Crafting the Perfect Woman: How Gynecology, Obstetrics and American Prisons Operate to Construct and Control Women

by Anastazia Schmid (artist/activist/scholar, currently incarcerated at the Madison Correctional Facility in Indiana)

[image above: “The Horrors of Womanhood” – collage by the author]

I try to tell myself to breathe. The good doctor’s irritation radiates through the cold steel he shoves inside me. I am trapped inside my flesh—I am here, but I’m not. The watermarked holes in the ceiling tiles suck me into their blackness.

Voices in this cramped room. The hard wrinkled paper scratches my face.  The nurse stares, expressionless. The doctor addresses her as though I am not in the room, “… not another one of these… complaining about being locked down … inventing problems … all they want is drugs!” I am angered enough to find my voice; I protest.  “I don’t do drugs! I’m having problems with my bladder! My doctor at home never gave me a pelvic exam for my bladder problem!”

My questioning was unwelcome. He becomes more forceful. I remember why I have refused pap smears for nearly ten years.  He jerks instruments out of me jumps up in disgust and snaps off his gloves. Red-faced, he commands the nurse to catheterize me. She reads the instructions on the catheter and tells me without feeling that she’s never done this before. There is no preparation and no anesthetic.  My genitals burn.  Blood and tears do not stop her from finishing the procedure. I am not human in this place.

Still, I am not alone.  I exist in a long line, a ruinous tradition. One of my predecessors was a young woman named Mary Jane Schwitzer.  One hundred and thirty-five years ago, Mary Jane testified to an Indiana legislative committee about her treatment by a prison gynecologist:

I was visited by Dr. Parvin.  I was very sick, and he was to examine me with instruments.  Mrs. Smith on that occasion dragged me out of my bed and into another room.  I told her what I thought of being treated that way.  Dr. Parvin said I was to lie in bed for several days after the operation.

I envy Mary Jane for one reason. She had the chance to speak out against her treatment. Over a century later, confined at the same facility, I want the same chance.


Mary Jane Schwitzer’s experiences at the first American women’s prison open a window onto a range of historical phenomena with contemporary implications.  They highlight the practice of medical experimentation and torture of female prisoners including medical rape and induced abortion.  They show the fear and obsession with women’s bodies and sexuality at the heart of gynecology.  They point to the relationship of gynecology to the budding field of eugenics, with its profoundly racist implications.  Finally, they remind us of the ways the fields of gynecology and obstetrics have defined beliefs about women’s bodies and the need for their control in ways that continue to reverberate today.

In 1873, the nation’s first state-run women’s prison, the Indiana Reformatory for Women and Girls, opened under the supervision and operation of Quaker moral reformer, Sarah J. Smith. The institution was managed by a full female staff with the exception of a night watchman and one male physician. In the nineteenth century the actual commission of a crime was an unnecessary element to incarcerate a woman.  “Illicit” sexual behavior or property damage was enough to hold women captive, and take control over body, sexuality, and reproductive function. In the institution’s first five years, “Saint Sarah,” as she became known, was lauded for her reportedly high success rate rehabilitating wayward women. But things aren’t always as they seem.

In 1879, after a few women were released from the Reformatory, rumors of scandalous happenings at the prison began to surface. Margaret Conrad, one of the women who had been incarcerated at the Reformatory, hung herself after three days of solitary confinement. Leaked stories of Conrad’s suicide, along with other rumors, sparked a journalist’s interest. Newspaper reporters interviewed numerous prison staff members and women who had been incarcerated in the institution. Two years later, in 1881, a state legislative committee conducted an investigation into those rumors and allegations of abuse of the women incarcerated at the Reformatory. Dark-room isolation, physical and sexual abuse, water torture, food and clothing deprivation, surgical operations, infanticide, and forced abortions were among the charges.  Among the perpetrators of the abuse was a certain Dr. Theophilus Parvin. Dr. Parvin was one of the founding fathers of gynecology and obstetrics, the nation’s leading expert on female sexual function and disease, and the president of the American Medical Association.

