Ironically, modern gynecology is credited with having a father, not a mother. American physician James Marion Sims “pioneered” the practice of gynecology in the 1840s by running experiments and surgeries on his female slaves, often without anesthesia. Though Sims claimed that the enslaved women were eager for his operations, their circumstances prove otherwise. This is gynecology’s history, and it is drenched with racism and cruelty. It was never invented with women’s comfort in mind. Shockingly, there hasn’t been a huge evolution in the practice of gynecology since then. In fact, the much-feared speculum Sims invented (after first using spoons on his slaves) has never been retouched.
Perhaps this is why today so many women dread having to go to the OBGYN. Appointments can be uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing, and in some cases traumatizing, especially for victims of sexual abuse. A study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that of women between the ages of 21 to 29, only half are up-to-date on their cervical cancer screenings, which should be completed every three years. To skip on an appointment is incredibly risky since cervical cancer kills over 4,000 people a year.
Luckily, women are working on reinventing gynecology. Rachel Hobart, Sahana Kumar, Hailey Stewart, and Fran Wang created Yona, a design company, to prioritize empathy and inclusivity for people with vaginas. Their main project is redesigning a speculum to make pelvic exams more comfortable for patients. Though they still have a lot of work to do before implementing their work into doctor’s offices everywhere, the fact that women are stepping up and prioritizing comfort when it comes to their own health and bodies is worth celebrating.
Modern-day gynecology was spearheaded by men and practiced by mostly men for decades: in 1970, men made up 93% of gynecologists. Today, the majority of gynecologists are women. This is a trend that is likely to stick, especially given that women now make up majority of medical school students. Involving more women in health fields and reimagining gynecology from an empathetic standpoint is a progressive step in women’s health that could save lives through increased screenings.
Take Action! Visit Yona’s webpage to learn how to support their projects, and check out this NPR podcast to recognize and honor the enslaved women that Sims experimented on – “The Mothers of Modern Gynecology.”