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Sexism in Healthcare

In this day and age when gender equality is a major concern in strictly patriarchal societies, anyone who dares to venture in the history of sexism and control at the very roots of societal structures will find themselves amidst severe discrimination in the medical industry.

Medicine, as a field, was much more prone to blatant displays of gender bias when compared to other fields of life where the prejudice was more verbal or dealt with complete ostracisation of women.

The brutal Victorian-era practices in the healthcare industry stemmed from basic prejudices about women’s bodies and women’s conduct.

Ranging from not trusting women’s narratives, to labeling them as liars who ‘faked’ illnesses to escape domestic responsibilities, medical practitioners have been well known for disregarding women’s recounts of their experiences with different types of ailments.

To make matters worse, these women were sent to receive horrible treatments that centered on mutilation and painful regimes. Arising from a direct lack of understanding of women’s bodies and treating them as unequal to man’s stature in society, medical professionals had severe misunderstandings about the reproductive organs present, and the diseases that occurred within them.

Moreover, misogynistic ideas revolving around femininity and womanhood did more harm to those seeking medical attention and proper diagnoses.

The portrayal of women as more emotional beings who blow things out of proportion and exaggerate illnesses due to their frailty has done relentless harm to the female population. Since scientific fields were dominated by men, their lack of understanding of women’s bodies and stubborn bias led them to promote false scientific ‘evidence’ which heightened narratives that promoted emotional aspects in women.

Through more researches later, sexist scientific research was debunked and rendered useless, but the ideas propagated by them still linger and continue doing harm.

The most intriguing illness that was labeled as being characteristic in women was ‘hysteria’. Having its origins in the Ancient Egyptian medical texts, doctors adopted the belief that the uterus could float away from its natural position and cause problems in the female body.

This ‘superstition’ filled the gaps for the lack of knowledge that existed, and a lot of different medical ailments were grouped under one term to make treatment easier.

The direct effects of this disease included hallucinations, heightened sexual desires and anxiety, which led to witch hunts across Europe in which women were burnt alive owing to the superstition of a doctor.

Sick women were accused of witchcraft and terminated in trials where they were proven guilty.

Another unknown disease was spreading among housewives, and doctors freely prescribed sedatives to control the mysterious sickness.

Housewives, being confined in houses for long hours were suffering from definite psychological issues that stemmed from a strict routine and domestic drudgery. Since mental illnesses were not well researched in those days, this disease became an unnamed calamity that was regarded as a fake or useless illness that could be treated with tranquilizers, without caring about the side effects that affected the patients.

Apart from direct physical damage, misdiagnosis from a doctor’s end occurred from the perception that women did not have an idea about what they were experiencing and could not describe their symptoms. This gave a free pass for doctors to ignore the details recounted by women, or silencing them in order to assert their diagnosis and consequently, treatment too.

One of the aspects of humanizing healthcare in today’s age is to give immense care to the patient’s verbal recount, and diagnosis depends largely on the descriptions given in order to give fair and correct treatment.

The struggle for sexual and reproductive freedom and access to healthcare rights has been long sought for by women who recognized the lack of medical treatment they received and the horrendous mutilation they suffered at the hands of male practitioners.

The fact that medical colleges did not allow women to enroll in their programs, as did other universities, can help us trace the lack of women’s representation in the various fields of society.

Since the basic gender role assigned to women was to procreate, satisfy sexual needs and indulge in domestic labor, it is not surprising that women did not reach professionalism early on. More than that, absence of female medical professionals became the reason why women’s bodies and ailments were not well understood and sexism in research prevailed for ages.

When medical practices became scientific and professional, traditional practices done by women were ruled out since they did not hold a ‘degree’ and so began the silencing of midwives and their torture at witch hunts.

A common rhetorical trope in histories not written by female midwives or their advocates is to portray female midwives as ignorant. For example, in 1962 the then leading American historian of pre-modern midwives, the Yale professor of anatomy, Thomas R. Forbes, claimed that, ‘The midwife, at that time usually an ignorant and incompetent elderly woman, received meager fees, occupied the lowest level of society, and lived a long and probably unhappy life’.

