The best books for putting the Dobbs decision in deep historical context

Who am I?

I am Associate Professor of Atlantic World Women’s History at the University of Oxford. The history of race, gender, and childbearing is my passion and my profession. The Dobbs decision pissed me TF off and inspired me to write this list. I hope you enjoy these books, and never stop questioning why women’s reproductive lives are controlled so minutely and why their reproductive labour is unpaid and unacknowledged.

I wrote...

The Politics of Reproduction: Race, Medicine, and Fertility in the Age of Abolition

By Katherine Paugh,

Book cover of The Politics of Reproduction: Race, Medicine, and Fertility in the Age of Abolition

What is my book about?

The Politics of Reproduction charts how the management of black women’s reproductive under slavery in the British empire laid the foundation for modern methods for managing women’s fertility. Politicians, slave owners, missionaries, and doctors all attempted to exploit the fertility of Black women's bodies in order to ensure the economic success of Britain’s Caribbean and North American colonies despite the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. This led to new strategies for managing sex and childbearing, such as centralized nurseries, discouragement of extended breastfeeding, and financial incentives for childbearing, that have become commonplace in our modern world. The story of a Barbadian midwife and her family dramatically illustrates the consequences of this obsession with maximizing Black women’s fertility.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

Why this book?

Adrienne Rich’s book was a clarion call for second-wave feminists to rethink the history of motherhood in the Western world. It inspired and reflected a wave of scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s that rethought the traditional depiction of childbirth before the advent of male-doctor-dominated hospitals as crude and dangerous. Adrienne Rich examined the idealization of mother love as the purest kind of love and exposed the psychic tensions this had created for generations of mothers who could not live up to this ideal. In her chapter "Hands of Iron, Hands of Flesh" she offered a poetic and stinging rebuttal of the notion that childbearing women were safest in the hands of the male medical establishment.

Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

By Adrienne Rich,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Of Woman Born as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Of Woman Born, originally published in 1976, influential poet and feminist Adrienne Rich examines the patriarchic systems and political institutions that define motherhood. Exploring her own experience-as a woman, a poet, a feminist and a mother-she finds the act of mothering to be both determined by and distinct from the institution of motherhood as it is imposed on all women everywhere. A "powerful blend of research, theory, and self-reflection" (Sandra M. Gilbert, Paris Review), Of Woman Born revolutionised how women thought about motherhood and their own liberation. With a stirring new foreword from National Book Critics Circle Award-winning writer…

Book cover of Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery

Why this book?

Jennifer Morgan’s history of childbearing in the Black Atlantic cracked open an entirely new field, exposing how American society has for centuries relied on Black women’s work as mothers. Her attention to the role of reproduction in the perpetuation of racial slavery in the Americas during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries exposed how European imperialism had, from its inception, relied upon pushing Black women into dual roles as labourers in the fields of new world plantations and also as labouring mothers. Morgan’s analysis of European travel literature highlights how white men’s perceptions of Black women’s bodies was shaped by these dual roles, as for example in the recurring trope that depicted African women as able to suckle infants over their shoulder whilst attending to other sorts of labour. 

Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery

By Jennifer L. Morgan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Laboring Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When black women were brought from Africa to the New World as slave laborers, their value was determined by their ability to work as well as their potential to bear children, who by law would become the enslaved property of the mother's master. In Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, Jennifer L. Morgan examines for the first time how African women's labor in both senses became intertwined in the English colonies. Beginning with the ideological foundations of racial slavery in early modern Europe, Laboring Women traverses the Atlantic, exploring the social and cultural lives of women in…

Book cover of Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950

Why this book?

It is a sign of our shocking historical amnesia regarding American women’s reproductive lives that this remarkable book is out of print. Leavitt discusses the long history of American women’s childbearing lives, moving from colonial times through the twentieth century and charting along the way women’s loss of control over their reproductive lives as they moved away from births at home, attended by friends and neighbors, and toward birth in hospitals where their freedom of choice was increasingly restricted. To understand the dark side of the ‘twilight sleep’ procedures depicted in The Crown or Mad Men, read Chapter 5 on the growing use, by the early twentieth century, of drugs that rendered women so passive that their babies could be pulled roughly from their bodies with metal instruments.

Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950

By Judith Walzer Leavitt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Brought to Bed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a comprehensive history of women and childbirth in America. Many of the basic changes that have occurred since 1750 resulted from two factors: the replacement of midwives and other female support systems by male doctors in the actual delivery process, and the movement of childbirth from the home to hospitals.

Book cover of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology

Why this book?

Did you know that the supposed ‘father of gynecology’ built his practice on horrific medical experiments conducted on African-American and Irish women? Owens’ book exposes how J. Marion Sims’ practice amongst relatively elite white women was built upon procedures that he developed through experimentation on Black and Irish women’s bodies, and particularly a series of experimental surgeries to repair African-American women’s fistulas, which were painful and debilitating tears between the vagina and the bladder or anus that developed during childbirth. Cooper makes a crucial and revealing methodological move by recovering and reframing the lives of the women who were objectified by these experiments.

Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology

By Deirdre Cooper Owens,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Medical Bondage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The accomplishments of pioneering doctors such as John Peter Mettauer, James Marion Sims, and Nathan Bozeman are well documented. It is also no secret that these nineteenth-century gynecologists performed experimental caesarean sections, ovariotomies, and obstetric fistulae repairs primarily on poor and powerless women. Medical Bondage breaks new ground by exploring how and why physicians denied these women their full humanity yet valued them as ""medical superbodies"" highly suited for medical experimentation.

In Medical Bondage, Cooper Owens examines a wide range of scientific literature and less formal communications in which gynecologists created and disseminated medical fictions about their patients, such as…


By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Beloved

Why this book?

For a fictional and gut-wrenching take on how the American reliance on oppressed women’s reproductive labor has long put these women in impossible binds (based on a true story!), you have to read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Beloved. I won’t say any more lest I give away the plot. Just read it.


By Toni Morrison,

Why should I read it?

24 authors picked Beloved as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Toni Morrison was a giant of her times and ours... Beloved is a heart-breaking testimony to the ongoing ravages of slavery, and should be read by all' Margaret Atwood, New York Times

Discover this beautiful gift edition of Toni Morrison's prize-winning contemporary classic Beloved

It is the mid-1800s and as slavery looks to be coming to an end, Sethe is haunted by the violent trauma it wrought on her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky. Her dead baby daughter, whose tombstone bears the single word, Beloved, returns as a spectre to punish her mother, but also to elicit her…

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