The last seven days in sexism, hysteria, and women’s health
I spent yesterday at Endometriosis UK‘s inaugural research conference. It was a fascinating day hearing from leading endometriosis researchers from both the UK and the US about what is – and crucially still isn’t – known about the condition, and the where work is currently being done to advance knowledge, understanding and treatment of the disease.
Although it’s not a subject I’ve yet written about much on Hysterical Women, endometriosis was one of the conditions that really inspired this blog. Research into the disease is under-funded. Knowledge and understanding of it is, as a result, severely lacking. Sufferers (almost exclusively women) wait an average of 7.5 years for a diagnosis of endometriosis. In the meantime, they frequently find themselves dismissed and disbelieved; they’re told that their pain is ‘normal’, that they’re exaggerating, or ‘hysterical’. And even once they have a diagnosis, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is too often applied to treatment. In short, endometriosis is a classic example of the ways in which systemic sexism in medicine lets women down.
I’ll be sharing more on this very soon, but meanwhile here’s what else has been going on this week…
Female prisoners in England left to give birth without midwife, report reveals
A horrifying report, published this week by The Guardian, describes the experiences of women giving birth in prison cells without access to a midwife or any proper medical care.
The research in the report was carried out by Dr Laura Abbott, a specialist midwife and senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, and raises some serious red flags about the treatment of prisoners who are pregnant or in labour.
One particularly startling story, highlighted by The Guardian, is that of Layla, who was dismissed and disbelieved during a high risk premature labour, with her baby in breech position:
This was Layla’s second baby. She called prison staff, telling them she knew her body and was sure she was in labour, but was not believed.
“I was trying to explain this to health care, they were just like, ‘No, don’t worry about it,’ and I was like, ‘No, really, I know my own body’,” she told Abbott.
At 11pm she began to have contractions, she said. By midnight they were getting stronger and she called for the nurses, who told her she was not in labour. She described the exchange as: “I’m telling you I am in labour,’ ‘No, you’re not. Here’s some paracetamol and a cup of tea’.”
Layla’s baby was born foot first, in her cell, without a midwife present.
Another woman, sharing her own experience with The Guardian this week, wrote:
While I was in prison I heard of four women who had had their babies in their cells because they weren’t believed when they said they were in labour – and were only assessed by untrained staff. You listen to the stories. You see it yourself. You’re petrified that this will happen to you.
Ovarian Cancer: Why Are Women In Their Thirties Having To Fight For Treatment?
The Huffington Post this week spoke to three women in their thirties, all of whom had struggled to be taken seriously when presenting with symptoms that later turned out to be ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer kills 11 women a day – more than all the other gynaecological cancers combined – and used to be known as the ‘silent killer’ because its symptoms can easily be mistaken for less serious conditions.
All three women had repeatedly raised concerns, but were dismissed by their doctors as having “women’s problems” or being “too young” to have the disease, which is most common in post-menopausal women over 50.
“Nobody knows a woman’s body better than she knows it herself, and if there is something wrong, you have to fight,” says Claire Thompson.
“The amount of times I got told it was ‘women’s problems’ or that I was ‘depressed’ was ridiculous.”
It took three years of fighting her own corner and insisting that something wasn’t right before Claire was finally diagnosed with cancer, and told that she’d require a full hysterectomy.
48,000 women not sent information about cervical cancer screening test
In other frankly terrifying cancer cock-ups this week – albeit one that’s rooted in incompetence rather than sexism and dismissal – it was reported that nearly 50,000 women have not been sent vital information about cervical cancer screening in 2018. This neglected information includes screening invitations and reminders but, The Independent reports, also 4,508 missed results letters, which could include warnings about abnormal smear results.
“This is an incredibly serious situation, and it is frankly appalling that patients may now be at risk because of this gross error on the part of Capita,” Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of the BMA’s GP committee, told The Independent.
“Some women will now be left extremely anxious because they have not received important correspondence, particularly letters about abnormal smear test results that need urgent follow up. This has been caused solely by Capita’s incompetence.”
Serious issues with contraception are being ignored
A report by educational women’s health website The Femedic has found that a quarter of women are not given any in-depth information about the side effects of their contraception, and nearly half have had ‘serious trouble’ with their current or previous choice of contraceptive.
When women complain or raise concerns over the effects however, many do not feel like they are being listened to.
‘I was told to stay on it and see how it goes,’ said one respondent.
Others say they weren’t taken seriously, or that their GP laughed at them.
Another woman said: ‘I bled for six months constantly and was severely anaemic. The doctor didn’t help me until it got so bad that I needed a blood transfusion.’
‘As an Autistic Woman, My Biggest Barrier to Care Is Sexism’
Freelance writer Laura James this week wrote for Broadly about her 45 year journey to an autism diagnosis, and the sexism that has so frequently stood in the way of her accessing the care she needs:
Francesca Happé, director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College, believes hundreds of thousands of women and girls are currently undiagnosed. She is using a grant to investigate gender differences in autism, which she and many others feel is long overdue.
In an interview for Broadly, Happé tells me, “Research on autism has systematically neglected and excluded women and girls—researchers often thought that they’d get so few women that they left them out entirely.”
On feminism’s role in all this, Laura adds:
I don’t think autistic women have been consciously excluded from feminist movements—it’s more that we haven’t been central to anyone’s thinking. That appears, however, to be changing: Social media campaigns like Nicola Clark’s #SheCantBeAutistic are publicly collecting and challenging “dismissive responses women have received from clinicians, friends and family,” as Clark wrote recently in The Guardian.
Highlighting the way autistic women and girls have been dismissed may make a difference in diagnosing autism in girls and women, as could new research like Happé’s. Additionally, primary care doctors need to be trained in how to spot autism in girls, and we desperately need more fictional depictions of female autism and for more autistic women and girls to tell their own stories so it becomes something we easily pick up on and recognize. People like me shouldn’t have to wait decades for a diagnosis that will help them make sense of their lives.
Good(ish) news on NI abortion rights
In slightly more positive news, it was announced this week that Northern Irish women will be able to access abortion services in the Republic of Ireland from January 2019 – although they will have to pay for the service. The news comes just six months after Ireland overwhelmingly voted to overturn the country’s abortion ban.
Amnesty International welcomed the move, but added that: “It serves to underscore the absurd position that women find themselves in where they will soon board trains for these services, or continue to go to the rest of the UK, but still cannot access safe and legal abortions in Northern Ireland.”
“We call on the Northern Ireland secretary and UK Government to prioritise women’s healthcare, decriminalise abortion, and ensure a framework for access is put in place.”
Again, not strictly a ‘hysterical women’ story, but singer Jessie J made waves in the world of women’s health this week when she helped raise awareness of infertility by opening up about her own struggles. Jessie told fans at her recent Royal Albert Hall gig:
I was told four years ago that I can’t ever have children.
I don’t tell you guys for sympathy because I’m one of millions of women and men that have gone through this and will go through this. It can’t be something that defines us but I wanted to write this song for myself in my moment of pain and sadness but also to give myself joy, to give other people something that they can listen to in that moment when it gets really hard.
So if you’ve ever experienced anything with this or have seen somebody else go through it or have lost a child, then please know you’re not alone in your pain and I’m thinking of you when I sing this song.