By Emma Landsburgh
Historically, women have always been placed as inferior, especially in the medical field. From ancient times to the present-day women have experienced a disproportionate amount of false information due to the lack of research concerning our health. Aristotle thought of women as inferior as he believed we were missing what a man does not, that women were incomplete. The concept of the ‘wandering womb’, created by Ancient Greek philosophers, left a mark upon the treatment of women’s health- mental and physical. Much medical information was provided from the ideologies of Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, and Galen right up until the 17th and 18th centuries. These ideologies left a mark upon present day medicine.
In the medical field, women’s bodies have always been conveyed as mysterious and unknown. The earliest drawings of skeletons were intentionally made to depict women’s skeletons with large hips and small craniums. This reduced women’s bodies to their reproductive abilities and undermined their intelligence. In the 19th century women’s ailments were often reduced to hysteria. The medical field played a role in controlling women and their activities. This is portrayed in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. There was a fear that women would strive for their aspirations and break away from what was seen to be their true role, mother and child bearer. This prejudice remains in the medical field to this day and affects true information surrounding women’s health.
The information about reproductive health is extremely limited due to the lack of research. Only 2.5% of publicly funded research is dedicated to reproductive health, although one third of women in the United Kingdom will develop a reproductive health or gynaecological problem. Whereas, there is five times more research into erectile dysfunction than premenstrual syndrome (PMS). The need is there, yet women’s health is continually pushed to the side. Throughout social media and our daily lives, we have heard of women’s experiences of being misdiagnosed or feeling ignored during a doctor’s appointment. We have either heard of someone experiencing this or have experienced it ourselves. A pain being minimised leading to misdiagnosis.
Even research into diseases or health problems that affect all genders often disregard women. Until 1993, the National Institute of Health in America did not have to include women in their research. Therefore, this led to a detrimental impact on women within the medical field as women's health was again ignored and research focused solely on men. Women’s health is continually being compared to men's. Therefore, it is often not known that women have different symptoms to diseases or health problems. Only recently, it has been realised that women experience different symptoms to men when having a heart attack. Rather than the advertised, tell-tale signs of pain down the left arm and chest pain, women instead experience fatigue, nausea and jaw or neck pain. Also, women will most likely experience different side effects to drugs.
Endometriosis research is incredibly underfunded, even though it affects 1 in 10 women and is as common as diabetes in women. Endometriosis is an incredibly painful long-term condition, yet the cause of it is still unknown. It can be incredibly hard to diagnose, as the average diagnosis time takes between 6 to 10 years. Often the problem is caused by underfunding which is due to the lack of funding bodies or charities. However, the Wellbeing of Women (a women’s health research charity) focuses on three areas: pregnancy and birth, gynaecological cancers, and wellbeing issues. The charity, established in 1964, has paved the way for women's health research and continue to do so through their projects. The charity offers information on a range of topics. Wellbeing issues allow women to find a source that talks about endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, among others. However, there is a lack of charities that focus solely on women’s health. Until more research is done, women will still be continually ignored or be misdiagnosed.
The stigma within the medical field, when approaching women’s health, needs to be broken down and addressed. Women’s bodies are linked to their reproductive organs and their reproductive ability is placed as most important. This is problematic, it cordons off femininity and attempts to reduce it to being one thing. By doing this the medical field excludes transgender women, infertile women and menopausal women. Throughout history the uterus was blamed for women’s illnesses. Still women see their health concerns being reduced to their reproductive organs; either a symptom of PMS or nothing to be concerned about. Old medical rhetoric is still intertwined within the approach to women’s health. Women who deal with endometriosis are often told that delayed pregnancy causes the illness and that childbearing can cure it. Breast cancer patients used to be told the same.
Research is the main way to understand women’s bodies and disengage us from the old rhetoric of being inferior beings with the sole purpose of childbirth. Women need to be taken seriously and listened to. Funding needs to be funnelled into this medical field to ensure that we are not running behind anymore. The body cannot be a mysterious figure anymore, we cannot risk misdiagnosis and patients being ignored. More time must be spent upon discovering and researching conditions that affect women. Most importantly these prehistoric ideas of women and their reproductive organs need to be left behind. Women need to be listened to. In the medical field, women cannot be just their reproductive organs.