gynecology in the context of chattel slavery and mass immigration, two systems that provided physicians access to women who endured the experimental surgeries that gave rise to modern gynecology. She aims to move beyond the illnesses that initially drew physicians' attention and the pain and exploitation of enduring (often repeated) experimental procedures while, in the case of slave women, also being forced to work as surgical assistants in addition to other forms of labor. Cooper Owens instead elucidates the skilled nursing labor that these women provided, centers the importance of this labor and these women's lives and bodies in the development of gynecology, and works to give nuance to the lives and experiences of women who appear in the historical record often only as subjects of the men who experimented on them and exploited their labor.
Cooper Owens examines the contradictions inherent in slavery and the science of race and the ways these contradictions shaped the development of American gynecology. She notes that "slavery created an environment in which black women performed more rigorous labor than white women and some white men" (3). This brutal reality influenced physicians' perceptions of enslaved patients. White physicians operated on black women's bodies to maintain or restore their reproductive capacity and find cures for white women's gynecological ailments. That physicians sought these cures by experimenting on black women's bodies underscores their understanding that there were no differences in how white and black women's bodies functioned. Yet physicians went about their work believing in and furthering prevailing ideas about race that "erased gender distinction" when considering black women's health and physical strength, perceiving them to be "stronger medical 'specimens'" (3). Cooper Owens demonstrates that through the system of slavery, southern physicians gained power, influence, and subjects from whom they painfully extracted new knowledge. She...