Medical misogyny is a phrase that every single woman will have an intimate relationship with. Misogyny is as closely interwoven into healthcare as it is every other area of society: sometimes it’s a whisper in a corridor, sometimes it’s a blatant dismissal by a woman in agony- whatever form this many headed hydra takes, misogyny in modern medicine is clearly a problem and must be tackled: but first it must be brought out into the light to be seen by those who would plead ignorance.
The first time I was scandalised by the treatment of women in medicine was when my oldest sister casually told me a story about being in labour. She was a first time mother and was scared and naturally was in pain as she was readying to give birth. She told me that as she lay groaning in pain, as contractions were beginning, a nurse said from behind a curtain “will someone shut her up!”
That began a long and frightening journey into understanding the roots of indifference and sometimes open malice that medicine hides when it comes to dealing with women.
Misogyny is soaked into the bedrock of our society- it runs so deeply that many of us, even those it affects, are still not fully aware of how systemic the issue is. From simple transactions in the street to a nullification of bodily autonomy, women face horrendous pressure to conform and to placate simply to exist in society. And we already know that men will kill because they harbour misogyny in minds shaped by the pervasive nature of the scale that shifts from utter indifference towards, open disparagement of or white hot hatred towards women- but one area which must have this misogyny uprooted with urgency is medicine- because when medicine mixes with misogyny, the truest form of danger to women can flourish.
Listening to womens’ voices
When I was researching this piece, I decided to create my own sources: with a healthy internet following, I asked women to step forwards from all corners of experience to highlight their travails in the literal no- man’s land of medical misogyny.
I have been horrified by the messages which have filled my inboxes- from cis white women to transgender women of colour being overlooked, overruled, ignored, mocked, trans men telling me about their pre transition woes and issues in their treatment as they seek to undergo gender reassignment and as their transition progressed noticing that suddenly their issues were taken seriously, trans women explaining the way they have been utterly shamed, nurses telling me stories of the way they have been spoken to or overlooked, female doctors being spoken to with absolute distain: it is clear to me more so than it has ever been that misogyny flourishes in the medical setting.
We know from research, letters, endless interviews and more, that many institutions have deeply flawed modus operandi and are biased against women and especially women of colour- it is only yesterday as I begin writing this that an article condemning the police for strip searching a young woman of colour- underage- at school without consent. This utter disregard for the autonomy and respect of women runs deep in society.
In the course of my researching, I’ve been contacted by quite literally hundreds of people with their stories, and though I wish I could simply share those context is needed.
Since I wrote this piece initially I have come across two even more troubling incidences: one, a white American woman writing on the subreddit r/antiwork who explained that she miscarried at work, bleeding so heavily she was taken to her local ER in an ambulance. Upon returning to work she was fired for taking “too many sick days in a row”.
The second story was a breakdown of absolute racial and gender based dismissal of a woman of colour I found on TikTok: this woman has cancer and is currently undergoing treatment. She woke recently to find herself in debilitating pain, unable to walk properly and called an ambulance. Upon giving her last names (one French, one a name of her heritage which I unfortunately cannot remember) the dispatch caller became dismissive to the point that she hung up on them and begged her partner to take her to the ER. There she waited for hours in agony to no avail and she was eventually removed from the hospital by security because she sat at the front bench trying to complain about her dismissal as a cancer patient in agony.
It goes further even than this, and here is where you will begin to feel the gut wrenching worry that I have ever since I started my research.
Many medical conditions like PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) are vastly under diagnosed in healthcare, and research carried out by the university of Sydney put this down to a reluctance for doctors to take up confirmatory diagnoses- whether the end result was expenses, time or simply an indifference towards finding the root cause, this is a problem.
PCOS presents a myriad symptoms which can also mirror other diseases but they ARE definitively linked to PCOS, and a doctor failing to investigate such a serious condition with such severe ramifications is appalling- but unfortunately seems to be commonplace, because the most common non exploratory symptom is crippling pain during periods.
Some of the women who have reached out to me about PCOS have gone through the explanation of walking their doctor through agonising irregular periods and still the doctors would simply stat that “this is what periods are like for most people” and even if this is the case- should that not then be something which can be alleviated? We can attack cancerous cells, perform hemispherectomies and replace bones with plastic and metal but we cannot alleviate period pain for over 50% of the world’s populace?
Additionally, a lot of the messages I’ve had have typified a worrying tendency to write off women suffering from PMDD – an extremely serious condition which can cause women and those who ovulate to experience gutwrenching pain, severe shifts in mood to the point of suicidal ideation and more. From being told to “just take painkillers” to being informed the doctor felt they were being “unhelpful in their diagnosis”, the women in particular who reached out about this confirmed how dismissed they felt, forced to make do with agony and horrifyingly low mood with no intervention. The shock of hearing women confessing to literal suicidal feelings and being lambasted by doctors who feel they are “being dramatic” was quite shocking- to me- but to those on the receiving end of medical misogyny, they confirm this is utterly par for the course. One trans man was told that he should simply have a hysterectomy and when he explained that he may want children he told me the doctor almost said “that would be wrong”.
Medical conditions like PCOS, tilted uterus, PMDD and more are rarely looked at by medical professionals outside of the area of gynaecology which is ludicrous: over 50% of the world’s population have the requirements for regular gynaecological examinations and with such a huge swath of people requiring medical checkups related to this, doctors – even GPs, should be far more versed in this area of healthcare. Secondarily, the idea of keeping back referrals for gynaecological examinations is insane: if someone has a medical health issue relating to their genitals then why would it ever make sense not to refer them to an expert, instead of confidently writing the problem off yourself?
