momma, do you remember when

“remember when” by alan jackson played on the stereo loud

enough to chase the smell of summer through every room

in the house and out the open windows.

my mom was probably sweeping or folding laundry on the couch,

there was a list of chores for my sister and i to finish by the

end of a hot dry day.

my mom loved making lists 

-probably still does-

she had a planner to keep her schedule,

and dad’s and the three kids’ lives in a busy order.

i have to dig deep to remember these things like the music she played, 

the morning chores and breakfast, how i would sit on the edge of an empty 

bathtub, pointy elbows on scraped knees, while she curled her

pitch black hair and applied smokey shadow to her eyelids.

there was always a candle or wax lamp in the kitchen that

smelled like fresh cut frasier or mulled wine or sweet gardenias,

i learned to know what season it was by the early evening flame on the counter.

summer nights were a different kind of special when my socialite

mother had another family over for a bbq and swimming, these

are some of my favorite memories.

july nights were warm, the temperature was the same in and

outside, all the windows were open while music played on the stereo 

loud enough to fill the house, the scent of chlorine mixed

with the tennessee honey candle in the kitchen, which meant the moon 

was watching the stars dance across the surface of the pool.

water dripped down my ankles while i walked through the 

sliding glass door to my parents’ room to their bathroom,

sitting on the edge of the toilet next to the empty tub, my toes barely

touched the white linoleum floor.

it is difficult to remember these times, they seem so distant with a million

memories between my mom’s shadowed eyes, charcoal curls

and this moment.

recently, i’ve decided to reach for forgiveness, it’s a challenge to reconcile 

some memories, i keep a list of my mother’s injustices she apologized for

-more than once-

telling me that i crushed all her hopes and dreams but those words 

echo in my ears every time i say the word lesbian in her house.

but we have the same eyes, same smile, same handwriting, same laugh,

i cannot escape her memory.

i love to light candles or wax lamps to mark the seasons,

i keep a planner with classes, birthdays, and to-do lists

i sprayed her perfume on my baby blanket, the one 

she crocheted while i was still in her tummy.

at thirteen years old i was taller than her, but she was still stronger,

on my tippy toes i would reach something for her on the top shelf, 

for dinner she would make something hot with salad on the side 

with fresh fruit from her garden down the hill behind the pool.

she suffered the half death of a child she still puts to bed every night,

she used to cry when she was mad or when my baby sister wouldn’t

-or couldn’t- 

sleep or maybe when she slept alone.

she got older, i got older, struggled to grow into this skin and

new spaces for love.

momma, do you remember when 

old country music danced with sweet gardenias and

open windows breathed in summer air?

Sidney is a first year MA candidate for Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. They are pursuing research on interracial lesbian relationships in United States women’s reformatories and penitentiaries during the early twentieth century.

My Mom Made Me Feminist: A Thank You Note of Sorts

By Rachael Nuckles

When I imagined my first year of graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, I pictured myself finishing it out in my apartment in New York, going on my regular coffee date with a friend from the cohort to work on our papers, and citing all of my wonderful findings from the Riot Grrrl Archive at NYU. I packed a bag for a week of spring break, bringing an extra book or two, imagining my trip home might be slightly extended. Now, I’ve been home for over a month. My beloved archive is closed, the best coffee I can get is a pot brewed at home, and instead of the sounds of the city I am surrounded with the sounds of a quiet, Midwestern town.

As news about the world pandemic began evolving and my return to New York became a bit more uncertain, the assumption was that I would simply remain at home; though I’d be staying in the laundry room, I’d be more safe here than back in the city. My week turned into an indefinite stay.

While being home I’ve realized how much of “me” has been directly influenced by my mom. Without her, I don’t know that I ever would have been in a graduate program to begin with. I recognize how lucky I am to have her in my life at all, let alone to have someone so supportive of my endeavors no matter how far-reaching they might be. Not everyone gets to have that support system in their life. I understand firsthand what it feels like to have a parent walk out, without so much as goodbye. Some days I can’t help but wonder what he might think of my life’s trajectory: would he try to take any credit for what I’ve become? Would he even recognize me if I passed him on the street? 

