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Recap of “Facing Hard Numbers & Hard Conversations: The Non-Consensual Origins of Gynecology”

Last week we had the amazing opportunity to kickoff our 2020–2021 panel series based on our blog series, “Listening and Learning: Systemic Racism, Racial and Sexual Disparities in Women’s Health.” We were honored to have Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens as the guest for our first conversation. Dr. Cooper Owens is the Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine, Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology.

Dr. Cooper Owens provided an overview of her book and her initial interests in studying racism and gynecology. One of the event co-hosts, Alexandria Da Ponte, was moved by a quote from Dr. Cooper Owens,

“People need to see that racism of medical history continues, it is not a relic of our past.”

- Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens

Co-hosts Alexandria Da Ponte and Ashley Deans are hopeful that this panel series will provide unveil the systemic racism, racial and sexual disparities that influence women’s health. Dr. Cooper Owen’s emphasis on the importance of understanding the history of these disparities and recognizing the way they continue to be pervasive today is a poignant reminder that this panel series is deeply relevant and important.

This panel was filled numerous questions from the audience that ranged from advice for medical students and future physicians to questions on how to find hope through these hard discussions. Below we are sharing Dr. Cooper Owens’ answers to some of these questions.


“How are we to prevent what has been ingrained in our history of gynecology from manifesting itself again in ICE facilities or in similar situations?”

“It starts with more people who decide that they will not raise their children to be racist…to be anti-black….to be xenophobic, to be sexist. If we care about human life then we have to treat people in humane ways. We have to stop raising children to have these biases, these are the people who will go on to be medical providers.

We need to be asking what the community needs? Who actually needs the access to healthcare? We can listen to people, we can be more empathetic.”


“How does this history of gynecology research influence gynecological practice today, and as a future women’s health practitioner, what can I do about it?”

“Understanding the history helps you to be more empathetic. When you understand that the development of a medical branch was literally linked to an economic institution, this should give you pause. The building blocks of American gynecology cannot be separated from the building blocks of slavery. You already know that it’s going to have some institutional barrier and anti-blackness woven in.

Patients should be treated the same in terms of empathy, compassion, respect. When listening to patients, it’s important to recognize that resistance to your authority doesn’t mean that the patient should be punished or reported. The person could just be afraid and have communicated their fears differently. People that are in disadvantaged situations want to be respected, they want to be heard, they don’t want to be blamed.

Another example [of anti-blackness] is seen in the many statistics and stories of how nurses and practitioners will blame black women’s pregnancy complications on their weight or their diet. But in reality, the average size of a woman in America is size 14 or 16. So that means that the average woman in America buys her clothes from the plus-size section of a store. Not the average African-American woman, the average woman. So how is it that other racial and ethnic groups are not suffering the same kinds of pregnancy complications, morbidity or mortality rates than black woman face? Even though slavery ended, the anti-blackness didn’t. Knowing the history helps us to be more analytical and self-reflective.”

“How can academic institutions go beyond condemning acts of racism?” “It seemed like after the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, everybody and their mama was doing some statement about Black Lives Matter. For most Black people, our lives do not change because someone puts a statement out.

If we want change to happen, we have to start by looking around us. Why are there not people around us that look different? Are we hearing from people to are coming from different sectors of society?

Institutions need to begin opening up and changing our concepts of what fits. It is very clear that the people who are rewarded in this country are not often being rewarded on the basis of mediocracy. When I applied for a job I had to be vetted and go through a series of steps. If we are not applying the same level of stringency that we do for people of color, women or immigrants as we are for mediocre and sub-par white folks, then we have to go beyond that.

We don’t need another taskforce or another committee. We have to go beyond that. Maybe there needs to be some punitive action or punishment if things do not change. That may seem harsh but in this country, laws changed because people were fearful of what happened or of punishments.”


As our Center was debriefing this panel, GWHT Research Assistant, Libby Dotson, shared some resources for further learning and a reminder that the non-consensual history of gynecology is still continuing.

“I think its easy to think the non-consensual history of gynecology was many centuries ago, but in reality reproductive health has been weaponized by the state in recent years to promote the agenda of those in power.”

— Libby Dotson

We hope you will spend some time sitting with these resources and learn more about two programs funded by the government under the guise of “family planning” and access for women in poverty to receive access to condoms and birth control.

  1. Documentary called ‘La Operacion’ about the US funded forced sterilization of 33%, yes 1/3, of the entire female population of Puerto Rico in the 1950s/1960s.

  1. A documentary on a similar program carried out against Indigenous women in Peru from 1996–2000.


We hope that you enjoyed our first “Facing Hard Numbers and Harder Conversations” panel on the non-consensual origins of gynecology. We invite you to join us on October 20th, 2020 for our second panel in this series: “The Impact of Race and Socioeconomic Status in Women’s Health and Gynecology.” RSVP here.



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