Medical Bondage
Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology

Deirdre Cooper Owens

How pioneering gynecologists promoted and exploited scientific myths about inferior races and nationalities


"Working at the intersection of race, class, gender, and health, Owens presents a crucial platform for future researchers. This an intensive and sometimes uncomfortable read."
—Sandra Gilchrist, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

“In Medical Bondage, historian Deirdre Cooper Owens explores how 19th-century doctors on Southern plantations and in northern hospitals, both progressed medicine, and also solidified racialized stereotypes that have dictated treatment of patients for centuries.”
—Evette Dionne, Bitch Media


The accomplishments of pioneering doctors such as John Peter Mettauer, James Marion Sims, and Nathan Bozeman are well documented. It is also no secret that these nineteenth-century gynecologists performed experimental caesarean sections, ovariotomies, and obstetric fistulae repairs primarily on poor and powerless women. Medical Bondage breaks new ground by exploring how and why physicians denied these women their full humanity yet valued them as “medical superbodies” highly suited for medical experimentation.

In Medical Bondage, Cooper Owens examines a wide range of scientific literature and less formal communications in which gynecologists created and disseminated medical fictions about their patients, such as their belief that black enslaved women could withstand pain better than white “ladies.” Even as they were advancing medicine, these doctors were legitimizing, for decades to come, groundless theories related to whiteness and blackness, men and women, and the inferiority of other races or nationalities. Medical Bondage moves between southern plantations and northern urban centers to reveal how nineteenth-century American ideas about race, health, and status influenced doctor-patient relationships in sites of healing like slave cabins, medical colleges, and hospitals. It also retells the story of black enslaved women and of Irish immigrant women from the perspective of these exploited groups and thus restores for us a picture of their lives.

Page count: 184
10 b&w images, 4 tables
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Deirdre Cooper Owens is an associate professor of history at Queens College, CUNY. She has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a residential postdoctoral fellowship at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia and an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Fellowship.