Mom never let me give up easily. A challenge was always an opportunity to think creatively to solve the problem at hand. Sometimes problem-solving meant standing up for the things you knew were right, the things you knew in your heart, despite what others might think of the decision. Sometimes it meant taking a break from taking care of the world around you in order to accomplish what was necessary for your personal wellbeing; and while my mother never explicitly taught me these things, I learned these traits through watching her persevere through any and every struggle life threw at her. 

Therefore, I was never one to give up on my goals, no matter how far fetched they seemed to others. My first major goal was to leave my small town, attend school for theater, and to prove that a career in the arts would be a viable option. My mom supported me through all the firsts that come with moving away from home. We left for college visits far earlier than we needed to, touring campuses in Chicago. It couldn’t have been easy to send your first into the unknown.

I would ultimately decide on a school which I thought would give me the most hands-on theater experience, and my mom supported my decision fully. She came to nearly every production I worked on as an undergraduate, bringing as many family members as were willing along with her. 

When the time came to determine post-graduation plans and I received an acceptance to graduate school at Sarah Lawrence, there was no question whether or not I would be going: only how. My mom helped me pay my deposit as I dealt with loose ends in Chicago, and when I moved to New York in August I gave her her first tour of the city. 

In the almost year I’ve been on the east coast, I’ve been forced to take charge of my life in a way I’ve never had to before. Though I’ve been relatively independent since the time I left home, being alone in a major city can be isolating. As I’ve navigated my New York life, I’ve discovered my mom in the crevices of my personality I didn’t expect. It’s only in returning home that I’ve been able to recognize where my quirks came from, and that the answer was in front of me the whole time.

I see her in my love for Chinese takeout, affinity for Saturday Night Live, and my crafty side which prevents me from throwing out anything that could be used in a future project. I recognize our similarities when we bake barefoot in the kitchen, making jokes in a voice reminiscent of Bobby Moynihan’s “I Miss My Little Kitty Cat” or sit down to catch up on whatever the latest cooking show (or Closer Look) might be. 

My mom taught me how to be me, and whether it was intentional or not she made me a feminist. She taught me that I am worthy of a seat at the table. That there is nothing I cannot do. She taught me how to respect others despite our differences. To demand more when the standards are not high enough. She taught me that when something is broken, sometimes it requires a closer examination; sometimes broken situations require reconfiguration. 

I see quite a lot in my life that I am proud of, yet I also see much that is broken. Systems failing large groups of people; blatant disrespect and discrimination in the form of racism, sexism, and homophobia; injustices that many are willing to overlook so long as the situation benefits them. But if my mom taught me anything, it’s that when you’re dissatisfied with the world around you, sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands to change the view. In this degree, I hope I can make her proud and harness the skills she’s given me. It’s cliche to say I want to make the world a better place, but really…don’t we all?

Rachael is a Midwesterner at heart finishing her first year as a masters candidate in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence. Her thesis work will complicate the notion of the feminist wave and the construction of feminist “icons” while exploring the influence of the Riot Grrrl network of the 1990s in more contemporary forms of feminist activism. Some of her side interests include women’s rage, performance studies, and the double edged sword that is “cancel culture.”

Lessons from Post-Soviet Motherhood

By Katya Mushik

I am the first-generation daughter of a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant. There are many lessons I’ve painstakingly had to learn of what Post-Soviet motherhood is really like.

Lesson one: don’t date Slavic men.

One evening in Ukraine, I walked into a modern, multi-colored apartment with my mother. We’re in Obolon, the upper echelons of Post-Soviet suburbia. For the first time, I meet my mother’s high school friends, Nadia* and Alida*. They immediately greet us with an open bottle of champagne and fresh strawberries.

Sitting down, they recollect and reminisce – memories from high school in Soviet Ukraine. There are three things they have in common: they are all married, they have children, and they are in their early fifties. My mother, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1993, catches up with her friends. She hasn’t seen them for nearly thirty years. 

