What’s a better Mother’s Day gift than health? Today, May 14, artist Michelle Browder is unveiling her mobile medical “pod” — a camper she purchased in April and converted into a traveling health clinic. Alongside a doula, a midwife, and an obstetrician-gynecologist, she plans to hit the road next month with the mobile unit to bring maternal healthcare services to those living in rural areas of the state where there is little to no access.
In the United States, maternal mortality is the highest it’s been in decades, and studies show that these numbers are only rising. These statistics also vary, depending on ethnicity and race. For Black women, the mortality rate is exceptionally high — more than twice the average rate, and almost three times the rate of their White counterparts, according to 2022 data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
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“We hear the statistics all the time, and I’m sick of it,” Browder told Hyperallergic. “We’ve been hearing this for the past 15 to 20 years, but now it’s worsening.”
Starting mid-June, Browder and her team will leave Montgomery once a month for three days at a time to provide necessary services for those in any stage of motherhood, and give people “a space where they can be encouraged, uplifted, and get a check-up,” Browder said.
The artist is perhaps best known for her sculpture “Mothers of Gynecology,” unveiled in 2021 to a wave of national attention. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, the work commemorates Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey — three enslaved women who were subjected to barbaric medical experimentation at the hands of the so-called “father of gynecology” Dr. J. Marion Sims in the early 19th century.
“This monument is more than just a monument. It’s a living memorial to women that were sterilized, and basically tortured in our country,” Browder explained to Hyperallergic.
Sims has frequently been regarded as a gynecological pioneer for developing the modern-day speculum as well as several pioneering medical procedures, but in recent decades has been criticized for his unethical practices. During his career, he used enslaved women from nearby plantations as test subjects for his medical research, experimenting on them without their consent or the use of anesthesia.
A sculpture composed of three tall metal figures who are adorned in beaded jewelry, medical tools, and the names of famous Black women, “Mothers of Gynecology” gives faces to the women who suffered under the torture of Sims, and re-examines the historically false narratives regarding maternal healthcare in the US.
“[The sculpture] gives the rest of the story that we have not talked about, as it relates to the objectification of Black bodies, as it relates to sex trafficking and rape of Black women, and then the science that came out of it,” Browder said.
The artwork stands in Browder’s More Up campus, which consists of the Mothers of Gynecology Monument Park, a gift shop, and soon the Creative Changemakers Museum and the More Up Traveler Center. The museum will be dedicated to exploring the unknown stories of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey, as well as Montgomery’s role in medicinal history. In addition, the travelers center will provide education and temporary housing for travelers and activists visiting Montgomery. The campus lot is also the headquarters for Browder’s More Than Tours company, which teaches visitors about Montgomery’s history of slavery, racism, and the Civil Rights Movement.
Recently, with the assistance of grants and endowments, Browder was able to acquire the site where Sims originally performed his cruel experiments nearly 200 years ago. As part of More Up’s renovation project, the building at 33 South Perry Street will be transformed into the Mothers of Gynecology Health and Wellness Museum and Clinic, providing resources to uninsured women, gynecologists, medical practitioners, doulas, and midwives, according to the More Up website.
“To reshape the narrative on the site where these experiments happened, where these girls were enslaved and trafficked and mutilated is empowering, not just for me as a Black woman, but for those that are coming behind me,” Browder said.
Browder said she feels confident the clinic will be ready by 2024, but she explained that “there’s an urgency right now” with the current state of maternal health care in the United States. So in the meantime, her mobile health unit will allow her to do the work she hopes to eventually accomplish at the clinic.
“We can’t wait,” she said.