Medical Bondage Review

Gynecology is hugely important as a field, and also to me personally because I have endometriosis. As important as it is, it is just as important, if not more so, to confront the history of gynecology and how the field started and evolved into its current form.

Medical Bondage by Deirdre Cooper Owens is a chronicle of a bummer part of history. I read this book right before I read Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, which invokes Night Doctors, a mythic version of the real white doctors who experimented on enslaved people. Though these two books are wildly different, Ring Shout being a science fiction, speculative history novella, they have great synergy.

This book mainly focuses on the experiences of enslaved women who were used as test subjects for white doctors on plantations in the antebellum south and how those white doctors interacted with their test subjects and how they interpreted women’s bodies. Owens compares the way these women were treated and how it differed from their white counterparts with the same or similar gynecological conditions. She also compares the methods of treatment used by white doctors and Black (and often also enslaved) granny midwives and how they worked in tandem in some cases.

It also feels like Owens anticipated the inevitable question that white people ask whenever someone brings up valid criticisms of systemic racism:

“but what about the Irish?”

There are some comparisons to the treatment of Irish immigrant women in the American north throughout the whole book, and Owens even included an entire chapter about Irish women. She is, however, very clear that these Irish women were discriminated against, but ultimately had more freedom and privilege than their southern enslaved counterparts.

I would absolutely recommend this book. It is short and accessibly written, so anyone can read it and get through it. I read the audiobook version of it, which was wonderfully narrated by Allyson Johnson.

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