Yes, Illness is a Feminist Issue

The association of this and other syndromes with “mostly women” had the effect of slowing  down interest and research into possible treatments. Haas writes, “in the nineteen-nineties, the Centers for Disease Control was found to have used millions of dollars in research funds intended for myalgic encephalomyelitis / chronic-fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) for other purposes, in the belief that the disorder was not worth exploring.”

Another author, Maya Dusenbery, writes in her book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (Harper Collins) of the endless series of women who have been “sent home mid-heart attack to calm their nerves, or with an appendix on the point of rupture, or otherwise left untreated and worsening for years on end. As in so many other areas of American life, women of color often endure the most extreme versions of this problem.”

Like the initial victims of Lyme disease, women have learned to keep fighting for attention. In the process they have overcome much resistance, humiliation, and flat-out discrimination. There is still a lot of ground to be covered before the healthcare system shows any parity when it comes to gender of race.

Reading this memoir I was reminded of my first obstetrician, a man who routinely kept his patients waiting an hour or more for check-ups. Women’s time was not as valuable as his, he seemed to  be implying. He advised his patients who weren’t on the pill to always go to bed with their diaphragm in place or other birth control methods handy “just in case” their husbands wanted intercourse that night. Their desires, including their right to “just say no,” was not part of his world view, and this was a man whose patients were all women, of course.

Switching to a female OB/GYN resolved this problem, and I have ever since had a preference for female doctors, who have been shown to take more time and care with their patients. But another important reason: your female physician might be more likely to take you seriously as a person with agency and feelings. The executive director of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia, Rita Charon, urges doctors and other health care professionals to adopt “the clinically powerful stance of radical ignorance” or “radical unknowingness.” She writes, As long as I don’t assume anything about a person in my care, I may learn something that will help.”

Having female doctors (and nurses, etc.) gives us no guarantee—women are victims of the prejudice of our patriarchal culture’s thinking too. Unless we directly address the issue that for many, health care is a political issue in this country, poor patients and patients who are women of color will die at higher rates. And, every woman will be less likely to be heard when she says she doesn’t feel well.



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