Yes, Illness is a Feminist Issue

When women  complain of pain and/or illness we are less likely to be taken seriously than when men do. Besides the ever-ready brushoff that any physical or psychological symptoms are readily explained by “hormones,” there has been a long history of believing that women are more easily subject to psychosomatic illness.

Consequently, many illnesses have been slow to gain medical attention, especially those whose victims are mostly women. Chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, depression, and even multiple sclerosis were once thought to be forms of “somatization disorder,” the term, denoting “it’s in your head,” that replaced hysteria.

Sigmund Freud’s first patients were all believed to be suffering from what he called “hysteria”—psychological troubles that appear in the form of physical illness. The word hysteria itself derives from the Greek word for uterus. One of his cases, which he shared with colleague Josef Breuer, concerned a young woman who was given the pseudonym “Anna O.” She suffered from intermittent paralysis of an arm and a leg, which was hard to explain on neurological grounds, as well as a morbid fear of water. Through hypnosis and “talk therapy,” which later was developed into the classic form of treatment called psychoanalysis, the two doctors were able to uncover the unconscious meanings behind Anna O’s symptoms and restore her health.

It’s hard to discern how much influence Freud’s work has had on women who are designated as not “really sick” in the physical sense because they share “vague” symptoms that cannot be easily diagnosed by doctors. Recently, women whose medical histories illustrate how difficult it is when our symptoms cannot be easily explained have published several new books.

Porochista Khakpour,an Iranian immigrant, writes about struggling with complaints that were eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease in her new memoir, Sick (Harper). When Lyme disease first gained attention in the late 20th century, the broad range of symptoms made it hard to understand. Before tests were developed to accurately diagnose it, Lyme disease sufferers were often doubted. Though “it’s impossible to say for sure whether chronic Lyme actually does affect a greater number of women than men . . .  there’s a sense in which the condition itself has been feminized,” writes Lidija Haas in her review of Sick.

She continues:


“Is Lyme disease a feminist issue? It may sound ludicrous to ask this of a tick-borne infection that can usually be dispatched with a course of antibiotics. Yet its name commemorates the two women living in the town of Lyme, Connecticut, who, in the mid-seventies, fought the medical establishment to have the disease acknowledged and treated. “You know,” a doctor informed one of them after failing to find the source of her symptoms, “sometimes people subconsciously want to be sick.” It’s tempting to think of this reflexive, paternalistic skepticism directed at female patients as a remnant of a bygone era. And yet there’s a class of illnesses—multi-symptomatic, chronic, hard to diagnose—that remain associated with suffering women and disbelieving experts. Lyme disease, symptoms of which can afflict patients years after the initial tick bite, appears to be one.”

Sometimes, sufferers experience effects of the illness long after it has been deemed “cured,” or in remission. Some medical experts even doubt the existence of chronic Lyme—“a vaguely defined term that has been applied to patients with unexplained prolonged subjective symptoms.” Haas reports that, “even those in the field who discount the phenomenon of chronic Lyme concede that there are people who suffer “prolonged subjective symptoms” long after they have resolved the initial infection—a “severe impairment” often labeled post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome.”

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  • Andrea Rosenhaft August 30, 2018 at 8:22 am

    In addition to being female and being dismissed, having a psychiatric diagnosis/psychotropic medications in your chart makes this even more likely. There is a term for this called “diagnostic overshadowing.” In 2015, I was having intense chest pains and the male cardiologist in the medical group where my then PCP worked diagnosed me in 5 minutes with “anxiety.” I sought a second opinion at The Joan H. Tisch Women’s Health Center in Manhattan with a female cardiologist. She asked pertinent questions regarding my medical history and correctly diagnosed me with coronary artery spasms. She prescribed me medication which has controlled them well. In the beginning of 2017, I was experiencing abdominal pain, nausea and weight loss. I went to a male GI and he had the audacity to say “80% of women who come to me with nausea, it’s nothing. When men come with nausea, it’s usually something.” A colleague of his (also male), told me I just have “chronic abdominal pain.” Several months later, in more pain and unable to eat, having lost even more weight I went back to the Joan H. Tisch Women’s Health Center and saw a female GI. After some imaging and an endoscopy, she did a hydrogen breath test and diagnosed me with SIBO or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. I sent the male GI a note and all he said was “Thanks for letting me know.”
    Unbelievable. Female physicians only for me going forward. I’ve learned the hard way.