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“Defective and dangerous”: The painful history of female bodies

By October 30, 2021No Comments


Niamh O’Donoghue explains why Elinor Cleghorn’s Unwell Women will make you rethink everything you know about women’s health in a man-made world…

What do dead bees, rabid dogs, afflicted men, and weltered crops have in common? Menstrual blood. It sounds ludicrous now, but it was once commonly believed that death, sickness, and madness were the result of menstruation. For centuries women were pushed to the margins of society by patriarchal men and Christian theology, who unleashed an unmitigated war against womenkind. Take the witchcraft pandemic, which ravaged Europe during the sixteenth century, where approximately 45,000 people were tortured (bound, pierced with needles, dunked under water, deprived of food, drink and sleep, made to carry red-hot iron or have hot fat smeared upon their vaginas) and executed for the crime of witchcraft. Eighty percent of them were women. In Unwell Women published in June of this year, cultural historian, freelance writer and researcher Dr Elinor Cleghorn, who became an unwell woman in 2010, when she was diagnosed with a chronic disease called Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), explores this and many other ways in which women’s bodies and illnesses have been treated — and mistreated — throughout the history of medicine.

From fourteenth century literature drawn from the writings of the Classical fathers of medicine, which claimed the female body to be inherently flawed and defective (when a woman is menstruating she can poison animals with a glance, and transmit leprosy and cancers to men) to womb suffocation (the idea that “an unfilled, unemployed uterus could move out of place, wreaking havoc upon the organs it reached,) in her writing Cleghorn astutely argues that pseudo-medical myths about female biology have long been weaponised to keep women subordinately chained to motherhood.

“Over centuries, religious doctrine and medical discourse had claimed that women’s bodies and minds were defective and dangerous,” she writes, making reference to everything from Hippocrates and Plato, to the Renaissance, and modern Western medicine. In brilliant detail, the author examines the stigma and meticulous scrutiny experienced by women during a time when virtually nothing was known about the workings of the female body, save for what male physicians could feel and see. Taught that their bodies were a source of shame, women remained in ignorance of their own corporality, unable to identify or articulate their symptoms and therefore powerless to question a male establishment that wasn’t listening anyway. This, in many ways, is an inherent trait of living as a woman or person with a uterus in 2021.

A 2020 study by OnePoll showed that in America, an estimated one quarter of US women don’t know where their vagina is. It also found that 46 percent of women couldn’t point out the cervix, and 59 per cent suggested a different body part when asked to identify the uterus. In Britain, YouGov research shows that a staggering 50 percent of survey participants could not identify the vagina. In Ireland, statistics would no doubt be worse, if such data was available (this is an opportune moment to plug Lynn Enright’s delightful debut Vagina: A Re-Education, which calls for much-needed dialogue about female genitalia).

Cleghorn also brings to light many lesser-known women responsible for modern and safe female healthcare. There’s Mary Ware Dennett, who formed the National Birth Control League, the first American organisation that campaigned to legalise contraception and help educate women of the ‘physiological, emotional and spiritual’ rewards of sex.

American scientist and philosopher Eliza Burt Gamble had been fighting for women’s equality since the beginning of the suffrage movement, and through her writing pioneered the use of evolutionary theory which led to greater equality rights for women today. Then there’s May Edward Chinn, the first Black woman to graduate from NYU school of Medicine, who in Harlem in the ’20s, was instrumental in developing the cervical smear. Clelia Duel Mosher helped to normalise menstruation in the early 20th century, at a time when it was still considered an illness. Central to Celghorn’s writing are her own deeply frustrating and humiliating experiences of medical neglect, which are still raw.

If you’ve ever sat in a lonely clinical waiting room, or felt like your symptoms or pain weren’t believed, or you were misdiagnosed or fought for care, then you will very quickly connect with every word in this book.

The timing of Cleghorn’s book is favorable, given that the last decade has born witness to a medical revolution. More specifically, one where millions of women have graciously shared their experiences of medical neglect, negligence, bias and disbelief in the hope of helping others.

The pandemic made evident that both society and medical infrastructures still do not take women’s healthcare seriously. In the case of mental health, research suggests the pandemic has disproportionately affected women much more profoundly than men, both as frontline workers and at home. Another study by Drexel University found women going through stress associated with work challenges, social situations and life circumstances are at significantly higher risk for developing coronary heart disease, compared with men. When it’s known that  women with heart disease are less likely to reach treatment targets than men, these findings make for worrying headlines.

In the same breath, female-specific health issues were given more air-time and a higher precedent – but perhaps not on purpose. In the case of the global vaccine rollout, it mistakenly cast a light on the critical lack of clinical research on certain contraceptives after discovering that the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine caused a small number of rare blood clots. It took a global vaccine rollout to go wrong in order for the right attention to be given to minimise the effects of contraceptive-induced blood clots. Some women reported having menstrual irregularities after their dose, spurring a global discourse on potential changes to periods after being vaccinated, fertility, and when you should seek medical advice. Dr Kate Clancy, a medical anthropologist at the University of Illinois, shared her own experience of having an unexpectedly heavy period after being given the Moderna vaccine on Twitter.  Gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter wrote an in-depth exploratory essay on the effects of the COVID-19 vaccine and menstrual irregularities. In her words, “the lack of data regarding menstrual cycles and vaccines is infuriating.”

Given that medicine literally knows less about every aspect of the female body than the male one, it could be decades before funding is allocated for research (as is generally the case for female-specific health research). These conversations then led to greater discourse on chronic pain and, more specifically, the pain some women face when having an IUD fitted (this campaign, spearheaded by Lucy Cohen, wants better pain relief to be offered to women).

Sharing personal accounts and experiences, Cleghorn writes, is the only way that medicine can understand female bodies and provide better care. When a woman wants to tell her story, the world should listen with intent, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that medicine has historically pathologised what it means to be a woman – and that “being unwell has been normalised in society and culture”. It’s why she’s encouraging other women to be vocal about their own medical stories and experiences. Her final chapter is a rallying call to women everywhere: to talk, listen, and share our stories, to help ensure no unwell woman goes unheard. To quote Cleghorn, “when women are given the opportunity to speak honestly and openly about their bodies, change can happen”.