The ancient Greeks believed that most women’s health problems could be attributed to their womb. This assumption led to the belief that a wide range of conditions could be categorized as a single disorder: hysteria.
Hysteria became an umbrella term for any health problem that primarily affected women. Instead of looking deeper into these conditions, physicians labeled women as “hysterical” and used the hysteria diagnosis as a method of discrediting women.
But the idea of a mysterious illness that only affected women was not confined to ancient Greece. The concept of hysteria lasted well into the mid-20th century. For decades, the “cure” for hysteria was for women to stay home, get married and have lots of babies.
We would like to think that our modern-day healthcare system has come a long way since then. However, because women’s health problems have not been taken seriously until relatively recently, there is still much we do not know about women’s bodies.
For example, until 1993, women were largely excluded from participating in clinical trials for pharmaceuticals. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, “Many currently prescribed drugs were approved by the [FDA] prior to 1993.”
Because of this, we simply do not know how women’s bodies react to certain medications. Men and women are prescribed the same doses of medications, even though women often report having stronger reactions to medications than men.
According to assistant professor of regulatory and quality sciences in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Southern California, Nancy Pire-Smerkanich, “Men and women are different in the way they metabolize or process drugs.”
Although women have been involved in clinical trials for nearly 30 years, the amount of knowledge we have about women’s bodies is vastly underrepresented compared to the amount of knowledge we have about men’s bodies.
For far too long, men’s bodies have been treated as the default while women’s bodies have been treated as the mysterious “other.” As a result, medical research has been largely based on the biology of the man.
Clinical trials in the U.S are not required to ask questions about a woman’s menstrual cycle, so most don’t. This leaves out important information that every woman has a right to know.
Women are also less likely to be taken as seriously when it comes to their health. According to Dr. Fiona Gupta, director of wellness and health in the department of neurosurgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, “I can’t tell you how many women I’ve seen who have gone to see numerous doctors, only to be told their issues were stress-related or all in their heads.”
Actress Selma Blair, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018, knew that something was seriously wrong with her for years but doctors refused to listen to her and blamed her symptoms on menopause or stress.
But Blair is not alone. The book “Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick,” written by Maya Dusenbery, details the widespread problem of women not being properly treated for their health ailments.
According to the book, “Women have been discharged from the emergency room mid-heart attack with a prescription for anti-anxiety meds, while others with autoimmune diseases have been labeled ‘chronic complainers’ for years before being properly diagnosed…women suffer because the medical community knows relatively less about their diseases and bodies and too often doesn’t trust their reports of their symptoms.”
Black women are more likely to die from childbirth than white women. Black women are also more likely to suffer from uterine fibroids than white women, a health problem that is severely under-studied due to low funding.
Women of color are also severely underrepresented in clinical trials so health problems that primarily affect women of color (like uterine fibroids) are not well understood.
Unfortunately, the days of hysteria are not fully behind us and even in 21st century America, women are still fighting for their bodies to be understood and their health problems to be taken seriously.