Tuesday, June 8, 2021
NYT, Book Review, Why "Unwell Women" Have Gone Misdiagnosed for Centuries
Reviewing: Elinor Cleghorn, UNWELL WOMEN: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-Made World
In order to recognize illness, you have to know what health looks like — what’s normal, and what’s not. Until recently, medical research generally calibrated “normal” on a trim white male. Such a patient, arriving in an emergency room clutching his chest as they do in the movies — and in the textbooks — would be immediately evaluated for a heart attack. But heart disease in women, inconveniently, doesn’t always come with chest pain. A woman reporting dizziness, nausea and heart-pounding breathlessness in that same E.R. might be sent home with instructions to relax, her distress dismissed as emotional rather than cardiac.
Heart disease has clear markers and proven diagnostic tools. When a woman’s symptoms are less legible or quantifiable — fatigue, vertigo, chronic pain — the tendency to be dismissive grows. In “Unwell Women,” the British scholar Elinor Cleghorn makes the insidious impact of gender bias on women’s health starkly and appallingly explicit: “Medicine has insisted on pathologizing ‘femaleness,’ and by extension womanhood.”
A woman’s purpose was to procreate; if she wasn’t well, it was probably her womb that was to blame. One Roman writer described the uterus as “an animal within an animal,” with its own appetites and the capacity to wander through the body in search of satisfaction. Most female afflictions could be reduced to “hysteria,” from the Greek word for womb. “The theory that out-of-work wombs made women mad and sad was as old as medicine itself,” Cleghorn notes. The standard cure was marriage and motherhood. As Hippocratic medicine was refracted through the lens of Christianity, the female anatomy was additionally burdened with the weight of original sin.
Moving steadily through the centuries, Cleghorn lays out the vicious circles of women’s health. Taught that their anatomy was a source of shame, women remained in ignorance of their own bodies, unable to identify or articulate their symptoms and therefore powerless to contradict a male medical establishment that wasn’t listening anyway. Menstruation and menopause were — and often still are — understood as illness rather than aspects of health; a woman’s constitution, thus compromised, could hardly sustain the effort required for scholarship or professional life.
The intersection of class and race complicates things further. As early as 1847, the Scottish physician James Young Simpson argued in favor of anesthesia during labor and delivery, contradicting the age-old belief that the pain of birth was part of God’s judgment. (To this day, women who opt for an epidural instead of “natural childbirth” can feel a nagging sense of failure.) But even liberal-minded men like Simpson believed that what he called the “civilized female” needed his revolutionary innovation more than her less privileged sisters. Black women were thought to be less sensitive to pain and working-class women were considered hardier in general; certainly no one worried about whether these women could work while menstruating.
Each scientific advance came with its own shadow. Margaret Sanger may have campaigned for contraception “as a way for women to reclaim their bodies and lives from medical and social control” — but for women of color, birth control was presented more as a duty than a right, a weapon against overpopulation and poverty requiring the policing of women.