From the boardroom to the doctor's office to the bedroom, gender bias lurks behind the most benign and even pleasurable things: your paycheck, your sex acts, your medical diagnoses. Although science has helped break down gender barriers, women's health has historically been treated less-than-equal to men's health. Doctors tasked with healing have done harm by perpetuating misogynistic narratives about femininity and womanhood through medicine. Despite being the product of empiricism, scientific evidence has often been misinterpreted by sexist minds. Of the many sexist biases in the medical community, the response to female pain is notoriously problematic.
According to multiple studies, a woman's physical pain response is taken less seriously than a man's. While men wait an average of 49 minutes before receiving medication to treat acute abdominal pain in the ER, women wait an average of 65 minutes. On the whole, women are prescribed less pain medication than men, because their symptoms are viewed to be more emotional than physical. The Victorian-era stereotype of women as overly sensitive, psychologically frail beings who need smelling salts to stay vertical persists in insidious ways. Thankfully, there has been progress in recent years to uncover these biases, but the history of sexism in medicine is still pretty bleak. Here are three ailments that are rooted in sexist stereotypes about women:
The oldest diagnosis for "female problems" has to be hysteria. With roots in Ancient Egyptian medical texts dating back to 1900 BC, doctors once erroneously believed the uterus could float away from its natural position and destroy a woman’s health, causing hallucinations, anxiety and uncontrollable sexual desire. Hysteria, as it was named by the Ancient Greeks — aka “womb disease” — was “cured” by intercourse or manual masturbation by a medical professional to coax the wayward organ back to its rightful place. (In fact, we have hysteria to thank for the invention of the vibrator!) By the early 20th century, doctors finally started to debunk this extremely bizarre diagnosis, and all we have left of it is the term "hysteric" as a memory of this ridiculous "disease."
Back in the 1950s and 1960s when a majority of middle class (white) women were confined to the home, some began to exhibit symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other ailments at the prospect of being relegated to procreating, cooking, cleaning and man-pleasing for a lifetime.
As Betty Friedan explains in her groundbreaking feminist text, The Feminine Mystique , this "problem that has no name" was noticed by doctors across America, who, for the most part, just gave these women sedatives (a phenomenon immortalized in The Rolling Stones' "Mother's Little Helper") and wrote off their issues as "housewife's blight" or other faux illnesses. Sure, "housewife-itis" sounds like a sham medical diagnoses, but doctors legitimately used this phrase to describe what stay-at-home-mom's were experiencing psychologically and physically. Although the women's movement soon unearthed the truth behind this medical problem, sexism can still very much make women sick.
Pre-Menstrual Syndrome has been ingrained in menstruating women as an unavoidable fact of life. Once a month, they supposedly become irritable, emotionally unhinged, quick to anger, and obsessed with eating as much chocolate as humanly possible while crying through commercials. If they're particularly lucky, they will also be asked by male partners, friends or colleagues if their emotions are due to their periods, instead of being actual legitimate responses to the world around them. According to a recent study by the University of Toronto, however, such monthly mood swings might all be part of a mega-sexist myth.
After studying 41 different research reports that tracked the moods of women prior to their periods, scientists found no evidence of PMS. “There is so much cultural baggage around women’s menstrual cycles, and entire industries built around the idea that women are moody, irrational — even unstable — in the phase leading up to menstruation,” study author Dr. Gillian Einstein said in a press release. “Our review — which shows no clear evidence that PMS exists — will be surprising to many people, including health professionals.” The researchers went on to suggest that because PMS is explained as a fact to young girls, they may attribute their own emotions to their menstrual cycles when the two have nothing to do with one another. That said, PMDD definitely exists — as do cramps, bloating, and other fun physical changes that admittedly might put some in a not-so-good mood.
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