Hysterical Women of the Week: 13 October

Welcome to the first of your weekly weekend round-ups, looking back over the last week of sexism in women’s health

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There was a lot going on this week, which as a newbie blog we barely managed to scratch the surface of: Baby Loss Awareness Week, World Mental Health Day, Back Care Week, International Day Of The Girl, National Arthritis Week, and Secondary Breast Cancer Awareness Day (part of the October-long Breast Cancer Awareness Month). And, realistically, Hysterical Women will never be able to cover everything, so the idea behind these weekly posts is to provide an insight into the broader conversation around sexism in women’s healthcare.

Each weekend I’ll share a round-up of news and views from across the internet from the last seven days:

Our Sister Becky: What if doctors had listened to her?

This moving first person piece was actually published by The Cut in September, but I’m taking a bit of license here as it’s our first week, and this article is too important not to feature. Author Kate Beaton lost her sister Becky to cervical cancer. Prior to her death, Becky had been dismissed by several doctors:

The doctor said there was “nothing suspicious,” and her regular oncologists refused to see her because they deemed it unnecessary. A few months later she was able to see her chart. Of that visit, someone had written: “Rebecca continues to be paranoid.”

It’s a small note. But it is stuck into the memory of her treatment like a wedge that won’t allow a gap to close. This was not from a doctor who tossed her aside, but one who was invested in her care, had been there through her initial radiation. There’s a whiff of old “female hysteria” to it, with more than a hint of dismissal. Becky was scared, and perhaps that was the main takeaway that day. But she was also right.

Becky died 20 months after this appointment, and sister Kate reflects:

Becky had many good doctors. She had incredible, caring nurses. These are people we cannot thank enough. But how often do I think of the ones who turned her away, who didn’t believe her? How crucial were those months of missed treatments, how much could be different now? I don’t know the answer. But I believe, in my heart, that it did not have to turn out the way it did.

In her final paragraphs, Kate really beautifully and powerfully sums up exactly what I hope to achieve with Hysterical Women – a collection of narratives, women’s voices and experiences, so compelling that it can no longer be ignored or dismissed:

In the wake of Becky’s death, I opened up to social media about her, and received countless stories from people and loved ones of those who suffered needlessly when they went to the doctor and were not taken seriously. Years spent in pain written off as nothing. Glaring problems completely overlooked, especially in the bodies of women. Becky was a woman, but she was also white, cisgender, and without disabilities. How much more is this problem a fact of life for non-binary people, trans people, people of color, people with disabilities? It’s humbling to hear from so many with stories of their own, and distressing to consider the stories we haven’t heard yet.

But what good are stories like these, if nothing is done about them? If no one is held accountable? I wish that I could go back in time to those appointments where they dismissed her pain and storm them with a righteous fury, but I can’t, and she’s gone, and in the clinic next door there might be someone else being gaslit into thinking their physical pain is all in their head.

Becky wanted to help change things if she survived. The best we can do now is to tell her story, and hope it makes a difference. Hope that the narratives pile up until they can’t be ignored anymore. Becky wanted to make a difference. She did not want anyone to go through what she went through, ever again.

Please do read Kate’s article in full at The Cut.


Women Are Being Denied Epidurals During Childbirth

Again, this piece from Broadly was published slightly earlier than the last seven days, but it too raises important points about women’s pain being disregarded:

According to Kim Thomas of the Birth Trauma Association (BTA), a charity that supports women who experience PTSD after birth, denial of pain relief is all too common in childbirth.

“We hear a lot of stories from women who have been denied epidurals, and part of the trauma comes from being left to labor in severe pain for hours,” she says. “Not enough people are aware that it happens.”

The BTA estimates that 20,000 women a year experience birth trauma in the UK, but there is little research into just how many women have been denied epidurals during childbirth. The experience, however, is robustly borne out on online motherhood forums filled with horror stories. A 2011 Mumsnet post “anyone else tricked out of epidural?” attracted 1,000 replies in under two weeks.


Emma’s Story – Now for NI

This week bpas (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service) shared the story of Emma from Northern Ireland:

Reproductive choices – and particularly abortion rights – are heavily politicised, in a way that very few other elements of healthcare are. They are an essential part of women’s healthcare, and one that is surrounded by sexist paternalism, and a total lack of trust in women to make choices about their own bodies and futures. In their campaign email, bpas writes:

Emma lives in Northern Ireland. At 20 weeks of pregnancy, she was told that her much-wanted baby had the fatal condition anencephaly.

Emma could not face travelling to England for an abortion as she wanted to be surrounded by those who loved her. Because of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws, she was left no choice but to continue her pregnancy to term and deliver a baby girl who she knew would die at birth.