Alida, a mother of two daughters, lives an ideal life. She stays at home in her overly pink apartment, while her husband works full time to support her and the family. Nadia, on the other hand, experiences a much different life. Working part-time as a volunteer nurse and as a stay-at-home single mom, she has two sons, one an adult and a younger son who lives with her. After thirty years of marriage, her husband grew tired of the monotony of family life and left her and her two sons for a twenty-something year old woman.

This still occurs, even today in modern Ukraine. Unfortunately, at the kitchen table, it passed as another one of those casual stories. 

My mother, though shocked, laughed it off. She advised me half-heartedly, “See! This is why you don’t date Slavic men…”. Despite it all, Alida claimed to be a new and modern woman. (Later, she admitted to my mother that she is suffering from depression and can’t find a way out). 

My mother tied together values of motherhood with her journey through immigration. She met my father in Ukraine at age twenty-four and, within three months of dating, married each other and left for America that same year. They are still married to this day. My mother, rather than having children at the young age of twenty like her mother and grandmother did, waited. When I ask her why, she says, “I wanted to become financially stable first. With your father and I. We waited five years and had you at thirty. We wanted to make something of ourselves first. Get degrees. Pay for our own condominium.” Arriving in the United States with only a thousand dollars and little-to-no English, my mother survived, and, eventually, was lucky enough to thrive. From being a young immigrant in Los Angeles in the 1990s, she transitioned into motherhood, soon settling down in the suburbs west of Hollywood.


Lesson two: trauma is generational. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union disrupted both the socio-economic states of these countries and the mindsets of these people, especially women. How would they continue living?

Even after immigrants leaving the Soviet Union, their pasts continue to linger. This resonates among many children of Slavic parents, even in the United States.

I was a test-trial for my mother. The guinea pig in her first trial of having a kid. She incubated me in a pseudo-American household, with just the right settings to have me grow into an academic and extracurricular-minded kid. 

Beyond being her first child, I am a living testament to her success as an immigrant mother who grasped her first taste of what it’s like to live the American dream.

I am also living testament to the idealized societal pressures of Soviet life that never left. Communism impacted my mother. She is hard-driven, determined, and extremely nifty at working both a full-time job and being a wife and mother.

The “double patriarchy” [1].

Soviet mothers teeter-tottered between the patriarchy of their “spouses” and the “masculine authority of the state”1.

Gender “equality” did not mean rights for women – or as human beings – rather, it signaled their “equal participation in the paid labor force” [2]

Soviet women were both mothers and wives, but also “genderless utopian machines” [3] for the state. 


Lesson three: motherhood evolves yet nothing really changes.

Over a year ago, at my university I enrolled in a course called “Women in Russia”. The curriculum and reading revolutionized my knowledge about Soviet womanhood. However, I didn’t need a course to tell me what I already knew about Post-Soviet women.

Not too long ago, The Moscow Times created an online platform interviewing daughters, mothers and grandmothers to highlight the transition from motherhood in the Soviet Union to today. On their platform, they write:

The 19th century poet Nikolai Nekrasov famously said that Russian women could “stop a galloping horse or charge into a burning house.” More than a century later, the resilience that quote evokes still rings true.

In today’s Russia, however, a different idiom is being used to describe the position of women in society: “If he hits you, it means he loves you.”

Under the current regime, conservative values have become more deeply entrenched…

Gradually, women are raising their voices. 

Beyond the news cycle, however, women are rarely given a platform. [4]

From all over Russia and across Former Soviet countries, women are redefining motherhood for themselves.

I’ll never forget the lessons my mother continues to teach me – they are embedded within the voices of her intergenerational past. My great grandmother survived the holocaust; my grandmother gave birth to my father in a village shed on her own; my other grandmother gave birth to my mother at twenty years old; a few years later my grandfather left her for a younger woman. Nothing really changes. But the lessons remain.

Strength. Courage. Perseverance. 

Though these characteristics came out of a dark place of patriarchy and social disorder, the lessons that came with them never left. They are passed down from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. I carry with me both their traumas and their sense of strength. It’s a double-edged sword I am willing to live with.


*names changed to protect privacy.

