Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: the Mothers of Modern Gynecology

anarcha-4cdd4b616830b906e48c20887a65333d0bb64d46-s800-c85For many modern women, the advancement of gynecology has improved the safety and experience of child birth.  I have had three children and the second two births were relatively easy.  When I listened to “Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology” on NPR’s podcast The Hidden Brain last week, I remembered the trauma I experienced with my first birth and my heart broke for these women and others whose names have been lost.  Their tormentor is celebrated in the history books as their suffering is largely forgotten and ignored.  And I know to some degree what their suffering was like.

When my labor began for my first child, nothing was happening the way I had learned to expect.  I had taken a birthing class, read several books, and watched countless episodes of A Baby Story.  I felt prepared.

A week before my due date, labor hit suddenly and hit hard, with contractions one minute apart from the get go and searing back pain.  We went to the birth center but were sent home because I had not dilated ‘enough.’  I was in agony all day, writhing in pain and throwing up.  When we came back that evening, I told the midwives I didn’t think I could manage without pain medication and I wanted to go to the hospital across the street, but they told me I could do it.  For the next ten hours, my contractions continued one minute apart, my back pain was unbearable, and I was getting increasingly weak.

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Josiah and I are survivors.

When hard labor hit, I pushed for nearly four hours, repeatedly begging to go to the hospital.  They insisted I was delivering a small baby and just needed to push harder.  The midwives kept whispering in the corner , excluding me and my husband and mother from their decision-making, and eventually decided I needed an episiotomy.  They cut me twice without anesthesia, telling me the next day that the scissors were dull.  I contracted, they cut, I screamed hysterically.  A minute later another contraction began and I begged them not to cut me again but they did.  At that point, I gave up entirely and began to fade away.  I was dying when they brought me to the hospital for care.  With pitocin and the nurses and midwives arguing over me, Josiah was born weighing 10 lbs 7 oz, and then the youngest midwife in training began stitching me up, taking an hour of tugging and pulling and pain.

My birth was traumatic and scary and when I began to die, I felt ready and eager to go.  My husband and mother were terrified they were losing me and Josiah right before their eyes.

When I listened to the NPR Hidden Brain podcast describing the horrific experimentation that several black slave women endured at the hands of the “Father of Modern Gynecology”, Dr. James Marion Sims, I couldn’t help but remember what it felt like to be cut and stitched without anesthesia.  My heart ached for them as I listened.  It is horrifying to realize that modern gynecology advanced at the expense of human lives, women who deserved dignity and care.  Today, we can honor them by acknowledging the injustice of their torture and sharing their story with others.

I encourage you to take a listen to this important episode here.


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