On 23rd October, your MP will have the opportunity to vote to end the suffering of the women in Northern Ireland by giving them the option to end their pregnancy in their own country.

We need your help to share Emma’s story with MPs and Ministers and tell them to support this historic bill.

Please email your MP now to tell them to back the bill on 23rd October – it takes just one minute

Also this week, Amnesty International published the results of their latest poll, which found overwhelming public support for abortion reform in Northern Irelan:

  • 65% of the Northern Irish public believe having an abortion should not be a crime
  • 78% of the rest of the UK believe abortion should be decriminalised in Northern Ireland
  • 83% of Great Britain think women in Northern Ireland should have the same access to abortion pills as women in the rest of the UK

So what are you waiting for? Get emailing your MP!


Introducing Jackie Doyle-Price, the UK’s new minister for suicide prevention

The introduction of a new minister for suicide prevention might perhaps not seem directly relevant to Hysterical Women. However, our focus this week was on sexism in women’s mental healthcare, so it’s worth noting that, as part of her  World Mental Health Day political grandstanding, Prime Minister Theresa May announced the appointment of a new minister for suicide prevention, Jackie Doyle-Price.

Jackie is already the minister for mental health and, in the wake of her new appointment has been criticised for having previously joked about suicide hotspot Beachy Head, and having consistently voted in favour of cuts in welfare for the most vulnerable in society. There’s certainly plenty to be skeptical about. As doctor Rachel Clarke points out on Twitter, mental health services have also suffered significantly under the Conservative government:

It’s fair to say that very few of us have high hopes for this new appointment making any real, tangible difference. However, Jackie Doyle-Price does have some interesting things to say on sexism in women’s healthcare:

There is not a single female MP who hasn’t told me at some point they felt patronised and diminished whilst trying to access health treatments. Now, we are all pushy, articulate, good-at-looking-after-ourselves kinds of women. If we’ve had that experience, then clearly there’s a wider issue here. We need to do something about that. That’s about changing the behaviour of practitioners, but also giving women the tools to help them do the job and look after themselves.


52 per cent of young women have work-related mental health concerns

As this year’s World Mental Health Day puts the focus on youth wellbeing, a major survey by Young Women’s Trust, a charity that supports young women on low or no pay, finds that half of young women say their job has damaged their mental health.

The Populus Data Solutions survey of 4,000 young people shows that a quarter say their mental health has got worse in the past year, with work, financial worries and housing difficulties having the most impact.

Work-related mental health concerns are far higher among young women than young men. 52 per cent of women age 18 to 30 say that work has had a negative impact on their mental health, compared to 42 per cent of young men. 51 per cent of young women cite financial worries and 27 per cent housing difficulties as other reasons for worsening mental health.

Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton OBE said:

At Young Women’s Trust we’re hearing from huge numbers of young women who are facing financial challenges due to unemployment, low pay and insecure work. We know too that workplace discrimination, including the gender pay gap and sexual harassment, is rife. As a result, young women’s mental health concerns are skyrocketing.


And finally, some good(ish) news…

A new campaign on endometriosis

I recently had the privilege of working with life savings company Standard Life and charity Endometriosis UK on interview content for their new campaign raising awareness of endometriosis – a condition that’s all too often still met with ‘hysterical women’ type dismissal and disbelief from clueless GPs.

To support this campaign, I interviewed TV presenter Julia Bradbury, and student journalist Katy Johnston about their experiences. According to the press release:

The campaign aims to reduce the stigma that can often exist or be felt to exist when it comes to discussing particular unseen health concerns, which are suffered by millions, by bringing the conversation into the mainstream.

It wants to gain a better understanding of the often unique challenges faced by those impacted by endometriosis, particularly in relation to planning for the future.

You can read the story in full, as well as my interview with Katy, at Sunday Post.


New guidelines on vaginal mesh

New draft guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – due to be formally published next April – state that the controversial vaginal mesh implants should only be used to treat urinary incontinence “as a last resort“.

Campaigner Kath Sansom, who founded the Sling The Mesh campaign, said:

These draft guidelines are to be welcomed but they do not go far enough. Our ideal scenario is to see pelvic mesh stopped. Full stop. The risks are too great. It is totally unacceptable that women come out of a ‘simple little operation’ with shattered lives.

One in seven have lost their marriages because of mesh. One in seven have lost their sex life. Eight out of 10 suffer pain so great it affects their daily life. More than half suffer ongoing urinary infections. Unsurprisingly many are suicidal and six in 10 are on anti-depressants.

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