From hysteria diagnoses and the myth of the ‘week off’ the pill, Gillian Roddie looks at the world of science, medical biases and why even the beauty industry is tailored against women…[restrict]
We equate science with hard facts and the objective pursuit of enlightenment. It is a pillar of authenticity that underpins the healthcare we receive, the policies that govern us, and the world we inhabit. Problem is, in order to understand science, it has to be interpreted and translated by scientists, and throughout history they have been represented by white men. It will be a disappointing, if not surprising, discovery then to find out that science has been an oft-wielded tool of oppression for women and marginalised groups, being used to reinforce notions of their inferiority and presenting men as the end goal of human achievement.
Take Charles Darwin, an eminent 19th century geologist and naturalist whose name is recognisable even if Junior Cert Biology was as far as you got on your science learning journey. He is most famous for his theories on natural selection and how they contributed to our understanding of evolutionary processes. But he was also deeply sexist, claiming that men attain “a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.”.
In plainer words, he said that men are better at all the things than women are. His opinions didn’t go unchallenged, most notably by Lydia Becker (a botanist, biologist, astronomer and one of the leaders of the British suffragette movement) and Antoinette Brown Blackwell (minister, philosopher and scientist), who both argued to Darwin that the sexes were more equal than his theories suggested. At a time when science was a pursuit reserved for the “rational sex”, both women published their books under their initials, leading Darwin to begin a letter to Blackwell “Dear Sir” after being sent a copy of her “Studies in General Science”. It was, to use more modern vernacular, a major self serve, but also elegantly demonstrates gender ideologies of the time.
The 19th Century was also peak hysteria era. Since as early as the Ancient Egyptians, (male) doctors had been diagnosing women with a condition known as “female hysteria”, with symptoms ranging from anxiety and nervousness, irritability and loss of appetite, to fluid retention, sexual desire and being sexually forward. Plato compared the womb to a living creature that wove its way around a woman’s body causing havoc wherever it went, “blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease” (wandering womb was a legitimate medical term for a worryingly long time).
In the Middle Ages the idea of demonic possession as a root cause of hysteria became popularised, and in the 16th and 17th centuries the “retention of the sexual fluid” was a likely culprit, treated through marriage and bearing child, or – as a last resort – having a midwife bring a woman to orgasm to drain said fluids. Despite many of the symptoms of hysteria being easily explained by normal female sexuality, it was treated as a serious medical condition, and could result in hospitalisation or admission to an asylum. Hysteria was only fully disqualified as a mental disorder in the late 20th century, meaning that in the year I was born, hysteria was still recognised as a psychiatric condition, and I am not *that* old.
While it’s fair to say that the female reproductive system is significantly better understood by both male and female physicians nowadays, it doesn’t mean that our body parts aren’t subject to oppressive forces at the hands of men in white coats.
In 2019 the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (FSRH) in the UK published updated guidelines for the use of combined hormonal contraceptives i.e. the pill, the patch and the vaginal ring. In it they definitively state that the 3 weeks on, 1 week off model of using these contraceptives “confers no health benefit”, and that they can be used uninterrupted very safely under the guidance of a health professional. It should be noted that most medical advice is subject to revision relatively frequently – we study, observe, and change it as needed according to evidence emerging, (rinse and repeat) but in this instance a women’s healthcare product – which was derived from morally ambiguous research – was left unchecked for sixty years.
It is often reported that the co-creators of the pill regime brought the idea of a contraceptive pill to the attention of the Catholic Church, aiming to argue that since it replicated natural hormones, it was similar to the approved rhythm method as permitted by the Church. Indeed at the time contraceptives of all kinds were outlawed in Massachusetts, the state where early pill research was being done. While the idea was brought forward to the Church at the time, it was not the reasoning behind the pill break week.
In truth, the combined oral contraceptive pill (approved for use by the FDA in 1960) was originally used as a method of treating infertility. Prominent gynaecologist John Rock and his colleagues reasoned that by tricking the body into thinking it was pregnant (by using the hormones in the pill) it would better prepare the body for conception after cessation of its use.
And to an extent, this was true, but early forms of the pill had high levels or hormones, and it tricked the body a little too effectively – women in early trials (who, by the by, did not all know they were part of a contraceptive experiment as consent was not yet a legal requirement, and had been enrolled on a “fertility treatment trial”) experienced early pregnancy symptoms, including morning sickness. This caused understandable distress when it turned out that they had not conceived, and so a monthly break was added to show that they weren’t pregnant after all.
The pill break was not designed to tell women who wanted to be pregnant that they weren’t, it was designed to inform women who were trying to get pregnant that they hadn’t succeeded. And for 60 years this science went unchallenged, despite the pain, discomfort and inconvenience the week long break caused, because that week became synonymous with “replicating nature”, and without anyone ever asking, “is this necessary?”.
Medical bias against women remains rife, with women more likely to be misdiagnosed after having a heart attack resulting in thousands of preventable deaths, women having to wait, on average, nine years for an endometriosis diagnosis as their symptoms are dismissed as acceptable within the norm, and a lack of women used in research modelling has led to drugs administered or recommended at inappropriate doses.
But there’s also a more subtle way that science can be used as a weighted blanket of subjugation, as seen in the $1.083 billion beauty, personal care and anti-ageing industries. It is commonplace for beauty brands to heavily sprinkling their product labels with science-y sounding names, blindsiding consumers into believing they’re not frivolously indulging their skin, but medicalising its care, with phrases like “increased cellular turnover” (exfoliation) and a tv ad with a famous actress helping us to say the words “hy-a-lur-onic acid”.
While it’s true that we have science to thank for proving two fundamentally important products which are the cornerstone of healthy skin for life (moisturiser and sunscreen), it’s a stretch to suggest that science supports the average $200,000 that a woman spends in a lifetime on skincare and make-up. And before the chants of “but no-one is forcing a woman to do it!” let’s consider that societal norms dictate that there is a considerable level of grooming expected of women just to achieve equal salary status as their male counterparts. So either she grooms just to attain equality, or shuns it and gets sucker punched with lower earnings.
Science is what helps us to understand our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit, but that doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable to misuse. At the core of all scientific theories, disciplines and discoveries is curiosity, and that includes a desire to interrogate the interpretations of science-past made by those who don’t represent us. Keep asking, keep questioning. Your hysterical foremothers would be proud.