To understand Parvin, we need to step back a moment.  This was a time of tremendous transformation for sex, science and social control. At the intersections of sex, gender ideology, religion, and punishment, orthodox medicine imposed its visions of social control.  Historical documents reveal stunning connections among powerful men of science, doctors, politicians, and religious figures—at a moment when aspiring physicians often used the bodies of enslaved and institutionalized people for medical experimentation.

I can’t help but note the chilling coincidental timing in this history.  Dr. Parvin became the head physician at the newly opened Indiana Reformatory for Women and Girls in 1873, the same year the American Medical Association added an authoritative section on the diseases of women and children, and obstetrics. Still in 1873, in further sexual conquest, Robert Battey published his influential work “inventing” female castration, sparking a gynecological surgical trend. By 1906 roughly 150,000 American women had had their ovaries surgically removed thanks to Battey.  Given my experience, I can’t help but wonder who those 150,000 sterilized women were, and where they lived.   Also 1873: the Comstock Law went into effect, imposing criminal charges, fines and fees for the sale and distribution of any sexually related material including contraception and birth control information (mostly produced by midwives and “sex radicals” who believed in equality in marriage and a woman’s right to choose if, when, and with whom she would procreate).  Such material was defined as indecent, immoral, lewd, or lascivious, and it was forcefully prosecuted. Only doctors and their medical publications were exempt.

In this profoundly important period for the development of orthodox medicine and its social control functions, Dr. Parvin would spend ten unabated years building his medical legacy in gynecology and obstetrics at the Indiana Reformatory for Women and Girls—my current home—hidden from public scrutiny.  Mysteriously, historical accounts of his life and career shroud his work at the prison. In 1886, three years after leaving the prison, Parvin published his magnum opus, a 685-page medical manual, The Science and Art of Obstetrics. The tome is replete with graphic illustrations detailing every aspect of female sex organs, as well as illustrations of pregnancy and fetal development at all stages of gestation, labor and delivery. Along with his manual, Parvin developed and released to the medical community an anatomically correct, life-sized, female obstetric manikin, a “pregnant” version with fetuses ranging in gestational phase, complete with life-like genitalia and moveable joints that would permit the figure being placed in any position. Parvin released the manikins as state-of-the-art teaching tools. To me they suggest multiple uses, but that may be because the only illustration of this figure that I’ve seen, thanks to the archive of the Museum of Obstetrics, was positioned rather suggestively, on all fours, clad in striped stockings and nothing else.

Parvin’s in-depth investigation and analysis of women’s sex organs, as well as his extensive experience in gynecological and obstetric surgical procedures, would only have been possible through his long-term use of powerless female prisoners as experimental subjects.  Captive women were the prime candidates for experimental gynecological surgeries due to their invisibility, and due to the voicelessness of their social position.

Parvin’s medical maleficence within the women’s prison is clear.  His “Notes on Medical Practice at the Indiana Reformatory for Women and Girls,” published in an Ohio medical journal, details the medical procedures he conducted on prisoners. One notes his treatment of a 16-year-old prostitute known only as “P.” Apparently this unidentifiable woman suffered from venereal warts.  Parvin snipped off pieces of her genitals with scissors. Noting the mutilation, Parvin scribed, “when those [warts] within the vagina were attacked the hemorrhage was copious and obstinate.”  No details of the patient’s experience—her pain, the outcome, even her survival—were included; nothing more is said.  Nor was this, or any other surgical procedure, ever mentioned in his physician’s notes within the prison records.

Ironically, Parvin’s reports in the prison records omit all gynecology and obstetrics treatment and problems.  These were peculiar omissions for this surgical expert in gynecology and obstetrics, working in a prison at a time when prostitution and venereal diseases were considered pandemic and women accused of sex work or suffering from these diseases were overwhelmingly likely to find themselves behind bars.  At his death, remembrances of Parvin omitted any reference to his work in or affiliation with the Indiana Reformatory, even while detailing all other aspects of his labors in the Hoosier state.