Endnotes:

[1] Victor Tupitsyn (1997) If I were a woman, Third Text, 11:40, 85-93, DOI: 

10.1080/09528829708576688 

Link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09528829708576688 

[2] Nanette Funk (1993) Feminism and Post-Communism, Hypatia, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 85-88 

Link to this article: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3810371 

[3] Victor Tupitsyn (1997) If I were a woman, Third Text, 11:40, 85-93, DOI:10.10/09528829708576688

[4] The Moscow Times. Mothers & Daughters (web). Link to this site:https://mothersanddaughters.themoscowtimes.com/?utm_source=themoscowtimes&utm_medium=banner&utm_campaign=970

Katya Mushik (she/them) is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis, where she studies International Relations and Russian Language, with a focus on Peace and Security and Eastern Europe. She is currently researching Russian and Ukrainian feminist protest movements for her Senior Thesis.

A Uterus That Wants to Share

My grandmother tells me that when you’re pregnant, your children, and the eggs of your grandchildren are grown within you. The future of the future. When I’m pregnant, I’m pretty sure I won’t want to think about eggs. But if I do, I’ll ask the great-great grandmother of those eggs within me, my grandmother, how she did it. How did she keep her uterus healthy long enough to make eggs from eggs? 

The uterus’ in my family are weird things. They’re angry, and stubborn, and they are really terrible at the whole I’m-an-ecosystem-waiting-to-be-implanted-in thing. Personally, I think it’s because they just try too hard. Usually, for the women in my family, they do just fine until we turn about 14 and then for some reason (maybe they’re bored) they start to “share.” The little things always grew quite a lining, but after a few years they seem to decide that other organs need linings too, why not? “How would that not improve things?” They think. So bowels get linings and abdominal walls get linings and hey, why not the outside of the uterus? They’re like overzealous redecorators. They have 70s shag, and it starts on the floor and goes up the walls, the outside of the house, and then across the lawn to the neighbors. 

Now, no one minds a little shag carpeting as a fad, or just to bring back some memories (who are we kidding-it’s terrible: collects dust, holds in dirt, and wears easily) but NO ONE deserves an abdomen full of the 70s. That hurts. That hurts a whole fucking lot. This carpeting fiasco also seems to anger other body parts. Bowels, for example, decide that if the uterus is doing it’s job too well, they might as well work less, why not? Slackers. Ovaries, as you know, can get jealous, so for my grandmother and I, they decide to hurt when they ovulate, and if that doesn’t cause enough of a ruckus, they have even on occasion decided to explode an egg or two, which I can say from personal experience, is great fun (if you like emergency rooms and pointing to the far end of the pain scale). Now fallopian tubes, they’re the nervous ones. Their job is to gather the eggs from the ovaries and bring them to the uterus, and it’s difficult for them, stuck here in the middle of this fight. They have one job, transport, and they want to do it well. So, they confer, and after great debate decide to draw straws, and then the one with the short straw fills itself with fluid. Just in protest. This makes for a great visual (on the ultrasounds undoubtably needed) but does not make for effective transportation. The muscles, though, they’re major assholes (though they wouldn’t admit it). They’re a lot of them, and for my family, they’re tight. They’re tight and they’re short, and they really like stretching. (As in, if you don’t stretch them every day, they won’t do shit, like literally they will have trouble stretching enough to shit.) Some of them are small, and some of them are large, and some of them hide in places that are extremely hard to stretch. Did I mention the uterus is a muscle? And oh does it like to stretch (with babies).

All these parts, they’re vying for attention. Like roosters in the morning. Like children all the time. Like an overfull pot of boiling water on the stove, (because you forgot the noodles take up space too). Some of the parts are screaming, because other parts are screaming, and some are screaming because they’re scared. One though, screams because it wants something, it wants to share everything about it, with everyone else, before it runs out of time, because it will. For the women in my family, a uterus thinks it has one job, to hold the eggs made from eggs. And every time it fails, it energetically rips up the carpet and starts again. Generously, it shares everything it’s been making, but shag carpet, stains. 