Women in medicine
For ten years, I worked as a compliance person for locum agencies- this meant my role was often to correspond with medical workers about their file requirements and as I had such regular contact with medical workers, I did develop the occasional friendship with some of my workers.
Some, either cis or trans female, were more than happy to lay out a wealth of incidents – from being told “I’m not being seen by a woman” to patients seeking confirmatory diagnoses from men, and in fact being spoken down to, scorned, spurned and even threatened by male colleagues.
One of my friends who is a male nurse told me that he regularly had to tell patients, other doctors etc that his consultant was the doctor and he was the nurse, because everyone assumed this was the case simply based on his gender.
One of my female doctors had to leave her old place of employment and move across the country because she was being actively stalked by one of her patients. Her place of employment suggested that she simply ignore him- a man who would regularly walk into a busy A&E department to declare his love for her, offer her gifts and more.
Every woman reading this has just felt the deep dread that comes with those words, for every single one knows the dangerous path that can twist amongst those declarations of love from a stranger.
Of course, further than simply being spoken to in outrageous terms by people who have problems with women, this pervasive ignorance of women’s issues along with the issues that transgender people can face can also lead to dangerous consequences- much research has been undertaken into the medical testing gender gap. Cis women’s bodies metabolise drugs differently than cis men at different times and in different ways- and a lack of research on this has led to over or under-medicated women- but why? It’s hardly a surprise to find that men’s bodies metabolise drugs differently, one need only look up the horrendous side effects of men ingesting the contraceptive pill to realise that meds work differently on the different sexes.
Ah, but there again- the pill – another perfect example of medical misogyny. In 2016 a contraceptive injection for men was shelved due to side effects like mood swings and depression, lethargy and blood clots… all side effects, and well known ones, of the contraceptive pill. So medicine will expect women to bear the onus of taking pills and their attendant side effects, having children etc- but the moment those side effects are found in men as well the research is shelved.
An excellent video by emmaisafeminist on tiktok breaks down how a drug, sildefanil, was turned into viagra. Sildefanil was useful for heart attacks and angina, and it helped women deal with menstrual cramps and period pain- but the marketability was in it’s ability to give men erections. Imagine the different world we’d live in if a drug that helped women function with period pain and helped everyone with heart issues was given it’s proper research funding, instead of being turned into a pill to help men still be able to have sex.
One of my contacts, a strong woman who is regularly found in activism circles we both run in told me that the pill gave her a stroke in her 20s: these side effects are known and they are not as rare as believed- in fact, for those who decry the coronavirus vaccine and it’s perceived risk, the risk of blood clots from the pill is precipitously higher.
The dismissal of women’s safety is baked into a medical system that has never catered to women primarily, even for services geared towards them.
Another horrifying tendency is that of doctors completely overruling women’s bodily autonomy: I have been told by no less than 4 cis women and 2 trans men that their choice to have a hysterectomy has been overruled by physicians.
It’s always been a cornerstone of understanding that people should be able to make executive decisions about their body- or else why do we fight for bodily autonomy – so to take command of people’s bodily choices and state that they cannot make this decision is an appalling one; to deny someone their right to change their body is to deny them access to healthcare they want and may need!
Misogynistic thinking patterns are interwoven with medical treatment, and coincide with other issues like the experiences of women of colour- so many fabulous and brave women of colour speak loudly and clearly on the internet about their experiences at the hands of a medical system that doesn’t factor in differences in endocrine production, the myth of pain sensitivity and other health conditions that contribute to black women’s mistreatment at the hands of a system that mistreats them not only because they are women but because they are of colour. Thetalkofshame on Tiktok’s video lays out concisely how dangerous being a woman of colour in the medical setting is.
The intersectionality of women’s existence in every setting must be purely exhausting.
Trans women’s healthcare is another issue in which the meeting of intersectional bigotry causes unnecessary issue- from delays in beginning treatment for trans women to the government’s new plan to throttle treatments like electrolysis to help with dysphoria, trans women not only experience the narrow minded gaslighting that comes with the trans experience so widely written about, but must also deal with those who aren’t just bigoted against trans people but are against women.
On and on wind the examples of women experiencing horrific pain, embarrassment, shame, frustration and mental health lapses because medicine simply is not equipped to function based on the idea of equity, not just equality.
One could charitably look at the evidence of the women around us telling us how horrendous their experiences are and read myriad stories of horror on the web, in the news, on the shelves and conclude that mayhaps this was built by ignorance, or even malevolence- but the why no longer matters. Now we’re aware of such disparity, the question is- how do we tackle it?
The painful reality is that we live in a world which is so bottom shelf desperate to cater to men – men’s pain, men’s needs and emotions, men’s wants and whims- that women are so often cast to the back row of the amphitheatre. Women will lay out concisely their requirements for parity and are disparaged from speaking with, at best, indifference and at worst open scorn or hatred- and all too often, violence. To deal with misogyny in medicine one must look to tackle misogyny in society and root it out, but the overhaul to medicine will be a huge one and will take time; this would put off society from moving forwards to address this issue but I’m reminded of my favourite Chinese proverb: the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago: the second best time is now- and the tree that would grow from an overhaul to a sexist healthcare system would be a boon for all.
Daviemoo is a 34 year old independent writer, radicalised into blogging about the political state of the world by Brexit and the election of serial failures like Trump and Johnson. Please check out the rest of the blog, check out Politically Enraged, the podcast available on all streaming platforms and share with your like minded friends! Also check him out on ko-fi where you can keep him caffeinated whilst he writes.