What Sarah Williams is Thinking About Now

Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America

A core component of CSREA’s mission is supporting faculty and advanced students in the development of cutting-edge, collaborative intellectual work. The “What I Am Thinking About Now” series provides a collegial, productive workshop space for faculty and graduate students to present and discuss recently published work and work in progress. Scholars test ideas and receive feedback from a diverse and supportive group of scholars on Mondays throughout the semester. 




“Bad Pelvises”: Mexican Obstetrics and the Re-affirmation of Race in Labor and Delivery

Sarah Williams, Louise Lamphere Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies

This chapter links the historical development of gynecology and obstetrics in Mexico, a nationalist project termed tocología Mexicana, to contemporary patterns of overutilization of surgical medical interventions during birth. In so doing, it unwinds racial myths about Mexican women’s pelvises and their ability to birth naturally, myths that continue to influence obstetric decision-making in the present day.

First, I trace the emergence of pelvimetry and gynecology in mid-1800s Mexico as a form of race science, harnessed in service of the creation of a Mexican national identity predicated on a project of race-making and Indigenous erasure. Building on this historical analysis, I use ethnographic data from fieldwork in the Yucatán peninsula to connect these race-making obstetric practices to the hallmarks of obstetric violence in Mexico today—the routine use of techniques of obstetric management that manifest in burgeoning rates of C-section and episiotomy, and the continued use of pelvimetric practices by both obstetricians and midwives. As my ethnographic research shows, medical practitioners continue to draw on implicit and, at times, explicit theories of race science to justify often unnecessary birth interventions and to uphold normative racialized framings of maternal comportment.


Sarah A. Williams holds a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology from the University of Toronto and is currently the Louise Lamphere Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies. Her dissertation, Re/producing Legitimacy: Midwifery and Indigeneity in the Yucatán Peninsula, was based on eighteen consecutive of ethnographic fieldwork and over ten years of engagement and research in Quintana Roo and Yucatán, Mexico. She is the author of several peer-reviewed publications, including an essay in Social Science & Medicine entitled Divergent narratives of blame: Maternal mortality rates, reproductive governance, and midwifery in Mexico. Dr. Williams is currently the Co-Investigator and Qualitative Research Lead on the QueerCOVID-Toronto project, which is examining the impact of the pandemic and public health policy on queer people’s mental and physical health. She is also working with her collaborator and Co-Investigator, Dr. Kathleen Rice (McGill University), on a project investigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on experiences and outcomes in maternal health in Canada and their early analyses have been published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.