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.




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

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

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • This made me cringe. Thank you for writ­ing it.

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

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

  • Jenny Mikulski wrote:

    Amaz­ing post Kendra, thank you.

  • 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.

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

  • Great arti­cle!

  • Coach Kaye wrote:

    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.

  • Darcy Phillips wrote:

    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.

  • 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..

  • 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!

  • Tamara Wilmott wrote:

    Thanks Kendra, great article

  • Tatyanna Patten wrote:

    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.

  • Margaret wrote:

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

  • christine wrote:

    OMGOODNESSGRACIOUS! Kendra, thanks for shar­ing the his­tory of gyne­col­ogy. I had absolutely NO idea but it doesn’t sur­prise me (sad to say).

  • christine wrote:

    for­got to type that the blog entry was GREAT!!! I hope that we share this infor­ma­tion with one another.

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