The “Trans-V” Probe … and Other Historical Atrocities

Well, I declare.

And I use those words with the inflection of generations of Southern aunts and mamas and grandmas echoing in my ears: “Well, Ah dee-clare!” Can you hear the musical tripping off the tongue? Two soft trochees, dripping with wonder … and scorn?

And what is it that has caused this retreat from the standard English that is the burden of every educated American to the comfort of the speech of my mama and all her relations?

Del. Albo, bemoaning his wife’s … inattention.

It’s the peculiar … and indelicate spectacle of Del. David Albo–R-Fairfax in the regrettably still Old Dominion of Virginia–complaining that he couldn’t receive the, er, comfort of the marital, er, relations which he felt to be his, er, due … because of his wife’s totally unexpected and quite unaccountable reaction to the debate over the Transvaginal Ultrasound Bill.

Have you not heard of the bill? The one that would have required a woman seeking an abortion to receive what John Stewart called the equivalent of a “mandatory TSA patdown” of her innards with an 8- to 10-inch probe?

Have you not seen the Albo video? It’s worth a look. I call it Del. Albo’s Bad Night … Watch it, and the words “braying” and “ass” will come to mind. Not just in relation to Albo, but to all the other good old boys laughing so uproariously in the chamber–including the Democratic delegate at which the diatribe was jocularly aimed.

What blisters the skin beneath one’s chaps is the fact that the honorable Del. Albo found himself unable to utter the V-word (hint: it’s vagina), despite his apparent enthusiasm that the state be inserted, potentially, into the privates possessed by every woman in the Commonwealth.

(In the video, he keeps calling the procedure “the trans-V,” a locution that sounds a lot like a guy talking about … a car engine, for some reason).

And while this shameless squeamishness has been mocked by my feminist and my womanist and my Southern sisters–and everyone on either side or in between–the mockery misses a much deeper point.

And here I’ll offer a warning, because  what follows is not for those afraid of the difficult. If all you wanted was a laugh at a conservative’s expense–or a reason to excoriate a Southern liberal–this is where you should stop. Because beyond this point, like that line on the 16th century maps of the New World my students and I have been examining for the past few weeks, “there be monsters”…

They are the monsters of our own disowned histories, of our discounted and suppressed geographies, of race and gender and place. (Because when you come right down to it, the vagina–a word so freighted with meanings both medical and prurient–is just another dot on the map of a woman’s body).

There is a male equivalent to the vaginal examination. It involves probing the anus to check for prostate abnormalities, and it is justly regarded with fear and trembling by most of the male population. I don’t know the history of proctology or of proctological exams, but I do know the history of gynecology. And I know, as many do not, that those familiar instruments of both feminine discomfort and feminine salvation are the result of medical experimentation–without consent–on enslaved women in the South.

From Robert Thom’s “J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon,” depicting Sims and his assistants with the slave woman Anarcha, as her enslaved “sisters” Betsey and Lucy cower in the background.

The story is told–eloquently, harrowingly–by Terri Kapsalis in Public Privates. It begins with three enslaved African-American women–Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy–forced on an Alabama plantation to have too many children too young. (Anarcha, for example, was only 17).

Youth, inadequate nutrition, and virtually nonexistent health care, then and now, are a recipe for lengthy, difficult labor during childbirth that not uncommonly results in vaginal tears called “fistulas“–a condition common during the 19th century that is still epidemic in parts of the world where there are too many malnourished child brides and too few doctors.

Enter J. Marion Sims, the “father of the gynecology,” also known as the  “architect of the vagina.” Sims, born in South Carolina and trained at the institution now called the Medical University of South Carolina, attended Anarcha during childbirth and was called back to cure the fistula apparently caused by his inept use of the forceps.

Now let’s be clear. Women afflicted by fistula suffer uncontrolled incontinence, frequently mixed with blood, occasionally with feces. Then, as now,  fistula sufferers are outcasts within their communities. They are considered “unclean” by certain contemporary religious standards. And during the period of enslavement, they were useless to a master class which prized the sexual utility and breeding capacities of women of color above all attributes.

I consider the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a child raised every 2. years is of more worth than the best laboring man…

wrote no less ardent a “democrat” than Thomas Jefferson, our third president, in 1819.

So Sims–in a series of 28 operations conducted without anesthesia (and yes, it was available) between 1845 and 1849–in fact performed … a service as he invented the speculum, the stirrups, and eventually “cured” the women’s fistulas with his discovery of the efficacy of silver over  silk sutures.

Would that he had stopped there.

Sims’ next move was North to New York City in 1853, where he apparently set his sights on riches and fame. By 1855, he had convinced a cadre of wealthy female philanthropists to found a women’s hospital for him where, in a series of experiments on poor Irish women such as Mary Smith, who endured 30 operations (with anesthesia as white women were, somewhat puzzlingly, found incapable of bearing up under the pain that enslaved women routinely endured), he performed a series dramatic procedures of much more questionable utility for large audiences of male doctors in aptly named “operating theaters.”

The operating theater at Jefferson Medical College (where Sims also trained) decades after the good doctor’s time, circa 1900.

Nor did he stop there… During the Civil War, Sims fled all complications related to his Southern sympathies by absconding to Europe–where he attended Napoleon III’s empress, Eugenie, along with various daughters of the aristocracy. He pioneered treatments such as cliterodectomies as a  cure for promiscuity/hysteria and treatments for infertility that included (flinch alert) amputating the head of the cervix with a “uterine guillotine” and “uterine splitting.”

