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Drew University Hosts Dr. Dierdre Cooper Owens

Renowned author, scholar, professor discusses connection between slavery and black women’s reproductive health

April 2021 – The Drew University Women’s and Gender Studies Department hosted acclaimed scholar Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens in a virtual talk about the history of the country’s Black maternal health crisis.

Cooper Owens—whose research focuses on reproduction, birthing justice, and African-American women’s and gender studies—spoke about her work reexamining the history of American gynecology and how that history was shaped by 19th-century ideas about race, gender, and social class.

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Cooper Owens is the Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and Director of the Humanities in Medicine program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The author-scholar-professor referenced chapters of her award-winning 2017 book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology; drew upon her own life experiences, including political demonstrations that erupted in response to her writings and teachings; and answered questions from Drew students and faculty.

Throughout her presentation, Cooper Owens discussed the histories of the Black, primarily enslaved women whose bodies were at the center of the gynecological research that provided the foundation for the branch of science.

“She creates a new picture of 19th-century medicine—and the men who were part of it—and explores the way structural racism shapes the institutions of medicine then and now,” said Wendy Kolmar, professor of English and women’s and gender studies, who organized and hosted the event.

While rooted in the issue’s past, Cooper Owens’ talk contextualized how these histories are not only important, but indeed relevant because they still exist in today’s society and medicine.

“This was the kind of talk I love my students to hear,” said Kolmar.

“It takes a story that has been told as the history of one individual doctor, and shifts our view of it to show how it is really the history of the structural racism and gender attitudes of the entire institution, and shows how those attitudes persist in contemporary medicine.”

This story was written by Morgan Alley C’22

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