Medical Misogyny: women who weren't believed
Medical misogyny is the tendency of medical professionals to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that women, as compared to men, are inaccurate and unreliable reporters of their own symptoms. It is important to note, this disbelief and mistreatment is magnified with women of color. Medical misogyny simply illustrates the reason why so many women are not believed.
The lack of believing women about their pain and medical conditions hits especially close to home for Stix.
Our co-founder Cynthia experienced this disbelieving first hand, for years. Cynthia suffered from a severe illness due to an unknown mold toxicity in her house. She spent two years traveling across the country from doctor to doctor, trying to understand what was going on with her body. She was not believed, not taken seriously. She was told she had covid, a cold, a tumor; just needed to lose weight, quit her job – over and over again. After reading “The Lady’s Handbook to a Mysterious Illness,” Cynthia visited the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and was diagnosed with mold toxicity. (Read her story here). After 2 years of gaslighting and blaming it on stress, Cynthia finally had her answer and her life was forever changed.
Sadly, Cynthia’s story is one of so many. Women are less likely than men to be taken at their word in medical settings. This medical sexism leads to frustration, suffering, and sometimes even death. I think of the story of Marjorie Wantz. Marjorie complained of severe vaginal pain basically her whole life. She underwent many surgeries to remove benign vaginal tumors, but the pain never went away. Doctor after doctor did not believe her pain. She tried to kill herself several times, and eventually sought out Dr. Jack Kevorkian for physician-assisted suicide.
In the fall of 2015, The Atlantic ran a series highlighting the misunderstanding of women’s pain. The articles included titles such as “Mistaking an Ovary for an Appendix”, “When Panicking is not a Panic Attack”, and “When Doctors Don’t Believe You’re a Virgin.”
One story shared the experience of an 8-months-pregnant woman who was in excruciating pain, but knew she wasn’t in labor. Her husband took her to the hospital and, even though she wasn’t dilated and swore her pain was behind her ribs, labor was induced and her son was prematurely born. (Her son still suffers from health problems from his premature delivery). But the pain in her abdomen didn’t go away. The next week, she went to the hospital and was given Advil. The following week, she demanded an ultrasound. Her “extremely diseased gallbladder was found out” and she underwent surgery.
Medical misogyny is not just a patient to patient problem. Medical misogyny is ingrained in the healthcare system, and society as a whole.
Perhaps you have heard of (or listened to) the recent New York Times podcast, The Retrievals. The Retrievals details the stories of 12 women who were patients at the Yale Fertility Clinic and underwent egg retrievals without sedation or pain medication. While we hear the stories of these 12 women, according to a federal investigation, as many as 200 women may have been treated at the clinic without proper medication over five months in 2020.
A Yale nurse was stealing fentanyl used for egg retrievals and replacing it with saline. To give you an idea, during an egg retrieval “an ultrasound probe is inserted into the vagina to identify follicles. A needle is guided through the vagina and into the follicles. The eggs are removed from the follicles through the needle, which is connected to a suction device.” Just like it sounds, an incredibly painful procedure.
So how on earth did this happen to TWO HUNDRED women before Yale realized? I bet you can guess the answer: medical misogyny.
Yale did not believe the dozens of women who complained about extreme pain during an egg retrieval. Excruciating, unbearable pain during a procedure that is intended to be as painless as possible. It took months for Yale to investigate the reports. Because women’s pain was simply not believed. Doctors thought they were mistaking discomfort for agony.
“Too many women fail to seek, or delay seeking, medical attention when their bodies give them a warning sign because they believe their pain is normal.”
We teamed up with Cecilia Plaza, whose research was foundational to the penultimate episode of The Retrievals. We are ready to talk about Medical Misogyny: Believing Women, Including Women, and Giving Women a Choice.