EUSTT

The female problem

Chloé Kerlaud, October 4. 2021

Picture by Tima Miroshnichenko

Gender Studies – Interdisciplinary Studies

The female problem is the healthcare industry that systematically discriminates against women because, for millennia, medicine has functioned with the assumption that the male body represents humanity as a whole. Men are the default humans. The ancient Greeks started the trend of seeing the female body as a ‘mutilated male’ body. In their view, the male body is an ideal that women fail to live up to. In some Hippocratic texts, the basis of scientific practices, it is said that “the womb is the origin of diseases”[1] meaning that the uterus was once considered the source of all diseases and that puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause were considered as illnesses [2].  

This trend of women being reduced to a frail and unstable ‘creature’ continued in the Middle-Ages and early-modern era (1450-1800). If women refused to conform to the feminine ideal, they were more likely to be declared witches and burnt at the stake. In Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English’s pamphlet Witches, Midwives and Nurses of 1973, they point out that many of the tens of thousands of women who were killed in the witch trials in Europe, the UK (from the 15th to the 18th C.), and the United States (1692-1693) were midwives and healers for the reason that they threatened and disrupted patriarchal systems of church and medicine [3]. They wrote that “For the doctors, the myth of female frailty thus served two purposes. It helped them to disqualify women as healers, and, of course, it made women highly qualified as patients”. Therefore, the source of women’s illness shifted from the uterus to their so-called ‘weak nervous system’. This led to women being labeled as hysterics because women who rebelled against their gendered social roles of wife and mother were represented as irrational, irresponsible and a threat to the established order in society. As a result, thousands of women have undergone unethical treatment like the removal of the clitoris, ovaries but also lobotomy and hysterectomy decided by their husbands or male relatives. It may be perceived as a punishment or as a way to disqualify them from evolving in a male-dominated society.

But it didn’t end there. In the United States, for instance, being black, indigenous, immigrant, disabled and of low socioeconomic backgrounds often meant that they were seen ‘unfit’ and therefore subject to forced-sterilization, better known as eugenics policy [4]. In 1927, Buck v. Bell led to the decision of the Supreme Court to protect the state’s right to compulsory sterilize the ‘unfit’ and the main reasoning behind this is that they believed it would protect the health of the state [5]. Consequently, in the decades that followed, more than 60,000 people were sterilized across the United States, mostly women, because they were deemed intellectually unfit to become mothers [6].

In today’s healthcare industry, rather than acknowledging the limitations of medical knowledge of the female body, women’s symptoms are not taken seriously, most likely to be dismissed and ignored. For years, medical education has been focused on a ‘male norm’ with the representation of the male body as the human body. A 2008 analysis of a range of textbooks, used in the ‘most prestigious universities in Europe, in the United States and Canada’, showed that out of 16,329 images, male bodies are three times more present than female bodies to illustrate ‘neutral body parts’ [7]. Furthermore, medicine knows very little about conditions that mainly affect women because they fail to include women in state-funded clinical trials even though it is illegal in the US in regards to the National Institute of Health Revitalization Act of 1993. Many loopholes still remain for US drug manufacturers since the rules only apply to state-funded trials, not independent manufacturers. This leads to a lack of sex-specific data and misinformation that are being spread in the healthcare industry [8]. Accordingly, women are not being treated nor offered the best care that they need since they often do not experience the same general symptoms of men (ex. Cardiac arrest [9]). The main excuse used by pharmaceutical companies, run largely by men, to exclude women in clinical trials is the following: “women are too complex, too variable and too costly to be tested on” since they have menstruation every month [10]. This explains why there are five times more studies on erectile dysfunction rather than menstrual pain that affects one out of five women on a monthly basis [11]. And yet, there is a wide range of medication that exists to treat erectile dysfunction but very little available for the pain that women are suffering from.

Consequently to these decisions, women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack, 30% more likely to be misdiagnosed or having their symptoms overlooked following a stroke [12] and it takes ten years to correctly identify and diagnose female-specific conditions (endometriosis, polycystic ovarian disease…) since their pain cannot be seen, thus labelled as being too emotional. In the end, women are not comfortable to talk to a doctor or a healthcare professional as they are dreading not to be taken seriously. This vicious circle compromises the quality of health information that should be available to women as well as the health care that they should receive. Gabrielle Jackson, author of Pain and Prejudice, points out that : “women are left with the impression that women are not interesting enough for scientific endeavors but good enough for practice” [13].

This leaves women recurrently misunderstood, mistreated and misdiagnosed. The male-centered bias of medical knowledge is causing a lot of harm to women, threatening their health and taking a backward step from a society where women are fighting for equality. As Lynn Enright said in her book Vagina, A Re-Education “(women) have been taught far more about shame than (their) anatomy” in this male-dominated society [14]. Most of them would rather continue to live with their chronic pain rather than spending a great amount of time and money to be diagnosed and treated. In order to stop this stigma that is still ongoing since the dawn of time, this urgency of the imbalance of knowledge on female biology needs to be addressed. Change on the treatment of women in the medical sector can be done through more research and studies on the female anatomy and their reproductive system in which there are still some myseries yet to be discovered, reducing the data gap and for that there needs to be more women in charge of pharmaceutical companies, as well as better sex education and health lesson. Change needs to happen but first it is a conversation that needs to be had. By having this conversation, knowledge is gained to demand change.

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Eutopia Student Think Tank (EUSTT) nor the EUTOPIA Alliance.

 

[1] Traniello, Vanessa. Hysteria and the Wandering Womb. Retrieved July 27th, 2021 from https://academic.mu.edu/meissnerd/hysteria.html 

[2] Jackson, Gabrielle. (2019). Pain and Prejudice. London: Little Brown.

[3] Ehrenreich, Barbara. English, Deirdre. (1973). Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: a history of Women Healers. The Feminist Press at CUNY; 2nd edition (2010).

[4] Antonios, Nathalie. Raup, Christina. (2012). “Buck v. Bell (1927)” Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 26th, 2021 from  https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/buck-v-bell-1927 

[5] Criado Perez, Caroline. (2019). ‘The Drugs don’t work’ Invisible Women: exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Random House.

[6] Criado Perez, Caroline. (2019). ‘The Drugs don’t work’ Invisible Women: exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Random House.

[7] Criado Perez, Caroline. (2019). ‘The Drugs don’t work’ Invisible Women: exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Random House.

[8] Criado Perez, Caroline. (2019). ‘Yentl syndrome’ Invisible Women: exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Random House.

[9] Criado Perez, Caroline. (2019). ‘Yentl syndrome’ Invisible Women: exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Random House.

[10] Jackson, Gabrielle. (2019, November 13). The female problem: how male bias in medical trials ruined women’s health. The Guardian. Retrieved July 26, 2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/nov/13/the-female-problem-male-bias-in-medical-trials 

[11] Enright, Lynn. (2019). Vagina a re-education. London: Allen & Unwin

Chloé Kerlaud

Master’s Student of Cultural Heritage at CY Cergy Université Paris

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