Local News Matters Arts & Entertainment newsletter
End your week with a bit of culture to unwind and refresh. Sign up for our surprising and inspiring options in our weekly newsletter, delivered on Thursdays with news about Bay Area arts and entertainment.
Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. Artist and community organizer Michelle Browder says these names frequently when she speaks because she believes they should be honored for their contributions to modern medicine. For Browder, Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey are the women she calls the “Mothers of Gynecology.”
Browder, the founder of More Than Tours and I AM MORE THAN, a youth initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The idea to build a monument to these women came many years prior, but it was seeing sculptor Dana Albany’s 15-foot-tall female Buddha, “Tara Mechani,” up close in San Francisco that sparked the inspiration for bringing Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey to life.
The discovery of a vesicovaginal fistula, a condition that causes complications in childbirth, was made by Dr. James Marion Sims’ experimentation on enslaved Black women in the early 1800s. The medical community dubbed Sims, who was based in Montgomery, “the father of gynecology” for the invention of the speculum and these experiments. There’s a monument of Sims to the Alabama State Capitol.
Three of the 11 known enslaved women Sims’ experimented on were Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, immortalized in paintings by Robert Thom painting “J. Marion Sims: Gynecological Surgeon,” as part of his series “Great Moments in Medicine.”
When she was in college, Browder saw Thom’s paintings and knew that she wanted to acknowledge the three women in the Sims painting. They are more than three enslaved women, but rather icons living on through their forced contributions to gynecology, which have saved lives. Browder refers to them by their names — Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey.
Her journey to working in the Bay Area came after Browder met and befriended San Francisco travelers who took one of her More Than Tours of historical spaces in Montgomery, Alabama, which involves visiting the locations of enslavement auction blocks and significant civil rights movement events. While on a layover in San Francisco on a trip to Hawaii in 2019, Browder spent the time visiting her friends in the city.
“They took me breakfast in Hayes Valley, and there was this amazing statute,” Browder recalls of seeing “Tara Mechani” for the first time. “I just stood there with my head up, and I said, ‘Now this is what I want my monument to look like. I want people to be in awe of how big she is.’”
She told her friends about her vision to erect a monument in Alabama — the cradle of the Confederacy — among Confederate iconography, images of Revolutionary War heros and those who have monuments for enslaving Black people.
Browder’s preferred medium is found items; however, her specialty was not in welding.
Her decision to come work in the Bay Area was made easier when Browder’s friends made a connection to Dana Albany, the creator of “Tara Mechani,” whose specialty in metal and bronze work would help make the monument come to life.
Browder drove an armature, a metal skeleton to hold the shape and help cut down on the production time, from Las Vegas to San Francisco, collecting broken and discarded materials to add to the monument along the way. There is beauty in the broken pieces, Browder explains.
“I just think that’s the way we treat people in America, especially the way black women are treated in America,” she says. “We’re discarded, marginalized. We’re told that we’re too loud. You have to legislate our hair and how we show up. There’s always an issue with black women.”
The use of discarded materials in Browder’s work is also representative of how Black women were treated by Sims, and are still treated by U.S. health-care professionals.
Tennis player Serena Williams called out discriminatory medical practices in 2018 after hospital staff dismissed her requests for a CT scan during her 2017 pregnancy with her daughter, which she asked for because of her history of blood clots. In December 2020, a video circulated of Dr. Susan Moore, who stated she was being mistreated by the hospital for symptoms related to COVID-19, alleging the hospital ignored her complaints of pain and refused to give her pain medication. Moore died of complications of coronavirus.
“You can tie in the stories from enslavement and the objectification of women, how we still don’t have consent over our bodies today,” Browder says. “Just to live and have our being in our natural authentic selves have to be legislated.”
Browder, who learned to weld from Albany, spent the month of March working on her sculpture in the Box Shop artists workspace in Hunters Point. Now, the partially finished Mothers of Gynecology Monument has been driven from San Francisco to Alabama.
The completed monument will be displayed on Faith Crusade Montgomery Rescue Mission property, owned by Browder’s family. The location is blocks away from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, where the Mothers of Gynecology will serve as a cultural centerpiece and reminder of the history that Black women unwillingly contributed to modern medicine. The groundbreaking for the monument is scheduled for May 9, 2021— Mother’s Day.