Parvin claimed to be an expert in all things related to women, as if he had studied them as he would a textbook. He adamantly declared to his colleagues, “[i]f you read women as I do … you will agree with me that it is not natural for a woman to have a desire for sexual intercourse; it is submitted to as a duty.” He also racially described the body of deviant women thusly, “course skin, large lips, black eyes, black hair, dark complexion and … contracted and prominent condition of the muscles; there is usually less fat and connective tissue, so that on the whole the body is more angular and less rounded than in the perfect woman.”  These “less than perfect, unnatural” women would be the targets for his bizarre treatments and bodily control over their reproductive functions. His own clinical lectures about the appropriate treatment of “nymphomania” and masturbation are telling to the part he played in the sinister handling of women and girls at the Reformatory.  He defined a nymphomaniac as any woman—even married women—who has sexual desire which caused them to “deviously” seek “connection with men and even with dogs,” as if women are sex-crazed predators. Expected to take his word for it, Parvin professed his (then widowed) patient claimed to desire sex with her husband “five or six times a week,” which purported to make her less than perfect and “unlike other women.”

As a theologian as well as a doctor, Parvin supported proscribed gender ideologies. His line of reasoning fell in with the times on “fallen” women (or nymphomaniacs); women believed to have fallen out of the “grace of god,” or fallen out of the power and dominion of men and their supporting institutions. Therefore a “fallen” woman is any woman who enacts corporeal claim of her own body, sex, and sexuality as she so chooses, or who wets the appetite of her own desires. Through this line of reasoning, her body itself was seen as an unruly, beastly entity in need of taming. Confinement, water torture, drugs, and bodily mutilations provided the means for forced submission and bodily control over women.

During the years of Parvin’s tenure at the Reformatory, mistreatment of the prisoners abound. At the forefront of prisoner abuse was 45-year-old Mary Jane Schweitzer. In 1877 she was sentenced to two years of incarceration at the Reformatory “on suspicion of committing arson.” Yet imprisonment was the least of her problems. While in prison, Mary Jane was branded as a thief and deviant then targeted for severe punishment. She would not speak to another person for an extended period of time.  Mary Jane was repeatedly subjected to dehumanizing practices, including being locked in solitary confinement after being stripped naked and forced to stand in her cell while being hosed with cold water for nearly half an hour. After which she was given no clean clothes and left alone, chilled and in ill health. Eventually she was left to the devices of the good doctor for her mysterious operation.

Mary’s silence was finally broken in 1881.  According to the Indianapolis Journal reporting the testimony of her abuse at the Reformatory, Mary Jane recalled:  “I was punished very frequently.  For most of one year, I was not allowed to speak with any other person. Was kept in solitary confinement for one month, fed on bread and water, ducked, and had no clean clothing.” Apparently her sanctions included torture to simulate drowning. “Ducking” consisted of repeatedly forcing a person’s head under cold water, holding the head under water for several seconds, then pulling it back up just long enough for the victim to gasp for air before being forced back under the water.  Mary was one of several women to experience this form of torture, a precursor to modern day waterboarding.

The use of water torture as punishment would be paramount during Parvin’s stint of employment at the prison. Sexual deviants became the target for this routine employment of torture and Parvin’s beliefs shaped how the female prisoners were treated. Refuting Mary and other women’s claims, Parvin testified that he had not, “prescribed that there should be an application of water upon prisoners for certain diseases.” Though despite his testimonial denial, his 1875 Ohio medical journal publication proves otherwise. He notes prescribing cold shower baths to a 16 year old prostitute at the Reformatory for urinary incontinence. The “shower bath” was a device resembling a shower stall with a chair inside that strapped its occupant in place by means of wrist and lap restraints. A large spout is positioned over the head that releases forceful, mass quantities of water creating a sense of drowning as the victim gasps for air over the shock and force of cold water rushing the head and face. Like ducking, the process is repeated multiple times, often to the point of unconsciousness, to increase terror and disorientation in the victim. Seemingly, prescribing simulated drowning would cure theft as well as bladder control problems. Furthermore, these forms of water torture were also routinely used as punishment for women who committed the “sin” of “self-abuse.”

