BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Her bright red glasses are that way by design. A reminder to those who see her to look again.
Artist Michelle Browder has completed what just might be her signature work: “Mothers of Gynecology.”
A monument she created as a tribute to the enslaved women who were subjected to crude experimentation by a person who has been long celebrated in the field of gynecology. His name is J. Marion Sims. He’s considered by some to be the “Father of Modern Gynecology.”
Michelle Browder’s monument invites you to look again at a period of American medical history that also exploited blacks in experimentation.
J. Marion Sims is noted in history as the man who pioneered a treatment for a condition called Vesicovaginal fistula. He also developed a very common medical device used in gynecological exams today. It’s called the Sims Speculum. There is a statue dedicated to Sims on the lawn of the Alabama State Capitol with a plaque that reads in part: “Operations he devised cured a then considered hopeless malady-gaining fame as a benefactor of women.”
The statue was erected by the Medical Association of the State of Alabama in 1939.
Michelle Browder’s artwork includes three 15-foot sculptures erected in 2021 to honor the memory and sacrifice of the enslaved women subjected to Sims’ medical experimentation. He performed numerous surgeries on them without the use of anesthesia.
Three of the women, Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey make up the Mothers of Gynecology Monument that greets visitors at the Mothers of Gynecology Monument Park, which is located on the More Up campus. Michelle Browder operates More than Tours, which provides historical tours in Montgomery, Alabama. It is through that work that the story of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey began to really speak to her.
“I started tying the two images together–and the more I did the research on these women, I found out one was from Macon County, one was from Lowndes County, one was from Montgomery County, and it’s just amazing that he is deemed the father of gynecology, mentions nothing of the mothers, because if you are a father, you have to have a mama,” Browder said.
Michelle Browder is not only bringing the stories of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey to light, but she’s educating the community about the ironic disparities that exist today in black women’s maternal health.
“It’s part of our history, this legacy of slavery in healthcare that we don’t talk about and how it’s affecting women today. We have black women, women of color, who are dying, three to four times more likely to die in childbirth,” said Browder.
Her event, “Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey: Day of Reckoning Conference” begins Sunday, February 27 and runs through March 1.
The conference will include a discussion of the history of gynecology, along with a one hour account of research by author J.C. Hallman on the lives of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. The story spoke to him in such a way in 2015 that he decided to write a book about it.
“I heard about Anarcha. I heard about Sims and there was very little information available at that point,” Hallman said. “But, pretty quickly I realized that there had not been an effort to find Anarcha. It’s hard to say why it spoke to me, but it did. I had the time, I had the resources, I had the right skill set to do that… and I realized I had this opportunity to help history bend towards justice, by dedicating myself to something that no one else had done and that just felt like a good used of my time and my abilities.”
Hallman’s book “Anarcha” is scheduled to come out in 2023.
Attendees will also hear from Charles Johnson, who founded 4kira4moms, after his wife died within hours of giving birth to their second child. His goal is to change the system and prevent birth related deaths by improving maternal health care.
Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens, author of “Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology” is also one of the presenters at the conference. There are several others taking part in the three day program: Kenya Jackson-Saulters, MS, Dr. Cordelia Stearns, Professor Deleso Alford, Dr. Tiffany Taft, Dr. Ce Anderson, Dr. Veronica Pimentel.
Once the inaugural weekend of events are concluded, the Mothers of Gynecology Monuments Park will exist as a place for education, reflection and healing from a chapter in American history that many may not have realized existed. The park is literally a half a block away from the Monument to Victims of Lynching in America, called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It’s founder Bryan Stevenson opened the memorial in 2018.
Broward said, “Bryan Stevenson has really opened the floodgates. Hopefully the labor has not been in vain and the ripple effects. I’m just a ripple in this boulder that has been thrown in the cradle of the confederacy.”