The arrival of medical men, with their anatomical knowledge and obstetrical tools, signalled the salvation of women who had for centuries suffered at the hands of ‘ignorant and incompetent elderly wom[e]n’.25 This battle over historical narratives seems to have been pitched most forcefully in the United States, which witnessed the most extreme suppression of midwives as independent practitioners. Little wonder that American feminists of the 1960s and 1970s reacted against the misogynist master narrative with a ‘mistress narrative’ that saw pre-modern midwives as learned in empirical wisdom, authoritative and independent (Monica H. Green – Gendering the History of Women’s Healthcare).

As the feminist movement rose in its power, the fight for healthcare rights gave way to the establishment of hospitals that catered to women and handled them much more responsibly and correctly than before. Instead of subjecting them to electrocution or other severe traumatic treatments, women’s lives were saved with proper attentive care and beneficial treatments.

It might seem to be a cruel account of the way medical practice has evolved throughout the ages, but sexism has played a huge part in the way women were treated in hospitals.

Coupled with this, racism and other societal prejudices have also factored in when it came to research on women’s bodies.

One such example can be taken from J. Marion Sims, a 19th century gynecologist who experimented on black slave women without using anesthesia.

He claimed that black women did not feel pain and one is left to wonder how much entitlement he possessed to be able to certify which race of women felt pain and which ones did not.He executed inhumane procedures to find out the perfect technique to repair fistulas. It is quite clear that enslaved women could not prevent, let alone consent to these procedures being done on their bodies, which again illustrates the commodification of women’s bodies in male dominant societies. These women were treated as lab rats, without an ounce of care for their well-being.

Perhaps, this discussion has found the right track to indulge into one of the biggest crimes committed against women: obstetric violence.

And violence it was rightly so.

‘Twilight Sleep’ was one of the most traumatic childbirth processes that were badly handled by the doctors in America.

Women were given a glorified picture of having painless births but were given sedatives in high amounts which harmed them and the baby, without lessening any pain during childbirth.

Recounts by nurses and women who underwent this brutal process describe horrific details of how the drugs made them psychotic. They would become violent, bang their heads on the wall and claw at their skin.

This led to mothers being restrained by ankle and wrist cuffs or put into straight jackets. They were even tied inside their cots, and blinded with towels.

Nevertheless, the mental trauma cause by the entire process and the sedatives involved left them grasping for their sanity. The drugs erased the memory of childbirth, which proved to be harmful for the bonding process with the babies. Many women felt no closeness for the child they had given birth to, and children born under this process were directly affected as the drugs passed through the placenta to attack the central nervous systems of the fetus, resulting in breathing problems. It wasn’t until several women died during childbirth, that the practice was decreased.

The alluring prospect of having a painless childbirth had trapped thousands into a practice where women were padded up because of violent thrashing.

“I’ve seen patients with no skin on their wrists from fighting the straps.” (Ladies Home Journal , May 1958).

Mothers experienced detachment from the babies, as they did not remember giving birth to them, just like they did not remember the pain and madness of the entire procedure.

This procedure was highly distressing, but the obstetrics profession was riddled with male practitioners, and their contempt for women’s bodies translated into such practices.

They considered birth as a ‘pathological process’ and the narrative around it made them write derogatory sentences for women:

‘I have often wondered whether Nature did not deliberately intend women should be used up in the process of reproduction…’ (The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Volume I)

The Ladies Home Journal published women’s and nurses’ stories that exposed the method and details of Twilight Sleep, because of which it became known far and wide. The procedure received criticism, but more importantly, it helped bring the natural childbirth processes executed by midwives who used traditional methodsback into the mainstream society.

It showed how the institutionalization of birth processes had caused severe harm to women in the 20th century.

Changing tracks, I think it is important to mention Freud here, since mental illnesses were greatly talked about and researched in the modern era. Freud’s practice of psychology, to everybody’s surprise, was also riddled with sexism to the extent that he created imaginary envy and sexual attraction between children and parents. When he delved into hysteria, he found out that the women he used free association upon were actually victims of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of their fathers/husbands/male relatives and they suffered from PTSD.