As far as problems go, this one isn’t solution free. Some can get used to bad carpet, others redecorate, and if all else fails, a select, yet arguably wise few, put the whole house in the dumpster. My cousins tread steadily on, with uterus’ held in tightly, secreted away, their uterus’ sometimes happy, often prone to temper, but generally ignored. My mother’s uterus gave up fighting her because that’s the kind of person my mom is, and after 20 years, and two successful humans made, her uterus, felt better, and calmed the fuck down. My grandmother, she has no uterus. And as for me, I agree with my grandmother. I don’t want mine, either. It doesn’t feel like it belongs, and it never asked to be there. But it is. Why does it have to keep failing, even when I don’t need it to do it’s job at all? It’s not going to be successful until I want it to be, but it’s persistent, resilient, and stubborn. 

My uterus, it picks fights. It makes my body angry. It hurts. Maybe it’s because my eggs were made in an angry uterus inside an angry uterus. Maybe also, it’s trying to speak up for itself. Maybe it, like me, wants to be able to do more than create humans and cause pain. Maybe it wants to contract, not get rid of something it’s made, but to feel good, to feel alive. Maybe it just gets confused about what it means to feel pain and what it means to feel pleasure. Maybe it just wants to make a home that’s a little bit better so that the eggs it grows, and the eggs grown inside those grown eggs, will be better. You see, for the women in my family, the uterus is it’s own advocate, but it doesn’t advocate because it wants to make our lives better. It advocates for itself, because it knows that it’s job is important, so important that it says “HI!” Every damn day, with emphasis, to everyone around it. It is strong, and resilient, and persistent, and stubborn, because the women in my family, that’s what we are. We want more, we want to do our jobs well, so well that others will want to share in our lives, in everything we have to offer. Occasionally though, we need reminders, that we’re not just here for the pain. We’re here for the pleasure. We’re here to begin again, because through over 400 cycles of failures, the one right one, it’s worth it. The right one, will hold the future of the future, which is who I was, inside my grandmother’s uterus, and what I hope I will someday hold within me. 

Megan Amling is a World Literatures student at The Ohio State University, where her current area of research is brain injury in young adult literature. Most of her days are spent with her 94-year-old roommate and a book. When she isn’t reminiscing and reading, she enjoys jazz, cupcakes, geraniums, and writing creative stories about family, sex, and healthcare, although not always in that order. 

Sea of Familiar Strangers

I was lost in the Forbidden City in a sea of familiar strangers. Beijing’s vibrant reds and yellows assaulted my eyes. Under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao, whose portrait hovers over the entrance, I traveled to another world. 

I had never seen such ornately decorated buildings as those at the Forbidden City.  Fantastic stone carvings created bridges spanning man-made moats. Gardens blossomed with a kaleidoscope of colors and defied the notion that things fade with time. I was awed by golden statues and relics so enriched with a culture I only had been able to grasp secondhand. I entered a world in which any peasant in Imperial China would have been killed for getting within 100 feet. I went with the flow of the crowds through the 961-meter-long palace, feeling oddly at home. It was only after passing through the third inner gate that I realized I had lost my family in the crowds. 

 My family should have stuck out like a sore thumb. The entire tour group should have been easily found, composed as it was of average, middle-aged, white American couples with children who, unlike them, were Chinese. I am, along with all of the girls on this trip, the byproduct of China’s infamous One Child Policy. 

I was adopted by a middle-class American couple after enduring roughly a year of my life in an overcrowded orphanage in southeast China. My parents tried their best to instill in me a cultural identity that they just didn’t have. They enlisted me in Chinese heritage programs with Central Ohio Families with Children from China. Six-year-old me didn’t appreciate the effort. Instead of paying attention and trying to learn Chinese, the Zhuang culture (my ethnic heritage), or oriental dance, I played in the gym. Now I wished I had learned Chinese.

For the first time in my life, within the walls of China, I was surrounded by people who look like me. I was no longer the easily identifiable Asian girl surrounded by white faces. Lost in the sea of familiar strangers in the Forbidden City I was free: No one attributed my intellect to my ethnicity. No one assumed I knew karate.  No one told me I didn’t really look Chinese. I was lost in the comfort of being “normal.” However, while trying to ask for help, the realization hit me like a wave: I wasn’t really their normal. I could pass as “one of them” until I had to speak. I’m like a copy of a book with the same cover but translated in a completely different language.