Women’s sexuality was besieged via water torture punishment. Molly Scott, a woman accused of sexual transgressions inside the prison with the night watchman, purported to have been doused with the fire hose, presumably to cool off her heated sexual desires. In addition, a woman who was employed in the Reformatory’s laundry for five years, Francis Talbutt, reported that the most severe case of punishment she ever witnessed involved the superintendent, Mrs. Sarah Smith, stripping a 13 year old girl naked and holding her in a tub while another prisoner turned on the cold water tap. The young girl was ducked for 20 minutes, spanked, and sent to bed. That thirteen year old girl who was nearly drowned was a purported masturbator. The containment of female sexuality would be circumscribed through these methods of punishment.

There are other references that seem to refer to prisoners as experimental subjects in Parvin’s practice, though they are less forthcoming.  During a clinical lecture on nymphomania and masturbation, for example, Parvin expressed disappointment at not being able to “bring before his audience” a 42-year-old widow complaining of this dual condition.  What would have prevented the patient from being present at the lecture, as was common instructional practice? Nonetheless, he goes on in his lecture to explain his methods of clinical diagnosis:

When I subjected this woman to examination (in the presence of Dr. Morris), I found some peculiar phenomenon. When the finger was introduced into the vagina, as soon as the clitoris was barely touched, there were produced irregular movements of the hips and pelvis. As the finger was advanced the muscles about the vagina were thrown into a state of contraction, which it closed tight on the finger, and this caused a sense of gratification to the woman.

Like many male gynecologists of the time, Parvin raped his female patients (often in the presence of another man) by digitally “examining” them, induced orgasm, and then claimed their bodily response as “proof” of a woman’s sexual deviance and disease. In such cases, captive women are utterly defenseless to prevent this type of handling, or what was to be done to them in order to ameliorate their “conditions.” During the nineteenth century, experimental medical drug use also came into fashion. Parvin offers a compelling treatment to cure the said nymphomaniac,

When, in this case, we noted the irritability on the introduction of the finger … we applied muriate of cocaine to the clitoris, and I can assure you the effect was wonderful, the vagina at once behaved as well as the most virtuous vagina in the United States.

His patient may have been relieved of her nymphomania and chronic masturbation by perhaps becoming addicted to cocaine instead as he himself may have been. In another medical journal he professed using cocaine on himself to stitch an incision on his arm. There’s no way of knowing which came first with Parvin, experimenting with drug treatment, or surgical procedures. During the time Parvin worked at the women’s prison (1873-1883) anesthesia was not yet readily used for surgical procedures, and when it was, doctors reserved its use for their affluent clientele. At that time, chances are he used the drug to “treat” disorders, but not as an anesthesia during surgical procedures.  Yet it wasn’t beyond Parvin to surgically “cure” women who desired sex or masturbated. He defensively stated, “[c]litoridectomy might do good in some cases. . . . [W]hen all other means have failed, we would be justified in resorting to it.” Removing a woman’s primary source of pleasure would leave her for a solitary sexual function of procreation; a position believed by Parvin to be her sole function in sexual matters.

Drugs and surgery notwithstanding, Parvin’s fear over the power of the female body resulted in false medical findings and preposterous treatments upon which the field was founded. Perhaps Parvin’s experience with his “nymphomaniac” patient led him to confirm a condition he and his colleagues called“vaginismus” that likened a vagina to a mouth and throat susceptible to a condition similar to laryngitis that would cause the vagina to swell and constrict and thus potentially capture whatever had been inserted inside it. Parvin chronicled in his medical publications of female sexual functions that the vaginal orifice has the power to either, prevent “the introduction of the penis, the speculum, or even a finger … [or] may prevent the withdrawal of the penis.”

