Black History Month and the Women Who Are Nameless (An adapted repost)

*This post originally ran last year on International Women's Day. It was inspired by an episode of The Hidden Brain on NPR that chronicles the lives of the women who were abused at the hands of J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology. I think it's fitting to run it while it is still Black History Month. These women are part of our history. They were slaves, which is why it was seen as no problem to treat them in such horrific ways. These women weren't even named in some of the reports of their brutal treatment in his quest to make a name for himself. But I want to give them honor. I want to tell their stories, even if I don't know their names. Below is the post. I hope it awakens you and inspires you to know the women and men who have gone before us. To give them names.


When was the last time you went to your doctor? How about your OBGYN? Did you wonder how this specialty of medicine came into existence? I hadn’t given it much thought until I listened to a program on NPR a few weeks ago about the father of modern gynecology—J. Marion Sims.

But I don’t want to talk about him, at least not directly. February is Black History Month (and March is Women's History Month), so I want to talk about the women who made his discoveries possible. The women he practiced on. The women he studied. And more importantly, I want to talk about the women he exploited to find cures to ailments many of us no longer are at risk of facing.

I don’t want this month to pass by without saying something. I care about women. I care about the issues women face. I care about the women who have gone before me. I care about women who have suffered in ways I have a hard time imagining. And I want to understand the brutal history of our country, particularly how we have acted towards people of color. Which is why I listened to a broadcast of The Hidden Brain on NPR. The February 7, 2017 episode (they reran it this year) tells the story of slave women Sims operated on in order to find a cure for obstetric fistula. He found the cure, but not before he operated on these women without anesthesia, without their consent, and in horrifying conditions. One of these women, the primary subject of the episode, is named Anarcha.

It’s not an easy thing to listen to, these stories of mutilation and pain at the hands of this doctor. But I felt I had to listen in order to give honor and power to their stories. These women were real women. Real people who had no opportunity to consent or even ask for the “treatment” they were receiving. These were women who were not only abused by slave owners, thus resulting in their pregnancies, but they also suffered the agony of then losing those babies in complicated deliveries. In the aftermath of their grief over their losses, and the violation they endured that led to their pregnancies, they then were further violated so white women could have a cure. We don’t even have names for all of them. A name, the thing that gives us our identity and individuality, is not even documented for some of these women.

In history books we read stories of people and so often we know their names. We know of Harriett Tubman and Martha Washington. We know of Jackie Kennedy and Susan B. Anthony. But for the women whose broken bodies were literally the very foundation for so many of the medical advances we have today, we have no names. Only stories. We have documents telling us what they went through, the cures that were found, but we have no names. And all I kept thinking as I heard of what they endured, at the hands of a doctor who wanted to make medical progress, is that God knows their names. They are not lost to him. We know Anaracha’s name, but God knows them all.

So I want to honor these women this month, the women who have no names, and even the one who is—Anarcha. I know what it’s like to have complicated pregnancies and to lose babies, but more than that, I live in the modern age where so many of the difficulties I faced having children were remedied by the very medicine these women went through so much pain for. You probably did, too. 

Their bodies were broken, so mine could be whole. Their children were lost, so I could hold mine. Their lives were ruined by the curse of childbirth, so mine wouldn’t have to be. This is a sacrifice that none of us deserve, but that I am eternally grateful for. So as I carry my fourth baby in my womb and hug my growing boys, I am thankful to God for them, these mothers of modern gynecology. They deserved better than what they received at the hands of a doctor who was zealous for his own medical discoveries and glory. They deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. They deserved to be treated as humans. They deserved to be cared for, not mutilated. And they deserved to be named.