I’m stuck in some liminal ground between Chinese and American culture. 

My family and tour group, with valiant efforts to find me, ran throughout the Forbidden City hollering my name in what must have seemed the stereotypically loud American way. “Mia, girl from America” blared on the loud speakers but fell deaf on my ears as I was caught up in the turbulence of the crowds. I wandered through the last gate of the city and looked outwards – gray cityscape framed by gold and red gates fit for an emperor.

The waves of people broke and my tearful tour group of relieved parents engulfed me. I was hauled out from the sea of familiar strangers and into my mother’s arms. One of their own was found in a great expanse of lookalikes. 

Being Chinese alters my perspective on the world, and how the world sees me, but I’m so much more – an artist, an academic – not just an Asian. I want people to acknowledge the privilege provided by my white parents and the social obstacles faithfully shackled to me by my Chinese birth. I want people to see me for my vibrant reds and yellows.

Mia Cai Cariello (she/her/hers) is a Chinese transracial, transnational adoptee from Guangxi province. She is a third-year Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major with minors in Studio Art, Human Rights, and Asian-American Studies at The Ohio State University. Mia is a Morrill Scholar and is currently the President of two organizations on The Ohio State University’s campus – Transracial Adoptees at Ohio State and Take Back the Night at The Ohio State University. 

My Name Is…

My name is Mia Cai Cariello

And I want you to know,

I was born in China, Guangxi Province 

As 吴彩卓

I wasn’t even old enough to know

That my own government wanted me to go

It would take a year for them to ship me out 

People would have you believe my life would blossom and sprout

That the stars aligned

when I was adopted to the U.S. in 1999

It was told to me that in this new country I could sew a new future…

A future with freedom and liberty

No police censorship or brutality 

Freedom to be who you want and need to be 

Everyone hand in hand 

equality – achieved.

But that’s just the American dream

Playing constantly on the world-wide screen

propaganda masking the imperialist scheme

I was taught that the US is the greatest country on Earth 

But then why am I still judged by the place of my birth? 

Kids Making fun of my eyes with a slight slant

kids being given the seed of racism to plant

Early on 

Acting like my whole ethnicity is a phenomenon- 

That’s meant to entertain them. 

Yelling Ching Chong

Acting like I don’t belong

Saying all Asians look the same 

And when they’re called out

All their excuses are so fuckin lame 

Tired of people assuming I can speak fluent Chinese

Like a language with 30,000 characters can be picked up with ease

Tired of people assuming all I eat is rice 

and that I’d be their china doll if they just act nice

Tired of being told I don’t look like a “real Asian” 

As if there’s only one specific look.

Like I should be studying out of some sort of handbook

Would you like me better if I took a page from your Asian look book

In a qi pao, sari, kimono, or hanbok?

Tired of being told that I am not a real Asian because I’m an adoptee

Spitting names like banana or Twinkie

The adoptee experience is real and the dismissal of it is ominous

Because Our collective Asian identities are still a plethora 

of experiences that are not homogenous  

I may not be innately gifted at math

But I know I am more than the sum of my parts

it’s hard to believe so many people still play a part in the perpetuation of our subjugation – constantly chaining us with limitations, fixations on how we must be from a different nation, questioning our affiliations, forcing our assimilation, migration, but still profiting off imitations of our culture. 

I guess I can’t blame people for thinking Asians have made it, 

When the only image they see is Crazy Rich Asians

But I gotta get something off of my chest,

Our struggles are glossed over 

For the story of the model minority —

I want you to see 

Our existence in this country is missing some facts

How many people even knows about The Chinese Exclusion Act? 

Were you taught about Executive Order 9066

Or were Internment camps glossed over in the name of politics?

Do people know our demographic has the largest wealth disparity? 

