Jacqueline Antonovich on the Medical Politics of White Supremacy

A medical doctor bag, stethoscope, and white doctor's coat

The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians awards prizes each year to female historians or historians who identify as a woman for both books and articles. The 2023 article in the fields of the history of women, gender, and/or sexuality Honorable Mention was awarded to Mulenberg College’s Jacqueline Antonovich for her paper, “White Coats, White Hoods: The Medical Politics of the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s America,” published in the Winter 2021 issue of Bulletin of the History of Medicine. In the prize announcement, Judges noted that “Antonovich’s work, focusing on reproductive surveillance, has continuing relevance – both for historians and those considering the world today. Her fluid style creates a narrative drawing in the reader, and her depth of scholarship brings forward another side to the race nationalism of the KKK.”

We sat down to learn more about Dr. Antonovich and her award-winning research.

Can you tell us a bit about your "academic origin story"? How did you come to study the history of health and medicine in the United States?

I think like a lot of historians of medicine, I stumbled into the field by accident. When I was an undergraduate, I wrote my senior thesis on the 19th-century concept of female “pre-delinquency,” or the idea that reformers could identify and treat girls and young women before they became juvenile delinquents. My interest in this topic led me to focus my Master's thesis at the University of Wyoming on the Colorado Industrial School for Girls. During my research, I made a curious observation: all of the founders of the school were women physicians. I wanted to know why women doctors worked together to create the school and if this collaboration was an anomaly or something more. During my Ph.D. studies at the University of Michigan, I had the privilege of being mentored by scholars such as Martin Pernick, Regina Morantz-Sanchez, and Alex Stern. Their guidance and expertise in the history of health and medicine fostered my interest in the field and led me to focus my dissertation on the political and public health work of women physicians at the turn of the century.

Your paper in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, "White Coats, White Hoods: The Medical Politics of the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s America" examines the history of the Klan's use of "scientific racism" to push their white supremacy agenda in communities across the country. What led you to focus on this particular moment in American history?

One of the central figures in my research is a woman named Dr. Minnie Love. Dr. Love graduated from Howard Medical School in Washington D.C. and moved to Colorado with her husband in 1893. She was one of the founding members of the Colorado State Industrial School for Girls and was an active public health reformer in the state. By the 1920s, she became a leader in the Ku Klux Klan.

Initially, I wondered how a white woman who graduated from an HBCU went on to become a leader in a white supremacist organization thirty years later, and how her training as a physician may have influenced her work with the organization. 

So initially, I wondered how a white woman who graduated from an HBCU went on to become a leader in a white supremacist organization thirty years later, and how her training as a physician may have influenced her work with the organization. As I dug deeper, I ran into more physicians, both men and women, involved with the Klan during this period. I thought it warranted further research beyond what I was working on for my dissertation, and that’s where the idea for the article came from.

Your work looks closely at the idea of "reproductive surveillance" - can you explain what that meant in the 1920's?

Between the 1870s and 1930s, state and federal agencies implemented several laws and social policies designed to control reproduction and reproductive healthcare in the United States. The focus of this push was mainly on outlawing abortion, restricting contraception, and promoting eugenics, which reformers, politicians, and physicians all saw as interrelated and part of the larger project of white supremacy. I’ve come to use the term "reproductive surveillance" to describe the effort to link these concepts and push for policies that would medically police individuals during this period.

You note in your paper: "Far from being a relic of the past, medical racism, eugenic thinking, and reproductive surveillance continue to invade the medico-political landscape in the United Sates, often under the guise of scientific objectivity and moralized health care." How is reproductive surveillance practiced today?

When I teach the history of reproductive health care, many of my students come into class thinking things such as eugenics or reproductive surveillance policies are relics of the past. You don’t have to look too hard to see that these relics are still with us. Every few years you read about cases of forced or coerced sterilizations or efforts to pay welfare recipients to begin long-acting reversible contraceptives. These efforts are often couched as beneficial to society, but there are thorny issues around consent and power in these campaigns.

I know quite a few people who fear that their phones, laptops, or even the conversations they have with their gynecologist can become potential surveillance tools under these new laws.

Additionally, with the fall of Roe v. Wade, we are seeing an alarming increase in state laws designed to surveil pregnant people from the moment of conception. I know quite a few people who fear that their phones, laptops, or even the conversations they have with their gynecologist can become potential surveillance tools under these new laws.

What's next for you, research-wise? Any upcoming papers or books you'd like to share with us?

I’m currently revising and expanding my dissertation into a book under contract with Rutgers University Press. The book examines how women physicians in the turn-of-the-century American West positioned themselves as leaders in the movement for modern public health and authorities in reproductive medicine. Focusing on themes of scientific racism, medical imperialism, and reproductive surveillance, the book explores how women physicians placed politics at the center of their professional lives, and this activism played a critical role in shaping legal, institutional, or informal systems of public health and reproductive medicine in the region and beyond.
 


Jaqueline Antonovich

Jaqueline Antonovich is an assistant professor in history at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She is the creator, co-founder, and executive editor emeritus of Nursingclio.org. Her research focuses on the intersection of gender, medicine, and politics in the United States, and she is currently working on a book manuscript on women physicians and medical imperialism in the turn-of-the-century American West.

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