The Medicalization of Rape in US Slavery

Friday, January 4, 2019: 8:30 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Deirdre Cooper Owens, Queens College, City University of New York and Library Company of Philladelphia
How did slave owners and nineteenth century physicians handle the sensitive topic of rape, when the heinous act was committed on enslaved women and girls? How did these medical men attempt to “fix” the bodies of fecund and possibly fertile black women and girls when rape did not exist as a legal category for chattel slaves? Yet, doctors had to respond to the immediacy of these women and girls’ medical and physical demands created by their rape. The medicalization of rape meant that white men faced a new set of dilemmas when enslaved females’ reproductive abilities were either compromised or destroyed by both white and black men and teenagers who assaulted these women sexually. The rape of slave women, who sat at the center of the reproduction of the institution and the black “race,” created another category in medical writings and pedagogy that made white men face the reality that slaves were raped quite often, even if the law did not acknowledge the fact. As nineteenth-century white medical men formalized and legitimized women’s medicine, the reality of rape on enslaved women meant that these men’s investments in protecting their human chattel economically was even more privileged in the burgeoning field of gynecology. White medical doctors worked diligently to restore and maintain black women’s ability to bear children because their reputations and continued wealth was rooted in the practice of black promulgation. Thus the medical and legal control of black women’s reproduction in the age of slavery was always about race-making, white men’s invincibility, and wealth accumulation.
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