Though we aim to celebrate and lift up Black voices every month, Black History Month offers an opportunity to reflect on the impact that Black medical professionals, activists, inventors, and educators have had on the advancement of reproductive health in the United States. From the creation of necessary hygiene products to closing sexual education gaps, these are just a few of the Black women who have made it a little bit easier for all of us to access the reproductive health care resources we need.
Dr. Rebecca Crumpler
In 1860, Dr. Crumpler was blazing trails as the first Black woman to attend medical school in the United States. Early in her career, Dr. Crumpler and most other medical professionals in the country were thrown into addressing one of the country’s first large-scale medical health crises: the Civil War. But following later in her career, Dr. Crumpler drafted and published A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts, a text that predominantly addressed common health concerns for women and children, including information on how to breastfeed. This was one of the first medical texts published by a woman about women.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner
When Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was a teenager, she was keenly aware of the stigma around menstruation and societal limitations that made it difficult for people who had periods to leave their house. Refusing to be confined indoors for several days out of the month, Kenner developed a revolutionary device: the menstrual pad. It would take decades after Kenner’s original prototype before the product would be patented in 1957, due largely to racial and gender discrimination. But Kenner was a tenacious inventor and would go on to hold five patents in total throughout her lifetime.
Though overall rates of HIV diagnosis have dropped significantly in the twenty-first century, recently that trend has reversed and new cases of infection are on the rise. Black women are disproportionately affected by HIV, and Luvvie Ajayi is fighting back against that trend. The influencer and digital strategist has used her platform to educate Black women about HIV prevention through The Red Pump Project, a nonprofit that provides educational materials and safe sex kits to women and girls of color.
Byllye Yvonne Avery
As a health care administrator and founder of a women’s health care clinic, Byllye Yvonne Avery started noticing a trend in the 1970s: half of the people coming to her clinic for abortions were Black, but few Black people were accessing the clinic’s gynecological services. Determined to understand how intersectional identities impact access to health care, Avey founded the Black Women’s Health Imperative in 1984, an organization that’s focused on improving health outcomes for Black women and children across the country.
In her work as a Black feminist anthropologist, Khiara Bridges studied the correlation between race and the quality of prenatal care received during pregnancy. Bridges’s study included under-insured women, as well as undocumented women, gathering the perspectives of a wide range of people who all experienced pregnancy and the health care system differently. Her research determined that racial stereotypes affect the level of support that people seeking reproductive health care receive, providing evidence and context to a long conversation about equity in medicine.
Dr. Dorothy Brown
In the 1960s, Dr. Dorothy Brown was no stranger to late-night house calls as one of the few safe providers of abortions in Tennessee, a state with severe restrictions on abortion access. Though her years as an abortion provider are what Dr. Brown is likely best known for, she celebrated many firsts as a Black woman: first Black woman in the south to complete a medical residency, first Black woman inducted into the American college of surgeons, and first single adoptive parent in Tennessee. Dr. Brown also served as a legislator during her lifetime, working to ensure that women had access to the reproductive health care they needed.
Tags: Black History Month