Farcical stories of unnamed, unseen women equated case studies that were used as medical proof of strange phenomenon associated with the prowess of the vagina. Parvin would later solidify this claim by publishing another case study he diagnosed as “penis captivus.”  He received the fabricated story in the mail as a ruse by a disgruntled colleague who signed it for authenticity using the equally fictitious name and title, “Egerton Y. Davis, Ex. U.S. Army.” Any high ranking male easily passed as an “authority” figure, which automatically asserted their claims as “truth.” This farcical story was supposedly an eyewitness account of servants while in the throes of sexual passion had become stuck together during intercourse due to the powerful muscular constriction of the woman’s vagina trapping her paramour’s penis ‘captive’ inside her, rendering him helpless to escape her bodily clutches. Despite the sheer ridiculousness of the ‘penis captivus’ phenomenon, Parvin’s published a case study which the Jefferson Medical College archives claim served as truth within the field for the next hundred years.

In another case study on injuries and diseases of female genitals, Parvin quotes a colleague about the concealment of “foreign bodies” in a woman’s vagina, “Levrat says that he has removed a sponge which had been in the vagina twenty-three years, and had only then begun to cause injurious results.”   Furthermore he cites another ludicrous case titled “double vagina’”’ declaring, “coitus had for some years been practiced through the urethra.” These case studies and publications of female ‘medical conditions,’ despite being far-fetched even for archaic times were nonetheless believed. Are we to assume toxic shock (identified as such or not) ceased to exist and men’s engorged penises were small enough to fit inside a urethra in the nineteenth century? Regardless of what we may think reading such farcical statements, the field of gynecology and obstetrics were founded on these beliefs solidified by male physicians.

Those of us who actually have vaginas intrinsically know what utter nonsense this is, but women’s words about their lives and bodies (incarcerated or otherwise) are almost completely absent or discredited in early records of female medical science. Perhaps by some strange irony, the primordial fear of women holding men’s penises captive provides unconscious justification for a male-dominated criminal justice system that holds women’s entire bodies captive. Interestingly, no one seems to question why a counterpart to gynecology as a specialized field of medicine ceases to exist, or the deeper implications as to why it ceases to exist. There is no exclusive medical field limited and dedicated solely to the study, functions, treatment, and diseases of the penis and testicles, particularly not as a profession created and dominated by women. I can’t help but note the extreme sardonicism that penology is the study of prisons, not penises, or that prisons became the ideal location to conduct gynecological and obstetrics experimentation.

Interestingly, not all women at the Reformatory acted alone in acts of sexual misconduct. The 1881 investigation also reported nefarious happenings involving prisoner pregnancy, abortions, and infanticide. Nancy Clem, another prisoner at the Reformatory, reported night watchman, Mr. Barrett as the sexual assailant of Molly Scott and Nancy Evans. While additional allegations of illegitimate pregnancies and abortions were claimed to be performed on the prisoners. In denial and defense against the allegations, Superintendent Sarah Smith protested,

Seven children have been born in the Reformatory and three in prison. In all cases the women were pregnant when they came to the institution. … No woman could ever have a miscarriage without our knowing of it. … There is not a thread of foundation for any stories of abortion in the institution.

The prison’s annual reports fail to document which inmates were pregnant, and whether or not they arrived at the Reformatory in that condition. This distinction has only been recorded in a few cases of recidivism with girls returning to the Reformatory after a parole violation that returned them to prison.  There is at least one such case that Sarah Smith publically admonished and demanded financial compensation from one of the men she leashed an inmate for work as a domestic servant when she returned to the facility pregnant. No names of mothers or infants, however, are ever listed in cases of child births or infant deaths. So what happened to babies that were born or died in the prison?  Outsiders notwithstanding, Mrs. Smith was quick to preserve the institution and its staff’s credibility while further discrediting Mrs. Clem’s allegation insinuating her to be a liar. She then justifiably explained,

A baby was found in the cesspool, and Dr. Parvin said it was not possible for any woman to have been delivered of that baby. He told the coroner that no woman in the institution could have been its mother. It was a very fine nine pound baby, and it did not belong to anyone in the institution.

