Sunday, June 26

Elinor Cleghorn’s Sick Women Review – Battle for the Female Body | Books


During recent concerns about the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine and its possible link to blood clots, many women felt compelled to point out, on social media and in the press, that the risk of fatal thrombosis was significantly higher from the use of hormonal contraceptives, and yet this continues to be prescribed to millions of women without anything like the level of concern or scrutiny that the vaccine has received. It seems that the potential danger of a drug that only affects women is less attractive to headlines. In fact, when the pill was first licensed in the US in 1960, it contained more than three times the levels of synthetic hormones as the modern version, and side effects, including fatal pulmonary embolisms and thromboses, were deliberately minimized. . It took a sustained grassroots campaign by women’s groups to bring the issue to the attention of a congressional hearing in 1970. “From the beginning, the pill was presented as a way for women to take control of their bodies. and fertility, “writes the cultural historian. Elinor Cleghorn in her debut book, Sick women. “But this also means that the costs, physical and mental, are still a burden for women.”

The story of the pill is just one fascinating episode in this detailed, comprehensive, and infuriating story of how conventional medicine has pathologized, rejected, and abused women from ancient times to the present. A male-dominated medical establishment, influenced by religious, cultural, and political ideas about women’s bodies, particularly in regards to sexuality and reproduction, has inflicted immeasurable suffering on women and girls, often with a sense of righteous zeal. Some of the cases Cleghorn unearths could stem directly The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s the 19th-century London surgeon Isaac Baker Brown, an avid advocate of clitoridectomy to cure the hysterical and nervous disorders believed to be caused by excessive masturbation in young, middle-class women. Or the American neurologists Walter Freeman and James Watts, who pioneered the lobotomy craze in the 1930s and 1940s: in 1942, 75% of their patients were women. “In an era when a mentally healthy woman was a serene wife and mother, almost any behavior or emotion that disrupted domestic harmony could be construed as justification for a lobotomy.”

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Elinor cleghorn
Elinor Cleghorn: “There is a sustained note of anger throughout the book.” Photography: Lara Downie

The belief that the natural state of a woman was to be an obedient wife and a devoted mother, and that any deviation from this was the cause or effect of a disordered body and mind, recurs depressingly throughout the history of medicine. western androcentric. Cleghorn goes to great lengths to point out to what extent race and class also played a role in the diagnosis: the persistent idea that women were susceptible to unexplained pain and nerve disease because they were more delicate and weaker than men only applied to those of middle and middle age. upper-class white women. “The more civilized a woman was, the more pain she was capable of feeling.” This belief underlies some of the most hideous case studies in the book; the history of medical experimentation with enslaved women and sex workers.

Cleghorn orders his ambitious amount of material clearly and often with dry humor, but there is a sustained note of justified anger that runs through the book. She approaches her subject not only from a historical perspective but also a personal one; suffers from the autoimmune disease lupus, which predominantly affects women. In a final chapter, she tells her own story: the persistent, unexplained pain in her early 20s, dismissed as “just her hormones” by a GP; congenital heart block in your developing child, caused by his undiagnosed disease; the rush to the ER when she developed heart problems, only to be sent home with ibuprofen and quickly returned two days later. In all, it took seven years to receive a diagnosis and treatment. Like so many women, “I began to believe that I must have been making it up, that the pain was on my mind.”

Its conclusion is a passionate call to arms: by speaking and sharing our stories, women can empower each other to challenge the stigma that has historically been associated with the female experience. “To be a sick woman today is to fight against the injustices ingrained against the body, mind and life of women; But we no longer have to live in silence and shame, ”he writes. Sick women it is not just compelling research, but essential.

Sick Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World by Elinor Cleghorn is a Weidenfeld & Nicolson publication (£ 16.99). To support the guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply


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