He was able to realize the extent of the problem and attempted to resolve their trauma through discussion.

The dilemma arose when he understood that he could not reveal the actual cause of the disease because the same men that abused these women were paying for their therapy and he could not risk sabotaging his income.

Therefore, he invalidated the experiences of those women, replaced the actual reasons with imaginary fantasies and allied himself with powerful men, resorting to a form of victim blaming. These women eventually ended up going back to the perpetrators of violence and became stuck in an endless loop of violence and therapy.

Next time someone tries to dictate that capitalist notions aren’t the cause of discrimination, this account of Freud’s imaginary illnesses would make a good example.It would be useful to read up on Irigaray’s account of how the discipline of psychology is built upon lies, and acts of silencing women’s voices.

The disadvantage of not acting honestly with PTSD victims was suffered later by men who returned from wars and displayed symptoms of hysteria, which denied them proper mental care.

The purpose of indulging into this exhaustive and detailed account of sexism in healthcare is to illustrate the main biases that underlie the politics that surround women’s healthcare rights. Proper birth control and abortion rights are still not accessible to women because men express distrust in them when it comes to making choices about their bodies, about conceiving and giving birth or terminating pregnancies.

This inherent suspicion about women ‘changing their minds frequently’, not being sane enough to make proper decisions while being pregnant due to emotional effects or just simply taking advantage of abortion to stave off responsibility of raising children is not far from the same prejudice that doctors had before about women faking illnesses. This disdain lies at the heart of these problems, these rules and political struggle.

The suffragette movement fought for the right to vote for decades and we can see how women have not backed down in voting and protesting for more access to birth control and abortion rights. Thousands of women lose their lives because they are not trusted to make these decisions and they suffer from severe problems during pregnancy which are simply disregarded as unimportant. Abortion rights have the power to make motherhood, planned parenthood, and safer pregnancies a possibility.

It would be an understatement to say that we have come far in this struggle for equality, but there are many practices that still linger in this system that are directly derived from sexist medical practices. One example is the ‘Daddy/Husband Stitch’ which is present in plain sight, yet women continue being subjected to it without understanding the disadvantage that it causes to them.

In societies where a man’s sexual pleasure is given top priority, it is not a surprise that women are given extra stitches in the vagina while repairing tears to make it tighter for added pleasure for male partners. These stitches have painful consequences; women are unable to sit, stand or even move around without feeling immense pain, which just increases the pain already inflicted from normal delivery. To top off the torture, these stitches are added without the consent of women undergoing childbirthand are done when they are unconscious.

This clearly proves that medical practitioners are still operating on women according to their own sexist beliefs and do not think about asking for consent before they apply these stitches.

These extra stitches are not needed at all, and become the cause of extreme pain during sexual intercourse. Even though many men would never approve of this practice on their wives, they are simply kept in the dark. This exposes how women are blatantly objectified by practitioners, and no one has created any law to rule out this practice. Proper consent should be sought ought while operating on patients and violations should be punishable so as to make the practice obsolete.

Through this report, we can see that there are a lot of lingering practices and underlying biases that still exist, owing to the sexism that is rampant in societies which makes it very important to work actively to end it. What is imperative now is that practitioners become aware, and most importantly accept that these prejudices have existed in this industry.

This will only make it easier for them to find ways to make healthcare better and more accessible to people.

Acceptance is the key, because denial will only cause us more harm.

Once we accept where we went wrong collectively as a society and embrace our flaws, we will be able to fix the faults and progress together. We should take the responsibility of becoming better listeners, of accepting patient’s detailed descriptions, and becoming more compassionate towards them.

Medical practitioners are the ones who can make the field more inclusive and beneficial by penalizing and removing disrespectful and harmful practices.In envisioning a future, paint a picture that is more empathetic, and more generous.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely of the author and do not represent ARY policies or opinion.