In Parvin’s medical manual there are lengthy descriptions and techniques of surgical procedures, including horrifying graphic drawings of embrotomy; a procedure of piercing or crushing a fetus’ skull (dead or alive, depending on the obstetrical emergency) to remove it from the womb, and abortive techniques; chock-full of drawings displaying crude instruments of torture he used to perform his procedures.

There was a vested interest in hiding pregnant prisoners at the newly founded women’s prison. Prior to the opening of the Reformatory, Indiana State Prison South, known as “Jeffersonville,” held both men and women in the same building. In 1868, it had been reported by several inmates that the guards had keys to the women’s prison and could enter at will to “gratify their lusts.” Women who refused to submit were stripped naked and whipped. Those women were easily silenced, often fed whiskey, tobacco, and opium to keep them compliant and quiet. The Jeffersonville warden used the female prisoners as concubines, and prostitutes for other prison officials’ open-ended use at the fee of $10 per month. Illegitimate children were born and lived within the prison walls. The discovery of the incarcerated women’s sexual exploitation and abuse is what led to the opening of the separate women’s prison.

The fact that the campaign to open the Reformatory was based on the premise of ending sexual violence against female prisoners who had previously been held in men’s prisons would be plenty reason to keep such scandals under wraps.  Where did the baby come from, found in the cesspool inside the women’s prison?  Who did the baby belong to if not one of the prisoners? Abortion, embrotomy, and infanticide were all tragic possibilities for women held captive at the Reformatory.

Despite these horrors, female prisoners had an even larger grim reality to fear. At least one woman under Parvin’s care would die of a female related disease while at the Reformatory. Without any details or elaboration of her condition and treatment, he notes in the 9th annual report the uterine cancer death of Kate Linsey. Kate’s death would also come into question at an 1881 investigation. In a chilling testimony about Kate being forced to work mopping floors while morbidly ill and her subsequent death, superintendent Sarah Smith, working with Dr. Parvin,  justifiably explained that she ordered, “’Now, Katie, let’s run up and down the floor’ she was in a condition that exercise was necessary. After she took to her bed she never left it again until she died.” We are left wondering if Dr. Parvin treated her condition at all, or whether or not he cut into her body (before or after) her death in order to have diagnosed her cancer.

From 1873-1884, nine women reportedly died within the institution. Yet there were deaths listed in the annual reports that weren’t listed in the registry and vice versa. We have no way of knowing if these were the only deaths that occurred in the prison. However, omissions and discrepancies in recorded deaths would have served multiple purposes. Early news accounts chronicle “resurrectionists” (otherwise known as body snatchers), lucrative business in the trafficking of dead bodies to medical colleges and doctors. “Unclaimed” bodies of prisoners were chronically taken to medical colleges to be used for experimental cadaver research. Dr. Parvin also worked in close affiliation with several medical colleges. Prior to working at the women’s prison, he was professor of Materia Medica at the Ohio Medical College for four years, and then professor of obstetrics at the Medical College in Indianapolis. On and off throughout his life, he also worked and taught at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He maintained his ties to those academic institutions during his tenure at the prison.

All these practices notwithstanding, gynecology provided the gateway into eugenic social cleansing. The beliefs and medical practices of Parvin and his male colleagues purported that a woman’s sex and reproductive organs were to blame for all manners of deviance and social ill. If imprisonment, water torture, packing vaginas full of cocaine, chemical and physical restraint, and chopping off women’s most intimate body part failed to cure her sexual proclivities, surely her internal sex organs were to blame. With those body parts intact she may spread her vile deviance onto future generations, which could then infect all of society with her evils. Parvin could kill two birds with one stone through Battey’s  en vogue surgical “treatment” to sterilize women. This extreme option additionally offered death to the possibility of future procreation thereby eliminating a woman’s lineage of DNA. Parvin proselytized ovarectomy as a potential cure for “sexual deviants” (the very type of woman claimed to be held captive in the Reformatory) declaring,

The question of removing the ovaries is to be considered, and we must ask the question whether we can thereby cure the disease. This operation is becoming so extremely fashionable that I imagine that after a time but a small portion of our women will be child-bearing.