Not all of us are living a life of luxury 

The Asian image is tailored to pale skin and exotic 

and all the fetishization is nauseating and toxic 

I’m tired of playing this game 

That results

In the perpetuation of white supremacy 

Telling me to open my eyes wider so that I can see

I can already see

And the answer is simply and beautifully me

We don’t need to change our eyes

go down a size

Or Whiten our skin 

To be worthy 

Worthy of love and respect

Our self-worth I will kill to protect 

Don’t be fooled by the lies you’ve been told

Self-love and dignity are worth their weight in gold,

But my liberation isn’t complete 

Freedom for my fellow People of color must be concrete

Stereotypes try to lock the truth uptight,

Trying to keep it out of the light

We are not separate from one another’s struggle 

we have a place next to our black and brown sisters and brothers

We can be limitless

but we must continue to fight 

To ensure that all who follow us can forever revel in the light

Mia Cai Cariello (she/her/hers) is a Chinese transracial, transnational adoptee from Guangxi province. She is a third-year Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major with minors in Studio Art, Human Rights, and Asian-American Studies at The Ohio State University. Mia is a Morrill Scholar and is currently the President of two organizations on The Ohio State University’s campus – Transracial Adoptees at Ohio State and Take Back the Night at The Ohio State University. 

“The Poorer Sick”: American Gynecology and its Irish Subjects in Mid-Nineteenth Century New York City

By Charlotte Rich

In April 2018, crowds gathered on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to watch the dismantling of the statue of J. Marion Sims (1813-1883), the so-called “Father of Gynecology.” [1] The monument was constructed in 1892 to celebrate Sims’ contributions to gynecological research, including developing groundbreaking surgeries to treat women from Alabama to New York City to Europe. [2] For over one hundred years, the statue stood across from Mt. Sinai Hospital and the Medical Heritage Library as an uncritical monument to Sims. It honored his tireless research as the foundation of modern gynecology, alleviating the suffering of millions of women, in his lifetime and ours.

The monument, however, made no mention of the countless women whose bodies and labor enabled his research, by serving as both experimental subjects and unpaid, uncredited nurses. In 2006, historian Harriet Washington’s groundbreaking research drew activists’ attention to the untold reality of Sims’ experimentation, in which he used enslaved black women as his experimental subjects. [3] In protests, op-eds, and posts on social media, activists called for broader recognition of the brutality of his experimentation on enslaved black women, who were not credited in the monument. The dismantling of Sims’ statue represented a public reckoning with the largely forgotten contributions of enslaved black women to American medical history.

While the removal of Sims’ monument was certainly a victory for historical representation, it also constituted the erasure of the majority of Sims’ experimental subjects. In addition to his enslaved black subjects, Sims treated and experimented on hundreds of Irish immigrant women in New York City. In 1853, following his work in Alabama, Sims moved to New York City where he founded the Woman’s Hospital, a charitable research institution for the treatment of women’s reproductive disorders. [4] When founding the Woman’s Hospital, J. Marion Sims saw it as a platform through which he could fine-tune his own surgical techniques that he developed through experimentation on enslaved black women. [5]

The development of medicine during this period has often been framed as the triumphal advancement of surgical techniques, the expansion and reformation of the hospital system, and the creation of life-saving techniques for women’s diseases and the dangers of childbirth. However, prioritizing patients’ experiences as part of this history complicates these pure narratives of progress. The historical coincidence of Famine-era Irish immigration and major medical reforms, including the founding of new disciplines like gynecology, facilitated experimentation on countless Irish patients, which enabled the success of research institutions like the Woman’s Hospital.

With even a cursory glance at the Woman’s Hospital’s patient casebooks, which provide demographic information for patients, one notices a significant trend: the largest nationality represented in the hospital’s patients were Irish immigrants. The founding of the Woman’s Hospital’s in 1855 coincided with a wave of Irish immigration following the Great Famine. Hunger, destitution, and lack of economic opportunity that characterized Ireland after the Famine prompted many, especially young women, to emigrate to the United States. Because of insufficient access to health care, their physically demanding jobs, and unhealthy living conditions, Irish women frequently required reproductive health care upon arriving in cities like New York and could not afford the private physicians of the middle and upper classes. To put it simply, many Irish women in New York needed treatments for reproductive disorders, exactly when the Woman’s Hospital and gynecologists throughout the Northeast needed patients.

