“Women’s problems” is a term that has been thrown around lightly since the beginning of medicine. Not only is it condescending, but also divisive in nature. The male-dominated health field has historically neglected research on women’s biology. Consequently, it has been easier to label women as “hysterical” if they experience pain. Even with today’s technological advances, women are still doubted for their pain, especially in the diagnosis of conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and, urinary tract infections.
Women’s problems masked as hysteria
The notion of hysteria originated long before the 18th century. However, it became more of a recognized illness when Joseph Raulin linked the condition to air pollution in urban areas. He thought that sexual deprivation and polluted air caused the condition. In theory, hysteria affected both men and women.
Men exercised to overcome hysteria, while women often stayed indoors. “Bed rest” was an ineffective treatment and inspired the infamous “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a story was about a woman whose psychosis was cured with bed rest. Women were also allegedly more susceptible to hysteria because of their “lazy and irritably nature.” Eyeroll. The medical field still operates on this biased foundation.
Men were quick to diagnose women with hysteria when it came to female-related ailments. The men did not want to deal with anything that made them uncomfortable. It was far easier to dismiss women’s problems rather than explore something that they had no personal understanding or experience of. Oh, how times have changed… right?
The DCMI-5 eventually removed hysteria as a recognized mental illness. This brings into question why it was ever on there in the first place. Some women suffered from genuine mental illnesses, while others were in perfectly good health. Some women were even given a medical hysterectomy to treat their “wandering womb.” We can now imply this was caused by genuine medical conditions that affect the uterus.
Endometriosis is a condition that affects the tissue in the lining of the uterus. It can cause more painful periods as well as bowel problems and bladder problems. Endometriosis has also been associated with infertility. Since the condition is under-researched, it is difficult to determine what symptoms it directly causes. Endometriosis can go undiagnosed for 8 years.
Social epidemiologist Jhumka Gupta explained that endometriosis goes untreated because of the belief that women must just “endure pain.” From a young age, girls are taught that periods are supposed to be painful. We must continue living our lives despite throwing up, passing out, or experiencing excruciating cramps. This social pathology means that many girls believe their symptoms are standard. They believe this is just the pain that comes with being a woman. Women are born with the belief that they have pain built inside them. They don’t want to disrupt the status quo by challenging that.
This social pathology is an example of history repeating itself. The diagnosis issues and dismissal from general practitioners (GP’s) that many women face today are far more subliminal than the hysteria epidemic. However, the reasons are the same.
Why are women’s health problems so difficult to diagnose?
According to women’s public health researcher Dr. Kate Young, many doctors view their endometriosis patients as “reproductive bodies with hysterical tendencies.” It is hard to study women when their bodies have been seen as nothing more than reproductive vessels. This is also due to most historical medical professionals being male, and only testing on male counterparts. Male anatomy, biology, and opinion have always been favored. This has created the limited research we have on female bodies today. Even the United States Institute of Professional Health said, “We literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology.”
Male doctors and female patients
Aside from the historical roots and lack of research into female biology, I know all too many women who have experienced an uneasy atmosphere when going to a male doctor about a female problem. Male doctors often resort to the assumption that feminine health problems must be related to poor sexual health or menstrual issues. Women are often fobbed off with the pill, STI tests, and pregnancy tests.
The stigma around women’s sexual desires is still rife in today’s society. It could be possible that doctors over-prescribe the pill as a quick fix to women’s problems. It could also be the case that they see the side effects of the pill as less of a ‘problem’ in comparison to the ‘problem’ of pregnancy.
There also seems to be a presumption in the medical field that young women are neglecting their sexual health. The pill seems to be a magic fix for GPs. I can go to the doctor about anything, but they’ll ask me about what protection I’m using? How many sexual partners do I have? I can’t remember a time I have ever walked out of there without another unnecessary STD test. I often wonder if men are getting the same questions.
From personal experience, I know that this is only off-putting when trying to get a diagnosis. There are only so many times you can be given the same answer from a doctor before you get fed up.
Dismissing women’s problems
The University of Miami found that there could be a specific reason why male doctors are dismissive of female patients. They conducted a study using male and female patients suffering from ‘shoulder pain.’ Female participants were “too expressive” and thus, their pain was dismissed. Male patients fit the stereotype of having a “stiff upper lip.” Therefore, when men express pain it is almost always seen as serious.
Women across the board experience this problem. However, women of ethnic minorities experience it on a larger scale. There is evidence to suggest that people to this day believe that black people experience less pain than white people. Some white people would also advise inappropriate treatment for black people, based on the idea that there are differences in our biology. White people even believed that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people. It isn’t a surprise that minorities are experiencing such a racial bias when society is this misinformed.
What causes male doctors to be dismissive?
There could potentially be a link to a lack of male empathy. Women are empathetic creatures, historically. We find it easy to connect with others, even if we are not the same as them. However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that men struggle more with this. It could be the case that male practitioners struggle to relate to their female patients. Therefore, finding it difficult to take their pain seriously.
Overall, women seem to find getting a diagnosis for anything much harder than men. Could this be because of the social pathology that these things just happen to women, the lack of medical research, or just a general stigma? It could potentially be a mixed bag of all of these things. All that I know is that it seems a huge coincidence that there is no cure for endometriosis, chronic cystitis, or PCOS. Every medical issue exclusive to women seems to be something we must endure. If these problems affected men, would we be in the same position?