Why ‘Unwell Women’ Have Gone Misdiagnosed for Centuries

UNWELL WOMEN
Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-Made World
By Elinor Cleghorn

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.”

Cleghorn, framing her argument in terms of Western medicine, starts with Hippocrates, the Greek physician of antiquity who refocused medical science on the imbalances of the body rather than the will of the gods. Hippocrates understood that women’s bodies were different from those of men, but in his view, and for millenniums to come, those differences could be reduced to a single organ: the uterus. 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. A woman with the means and the talents to contemplate such ambitions soon bumped up against the rigid shell of the domestic sphere. Her frustration and despair could cause physical symptoms, which her doctor would then chalk up to her unnatural aspirations. Conversely, a perfectly healthy woman who agitated for radical change — a suffragist, say — was clearly suffering from “hysteric morbidity.”

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