The Economist:Women and Medicine (1)
Books and Arts
Women and Medicine
Unwell Women.By Elinor Cleghorn.
When Serena Williams struggled to breathe after giving birth in 2017, she knew something was wrong.
She also suspected what it was.
Six years earlier the tennis champion had endured a pulmonary embolism, or blood clot.
But a nurse thought she was delirious from pain medication.
Instead of the CT scan Ms Williams wanted, a doctor did a fruitless ultrasound.
Eventually the scan was ordered — and revealed clots in the arteries of her lungs.
In "Unwell Women", Elinor Cleghorn shows that Ms Williams's problem — not being listened to — is as old as medicine.
The author began stitching together the history of women's health after being diagnosed with lupus in 2010;
her pain had been dismissed for seven years.
The result combines her own story with a feminist history of illness and a plea for better listening.
It shows how centuries of ignorance and condescension led to failings that endure today.
Sexism has underpinned medical practice since the time of Hippocrates, Ms Cleghorn writes.
Ranging from classical civilisations to the present, with nods to feminist luminaries and ancient philosophy, her book describes how "hysteria"
— from hystera, the Greek word for uterus — was long used as a blanket diagnosis for women.
In the 1870s the concept became a reason to remove their ovaries.
She recounts how 17th-century witch trials relied on doctors' diagnoses,
and how modern birth control was originally promoted by eugenicists in the 1920s.