Determining which women should be child bearing was perhaps the point. Control over reproductive function kept women inferior to white men.  In retrospect, sterilization (particularly of institutionalized people) offered a means of state leverage maintaining population and social control. American prisoners and institutionalized people were the initial targets for eugenics. Forced sterilization would become part of the “Indiana Plan” for “social hygiene”—systematic racial, social, intellectual/mental cleansing.  By 1907 under the persuasive public policy urging of Amos Butler (Dr. Parvin’s brother in law), Indiana became the first place in the world to legalize sterilization. In this case, namely, those ensnared in the carceral state or under other institutions and forms of social control. Indiana’s compulsory sterilization law was later deemed unconstitutional, and revised in 1927. Yet the law continued to approve and authorize sterilization of the “insane, feeble-minded, or epileptic persons” in custodial care. This law remained intact until 1974 marking Indiana institutions as the sites for approximately 2000 documented cases of legalized sterilizations.  Considering the on-going propensity to omit, hide, and destroy records of institutionalized people this number is most likely inaccurate and grossly deficient.

The violence, sexual abuse, medical experimentation, sterilization and death of a few hundred captive women in the 19th century laid the foundation for the field of gynecology to expand into evolving eugenics practices (albeit in more clandestine forms) across time. Our nation’s first women’s prison housed only 17 women when it opened in 1873, today there are over 115,000 women incarcerated nationwide. One out of every three women incarcerated in the world is incarcerated in the U.S. Numbers fail to illustrate the sobering reality of incarcerated women’s lived experience and loss of humanity.  The sinister implications of Mary Jane and others’ statements only become clear when we examine the evidence with Parvin’s publications, what was recorded, as well as what’s been omitted.  What other “instruments” would a gynecologist be using if not instruments indicative of his field of expertise? And what other “operation” would he have performed if not one of several surgical procedures he proselytized for the “treatment” of female deviants? Perhaps Mary was one of those women relieved of her ability to reproduce.

Eugenic methods of genocide particularly target groups deemed to be society’s under-caste. As I further reflect on my own experience of incarceration, I realize that spending over a decade and a half behind bars during the prime years for reproductive functioning, that I too (albeit inadvertently) have been relieved of the possibility of reproducing as well. In this day and age of hyper-incarceration, long-term captivity of women is, in and of itself, a form of eugenic genocide. A woman in her late teens or early twenties sentenced to 20 or more years in prison will lose her years to reproduce right along with her freedom. What does this say of a country that incarcerates women of color at a rate 3.8 times higher than white women?

State violence is enacted on vulnerable populations when reproductive freedom is targeted both chemically and surgically as a tool for social and bodily control. The excessive use of harmful chemical birth control and surgical procedures are routinely used on women leaving jails and prisons, women on federal assistance, women of color, and women with disabilities.  Contraceptives like Depo-Provera and Norplant (proven to be harmful, and to potentially cause sterility after experimental testing on Native women) are the most commonly given to these groups.  In an analysis of the bodily conquest of Native American women, Andrea Smith reports that up to the late 1970’s the U.S. Department of Health and Welfare (HEW) paid the majority of the cost to hospitals to perform voluntary sterilizations for Medicaid recipients in violation of federal guidelines by disregarding informed consent procedures for sterilizing women through “elective hysterectomies.” Currently, just in case a woman is still able to reproduce, IWP continues to freely offer the Depo-Provera shot to any woman leaving the institution.  These clandestine forms of state control over reproductive freedom perpetuate eugenic ideologies against America’s most vulnerable women.

