Race-Making and Reproductive Medicine in North America, 18301930

AHA Session 61
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2
Friday, January 4, 2019: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Evelynn Hammonds, Harvard University
The Medicalization of Rape in US Slavery
Deirdre Cooper Owens, Queens College, City University of New York and Library Company of Philladelphia
Evelynn Hammonds, Harvard University

Session Abstract

This panel examines fraught intersections of race, reproduction, and medicine in North American history. In the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, reproduction gained new salience both as an object of medical management, and as a site of racial meaning-making. Race, an unstable category used to interpret human difference and justify the social distribution of power, was conceptually linked to reproduction through its rendering as a hereditary trait passed on through the body of the mother. In both the nineteenth-century U.S. and Mexico, the burgeoning medical fields of obstetrics and gynecology helped construct categories of race by theorizing and materially intervening on reproductive bodies.

This panel will explore the historical linkage of race and reproduction within multiple arenas: the institution of chattel slavery; practices of obstetrical intervention and experimental surgery; theories of defective embryological development; and debates over black infant mortality. Each presentation explores one context in which medical meanings of reproduction interfaced with the racial politics of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century North America. In this way, the panel contributes to a growing scholarship centering the significance of reproductive medicine in understanding historical formations of race.

In her paper, Deirdre Cooper Owens examines the medicalization of rape in American slavery, showing how sexual violence against black women gained salience as a category within the emerging field of gynecology: white medical doctors were compelled to recognize and treat the effects of sexual violence when it imperiled the reproductive labor underlying the economy of racial slavery. Elizabeth O’Brien considers the politicization of reproductive healthcare in a different national context: focusing on surgical practices and epistemologies of obstetrics in late nineteenth-century Mexico, she shows how doctors reified systems of racial classification while exerting influence over women's reproductive choices. Miriam Rich likewise examines reproduction as a site of racial theorization in nineteenth-century medicine, in this case showing how U.S. physicians and scientists marshaled new embryological frameworks of “monstrous” development to advance claims about the threat of racial degeneration. Finally, Wangui Muigai considers African American debates over the causes and meanings of black infant mortality in the Progressive Era, linking these debates to discourse on reproductive health, racial fitness, and the medical consequences of racial discrimination.

Together, these presentations foreground the historical significance of reproduction as a central site of racial politics and contested medical authority. By examining reproductive medicine as a race-making project, this panel builds on recent scholarship charting new interrelations between histories of race, gender, science, and medicine.

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