Picture this: You’re experiencing a weird pain in your leg. It might be tied to your daily jogs, or it could be something more serious. You go to the doctor, hoping for a diagnosis and suggestions for treatment. Instead, the man in the white coat tells you that your suffering is caused by your uterus, and insists that getting married and having a child will cure you.
Sounds ridiculous, right? It is, but it’s also a pretty accurate example of what could’ve happened not too long ago.
This history of the medical field’s misunderstanding and mistreatment of women’s bodies is explained in Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-Made World, a new book by British historian Elinor Cleghorn that’s equal parts fascinating and infuriating.
Beginning with a study of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, Cleghorn’s book explores Western medicine’s dismissal of women’s health issues. She notes that Hippocrates, for his part, understood that women’s bodies were different from men’s, but in his view—which thereby influenced the views of medical professionals for centuries—those differences could be reduced to a single organ: the uterus.
As women’s health problems were chalked up to their uteruses or their hormones, Cleghorn writes that, “old ideas about women’s bodies being naturally defective and deficient still pulsed through endocrinological theories.” She highlights a bewildering magazine ad for a menopausal hormone replacement medication. In the ad, a beautiful older woman is laughing with a group of men, featuring the tagline “Help Keep Her This Way.” (The ad was published in 1966—not that long ago.)
Cleghorn is careful to stress that, if things have been unfair for affluent white women when it comes to the medical field, women of color and poor women have been—and still are—at a far greater disadvantage. She introduces Scottish physician James Young Simpson who was, in 1847, an early advocate of using anesthesia during labor and delivery. Even so, Simpson believed that what he called the “civilized female” needed his revolutionary innovation more than less privileged women. Cleghorn also acknowledges atrocities like experiments done on slaves to develop the field of gynecology, and the lack of informed consent given to Puerto Rican women in the development of the oral contraceptive. She also examines controversial figures like Margaret Sanger, who at the same time as she was establishing organizations that would later become Planned Parenthood, perpetuated racism, ableism and eugenics.
But lest Unwell Women read too much like a textbook, Cleghorn includes the impetus for the book, her own experience with modern medicine’s misunderstanding of her body—in this case, a diagnosis of lupus that came after seven years of pain, doctors’ appointments and emergency room visits.
“The lives of unwell women depend on medicine learning to listen,” Cleghorn concludes. And reading this immaculately researched and written book is an excellent place to start.