When his methods were labeled as “butcherous” by fellow doctors, they were accused of jealousy. When, back in New York, the “lady managers” of his hospital grew alarmed at the size of the crowds he was drawing and his lack of care for the privacy of his patients, he resigned in protest–and was promptly named the president of the American Medical Association.

Sims is memorialized in New York’s Central Park…

J. Marion Sims

… though not, these days, without controversy.

And while mostly forgotten, he should not be. Particularly not at times like these, when not one or two but six bills have been introduced into the Virginia General Assembly calling into question various aspects of women’s sovereignty over their bodies and their relationships with their doctors.

The contemporary motivation of these bills is religious, we are told. But we are foolish not to be aware that such legislative moves have a history.

It’s a history that is actively obfuscated by those who argue–loudly, insistently–that the current environment is worse than slavery for women and African Americans.

They could never say such things if they knew–or were even willing to know–anything  about it.

What anyone who does dare to look with unflinching eyes on the history of women’s bodies in relation to state power will discover, however, is that freedom is fragile. That women’s freedoms, in particular, remain conditional based on space (whose bodies, and indeed whose body cavities, are in question) and place (the United States not even being in the top 10 internationally in terms of women’s freedoms).

To men like Albo, it may all seem like a big joke–set to a “boom-chicka-wa-wa” ’70s soul soundtrack.

To women staring uncomprehending and unconsenting at the transvaginal probe, watching attacks on the Girl Scouts, watching serious contenders for the presidency and their surrogates soberly discuss their plans to end free access to contraception and police the sexuality of  women, I think we can be pardoned for feeling as if our feet are sliding down one of those icy glass slopes of a Hans Christian Andersen nightmare into a terrain made terrifyingly real by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale

… a book that seemed titillating, if loony, when published in 1985, but now seems … downright quaint.


If you’re interested in my print sources, take a look at:

Terri Kapsalis, “Mastering the Female Pelvis” in Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both Ends of the Speculum (Duke University Press: 1997),pp. 31-59.

Deborah Kuhn McGregor, “Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy” in From Midwives to Medicine: The Birth of American Gynecology (Rutgers University Press, 1998), pp. 33-68.

Lucia Stanton, “‘Those Who Labor for My Happiness’: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves” in ed. Peter Onuf, Jefferson Legacies (The University Press of Virginia, 1993), pp. 147-180.



20 comments for “The “Trans-V” Probe … and Other Historical Atrocities

  1. February 26, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Did you get my comment? I had a buch to say and it was just entered before I had all of the fields entered.

    • February 26, 2012 at 5:08 pm

      Oops! Sorry, Morgan, I saw you’d replied on Facebook. Thanks for writing in!

  2. February 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Thanks for writing this. Too few people know the origins of gynecology.

    • February 26, 2012 at 5:07 pm

      Yes, because they’d be horrified! Which is why I dithered so over writing it…

  3. February 28, 2012 at 12:09 am

    This essay left me shaking…with fear or rage, I’m not sure which. And awed by the meticulous research behind the writing, which progresses so fluidly that your reader is almost–almost but not quite–tricked into forgetting the actual subject…dare I say “at hand”?

    Thank you.

    • February 28, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      Yay, Diann. I’m glad to see you here. I got side-tracked from writing about The Help, as you see. But I’m moving back to that on Thursday… soon as we feed the bishop (headed our way Wednesday for his annual parish visit). Now, isn’t that a weird and totally Southern confluence of things?

  4. Tina Rees
    February 28, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    This made me cringe. Thank you for writing it.

  5. February 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks, Kendra. That does put it in perspective quite pointedly.

    • February 28, 2012 at 2:23 pm

      No pun intended. Thanks, Viv. It’s great to hear from you.

  6. Jenny Mikulski
    February 28, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Amazing post Kendra, thank you.

  7. Adrienne
    February 28, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Wow, Kendra… I’m shaking my head with disdain, disgust and dissolution. I am overwhelmed, but I truly “Thank You” for your writing. Knowledge is power! Thank you for giving us (women) back some of that power.

  8. February 28, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    The Body Politic in more ways than one. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and perspective!

  9. Tishia
    February 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Great article!

  10. Coach Kaye
    February 28, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Let the truth be told and you did so here! And to think there are statues heralding the work of butchers??? These are the matriarchs of our parentage and much of what they endured has been missing from our classrooms. Thank you for lifting the veil and exposing the “Dark Secrets” of our past.

  11. Darcy Phillips
    February 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Kendra, such a master (whoops, mistress) of the indignity expressed with authority. I am so glad to hear your voice here, and passing your comments on to my southern friends here. Bless.

    • February 28, 2012 at 7:25 pm

      Thanks, Darcy, my sister. I’m realizing how much I take for granted as a menopausal woman who’s actually not involved in the debate. We have to stand up for the “girl,” right? Or else all our sisters and daughters are done..

  12. February 29, 2012 at 12:14 am

    I appreciate your research and your bringing this piece of history to our attention, Kendra. I just remembered that I need to share this with my daughter as well. Good work!

  13. Tamara Wilmott
    February 29, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Thanks Kendra, great article

  14. Tatyanna Patten
    February 29, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Thank you for this beautifully crafted introduction to the history of the reproductive atrocities committed against women. Some of this was new to me, even though I covered the “abortion beat” pretty extensively in the 1990s when I was creating and managing web content for political sites. I thought I was informed. Now I am better informed.

  15. Margaret
    March 1, 2012 at 6:17 am

    I found your blog via BlogHer — I was completely ignorant of the history of gynecology. Thank you so much for this piece…

Comments are closed.