This historical coincidence created a relationship that was, in some ways, mutually beneficial. Poor Irish immigrants received low-cost or free treatments for debilitating conditions like fistulae, which allowed doctors to develop standardized surgical techniques to treat other women. [6] However, physicians often prioritized the professional advancement that developing a successful new surgery would accomplish over the wellbeing of patients whose bodies made that surgery possible. Even when a surgery successfully treated a patient, doctors’ own notes and published papers recount stories of abuse towards their immigrant patients. [7] Furthermore, many physicians drew from and reproduced nativist discourse in their published case studies of Irish patients, endowing these theories with medical authority. 

In spite of the prominent role that Irish women played in the history of gynecology, they have received scant attention in recent scholarship, and no mention in calls for the removal of Sims’ monument. The absence of Irish women from this contemporary debate was especially notable, given the statue’s location only about four miles from the first location of the Woman’s Hospital, the site of Sims’ Irish experiments. Furthermore, by focusing entirely on Sims’ statue, activists obscured the fact that Sims was only one of many gynecologists experimenting on vulnerable women. Irish women’s absence from this historical narrative and contemporary conversations about Sims’ legacy demonstrate how their sacrifices and contributions to the advancement of gynecologic and obstetric surgery continue to be taken for granted, and they remain voiceless.

My current research explores the role of Irish immigrant women as experimental subjects for American gynecological research in the 1850s-1870s. Despite the central role Irish women played in the development of this medical discipline as subjects, scholarship has largely ignored their contributions. Drawing from the Woman’s Hospital’s patient case books and annual reports; medical journals and physicians’ published works; and texts written by and about Irish immigrant women in New York, this thesis attempts to understand how Irish women influenced the development of gynecology. Why did Irish immigrant women constitute such a significant portion of gynecological patients in mid-nineteenth century New York City? How did medicine draw from and contribute to common conceptions about class, race, and gender as they related to Irish immigrant women? Building on the historical scholarship about enslaved black women as subjects of gynecological research in the American South, this will be one of the first in-depth studies to include Irish women in the narrative. Expanding this history will alter the understanding of American gynecology by demonstrating how dependent this period of medical specialization and advancement was on the bodies and health of Irish immigrant women. Furthermore, it will highlight how historians can use institutional medical records to uncover the experiences of Irish women, who were otherwise excluded from the historical record. 

Endnotes:

[1] P.R. Lockhart, “New York just removed a status of a surgeon who experimented on enslaved women,” Vox, April 18, 2018, https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/4/18/17254234/j-marion-sims-experiments-slaves-women- gynecology-statue-removal.

[2] “Dr. James Marion Sims Sculpture,” NYC Parks, April 16, 2018, https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/ historical-signs/listings?id=13315.

[3] Nadja Sayej, “J Marion Sims: controversial statue taken down but debate still rages,” The Guardian, April 21, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/apr/21/j-marion-sims-statue-removed-new-york-city-black- women.

Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Anchor Books, 2006).

[4] Deborah Kuhn McGregor, From Midwives to Medicine: the Birth of American Gynecology (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998).

[5] J. Marion Sims, The Story of My Life (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884).

[6] A fistula is a tear in the vagina or anus resulting from a prolonged or difficult birth. Women who suffered from rickets — a condition caused by the absence of Vitamin D in one’s diet — typically developed narrow pelvises and were therefore more likely to experience fistulae. While women of all classes, races, and ethnicities were afflicted with fistulae, this condition was more common among women who lacked access to nutritious diets, including enslaved black women and survivors of the Great Irish Famine.

[7] For examples, see: George T. Dexter, “Singular Case of Hiccough Caused by Masturbation,” Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1845): 195-197; George T. Elliot, “Induction of Premature Labor with the Douche,” New York Journal of Medicine 2, no. 3 (May 1856): 331; and Thomas Addis Emmet, Reminiscences of the Founders of the Woman’s Hospital (New York: Stuyvesant Press, 1893).

Charlotte Rich is a senior at Wesleyan University. She is interested in studying the hidden social histories of medicine to explore the roots of race and gender inequities in contemporary American medicine.