Hysterical Women of the Week: 3 March

The last seven days of sexism and dismissal in women’s healthcare

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It’s been an interesting week for women’s health – at least when it comes to periods. On Sunday night Period. End of Sentence. became the first film about menstruation to win an Oscar. Then, on Monday, the government announced that menstrual education will be taught in schools from 2020.

It was particularly well-timed for the event I’d co-organised, on Wednesday, which looked at how we can lift the menstrual taboo! We enjoyed a lively evening of debate and product demonstrations, and you can read my intro to the panel discussion here.

Thank you also to this week’s guest poster, Kelly, who shared her experiences of life, love and sex with interstitial cystitis – including being repeatedly dismissed by GPs with “just another UTI.”

Meanwhile, here’s what else has been going on this week…


Mother claims she took her daughter to the GP FIVE TIMES with severe back pain before the eight-year-old was diagnosed with leukaemia

The Daily Mail this week reported on mum Sharon Mcalister’s experience of being “fobbed off” when she took her 8-year-old daughter to the GP with “crippling back pain.” Sharon and daughter Kaiann saw three different doctors on five separate occasions before Kaiann was finally diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. The first two GPs they saw had dismissed her back pain, yellow skin and irritability as muscular pain or a virus, while the third referred Kaiann for a hospital appointment.

I felt as if I was getting fobbed off. It was put down to muscular pain or a virus. Kaiann was getting really scared because she couldn’t walk properly and she was getting spasms in her back that were leaving her in agony. She came out of school one day, sobbing and bent over and I thought “enough is enough”.

Rather than waiting for the hospital appointment, Sharon rushed her daughter to A&E, where a consultant initially thought Kaiann had osteoporosis. By the time she was diagnosed with leukaemia, The Mail reports, “Kaiann required morphine for her pain, and was even told her spine was fractured and crumbling.”

Later this month, around Mothers’ Day, we’ll be looking in more detail at how mums like Sharon, with serious concerns about their own or their children’s health, are fobbed off and dismissed as ‘neurotic’.


Selma Blair feared doctors would think she was being ‘dramatic’ about symptoms before MS diagnosis

Actress Selma Blair this week spoke out about being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year, saying she “worried that she’d be described as ‘dramatic’ by doctors”. The Independent reports:

Despite having experienced symptoms including neck pain, loss of sensation in her legs, severe vertigo and anxiety for several years, the actor believed a medical professional wouldn’t take her seriously if she voiced her concerns, she tells Vanity Fair.

A number of doctors had previously attributed her symptoms to depression or hormones, or simply being “dramatic” as an actor, the 46-year-old claims.

Eventually, Blair met a doctor who advised that she have an MRI scan as soon as possible. An hour later, the actor was informed she had MS.


The government is failing victims of domestic violence

This week I was pleased to join women’s charities Agenda and AVA in Parliament for the launch of their Breaking Down The Barriers report, with MP Jess Phillips and Baroness Hilary Armstrong. For New Statesman, Baroness Armstrong wrote:

These are women for whom violence is part of the fabric of their lives: one in 20 women, equivalent to 1.2 million in England, have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence as both children and then again as adults.

Without support, they can develop mental health problems or turn to drugs and alcohol to cope, which can precipitate a downward spiral. Chronic poverty and a punitive benefits system often compounds their problems – one in five has been homeless.

As part of the Commission, women with experience of these issues told me how difficult it was for them to get help, of all the missed opportunities when they had been desperate and no-one listened, of all the times they were forced to go back home to danger and violence.

It is a damning indictment of the system in this country that for so many the legacy of sexual violence and domestic abuse is mental ill health, substance use, homelessness or a criminal record, not to mention thousands of children taken into care.


No trust left in the health system’: Unbelievable misdiagnosis condemns woman to 16 YEARS of agony and 19 surgeries – before one doctor finally ‘listened’ to her symptoms and turned her life around

Also in The Daily Mail this week was the story of an Australian woman wrongly diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. After 16 years of pain, 19 surgeries, and “countless” treatments and medications that made absolutely no difference to her symptoms, 27-year-old Claudia was finally diagnosed with endometriosis. The Mail reports:

A woman who was left in debilitating pain for 16 years due to a series of diagnostic errors was ready to give up on any chance of a cure until discovering a saviour in the U.S who turned her life around.

Claudia Wright, 27, from Perth, went through countless treatments, medications and surgeries as doctors attempted to treat her for Crohn’s Disease – an ailment she never had.

The former public relations consultant’s nightmare began when she was just child – and she can barely remember a time when her body would allow her to perform the simplest of tasks without the help of another.

From the age of seven, she battled the pain and discomfort that was only cured until when, 16 years later, when her own research saw her find a doctor in the U.S. who diagnosed her with Endometriosis.

March is Endometriosis Awareness Month, and we’ll be sharing guest posts on the subject over the next few weeks, as well as a Q&A with Abby Norman, author of endometriosis memoir Ask Me About My Uterus.


And finally…

A new Nike advert starring Serena Williams premiered during Sunday night’s Oscars. In it, Serena says: “If they want to call you crazy, fine. Show them what crazy can do.”

Reporting on the ad, New York Times’ In Her Words columnist Maya Salam wrote:

The spot is a montage of some of the world’s greatest athletes doing what they do best, and defying authority while they do it. Williams, narrating, says women who express their emotions, their passion and their opinions have been called dramatic, nuts, delusional, unhinged, hysterical, irrational or crazy — seemingly reaching beyond the sports world to how women in all walks have been treated throughout time.

Women being labeled hysterical or crazy as a way to degrade them dates back centuries. “Hysteria” — which comes from the Greek word for womb, hystera — was one of the first mental health conditions attributed to only women.

“The idea was that any emotional display beyond the fairly tight boundaries of what was acceptable could be called hysteria,” Elaine Showalter, a feminist scholar who wrote an essay titled “Hysteria, Feminism and Gender,” told me this week.

The real politicization of the word, Showalter said, began around 1890 with the early suffrage movement and the rise of “the new woman”: an independent, challenging, confident, adventurous woman who laid claim to her emotions.

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