It has been reported that in the twenty first century incarcerated American women are still being subjected to illegal forced sterilization, often unbeknown to them. As recent as 2013, Californian incarcerated women giving birth were routinely subjected to tubal ligations also in violation of state and federal policies. Dr. James Heinrich at the Valley State Prison for Women in California defended the cost of the surgery on at least 148 women stating, “over a ten year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money . . . compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children-as they procreate more.” Despite the Freedom of Information Act, the records of Heinrich and other institutional or prison doctor’s reprehensible practice are nearly impossible to obtain for public access.  In nearly all such cases, hospital, governmental agencies and prison records chronically omit pertinent information from patient charts or fail to report these practices, making them unreliable sources for retrieving accurate statistical data on these practices and procedures. For this reason the actual number of sterilized American women is nearly impossible to pinpoint. Without the testimonies of victimized women, these practices persist and remain hidden. All of these forms of silence aid in the genocidal conquest of targeted populations via gynecological and obstetrical practices, working in conjunction with state control.

Institutionalized women however aren’t the sole conquest of ob/gyn doctors.  Dr. Parvin has left us with a legacy medicalizing all women’s bodies by using vulnerable imprisoned women as the targeted population for his experimental practice. Female medical science has expanded into a multi-billion dollar a year business. This remains glaringly apparent in obstetrics medicine. U.S. physicians have an annual childbirth customer market of 4 million women. Approximately 99% of American women give birth in a hospital and one-third of those women give birth via major abdominal surgery. Cesarean sections and hysterectomies are comparatively the most commonly performed major surgeries in this country. The historical continuum of the medicalization of women’s bodies is alive and well far beyond prison walls.

Gynecology and obstetrics has normalized women’s acquiescence to routine graphic displays and probing of their most intimate body parts by (predominantly) non-intimate “professional” men. This field of medicine seems to have caused a collective amnesia to the fact that prior to the advent of gynecology and obstetrics women had given birth naturally without the least bit of male intervention since the dawn of humanity. There is not a “free” vagina or womb in the world today due to the silencing of America’s most vulnerable women and the experimentation on captive women’s vaginas and wombs in the 19th century.

Yet vulnerable populations (particularly women of color and women in prison) remain the least likely to benefit from female medical care. Deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s precarious health conditions and forced labor would lead to Kate Linsey’s demise.  This too is nothing out of the ordinary in women’s prisons. In 2015 six more women would die while incarcerated at the Indiana Women’s Prison: Glenda Robinette, Tina Burton, LaTonya Robinson, Princola Shields, Tonya Moore, and Yolanda Currie. Under the care of privatized healthcare prison physicians these women’s treatment (or lack thereof) was questionable at best, sparking modern inquiries of investigation against prison medical practitioners.  Ironically, Princola Shield’s experience is mimetic of Margaret Conrad’s as she also committed suicide while in solitary confinement within this institution. How different is American incarceration for women in the twenty-first century compared to the nineteenth century?

For every nineteenth century woman’s story I have highlighted, a modern version exists. We are the living incarnates of nearly two centuries worth of captive American women who have lost the rights to our own bodies and progenies. Our losses have resulted in corporeal captivity for women far and wide. It is imperative to recognize the interconnection between science, medicine, prisons, and state control and how these interconnected power structures affect the lives of women and society as a whole.  Are gynecology and obstetrics solely “good medicine” due to the advent of this historically seedy medical field and its connection to state sanctioned institutions of social control? I speak out on the untold horrors of myself and my late historical incarcerated sisters to release our voices and break the shackles on our bodies.  I seek to leave my readers pondering how their own gender and sexuality have been shaped, and how much freedom they truly have over their bodies and lives.

The author, Anastazia Schmid, working on a painting for a fundraiser at the prison in 2012. (Photo by Liz Kaye via Slate)

About the author: Anastazia Schmid is an activist artist and graduate independent scholar in the higher education program at the Indiana Women’s Prison. She received the 2016 Gloria Anzaldua Award for her work in gender and sexuality by the American Studies Association, and received the Outstanding History Project Award presented by the Indiana Historical Society. Her work and interviews span multimedia sources including NPR and Slate magazine. She is the co-author of the play The Duchess of Stringtown currently under production both inside prison and out.

You can write to Anastazia via email with GTL ConnectNetwork (enter Indiana for the state and Inmate #122585)

or via letter at:

Anastazia Schmid #122585

800 Msh Bus Stop Dr

Mcu Bsl-18

Madison, In 47250-2852

United States

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