cover image Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-Made World

Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-Made World

Elinor Cleghorn. Dutton, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-593-18295-6

Cultural historian Cleghorn’s meticulous and wide-ranging debut examines the links between patriarchy, misogyny, and the mistreatment of women’s health needs. Throughout the history of Western medicine, Cleghorn contends, women’s complaints have been simplistically tied to their reproductive systems. She discusses how physicians in ancient Greece and medieval Europe believed that the uterus was the cause of hysteria and misbalanced humours, which could be cured by marital sex and regular childbearing. With the discovery of estrogen in the early 20th century, the perceived source of women’s physical and mental illnesses shifted from their nerves and uteruses to their hormones. Cleghorn also explains how resistance to letting women practice medicine contributed to female patients suffering in silence, and discusses various “punishments masquerading as therapies,” including the force-feeding of jailed suffragists and clitoridectomy as a cure for masturbation. Other medical malpractices include gynecological experimentation on enslaved women, which, Cleghorn argues, persists today in the disbelief of Black women’s self-reported pain and in the racial bias that leaves them with worse medical outcomes. After building a damning historical case against the medical field, Cleghorn shares the harrowing story of how her symptoms were “overlooked, ignored, and dismissed” for seven years before she was diagnosed with lupus. The result is a deeply informed and passionately argued call for change. (June)