Systematic “Miss-treatment”: Women in the American Medical System


About a year ago I was diagnosed with a medical condition that makes my periods incredibly painful. This started months of pain and frustrating doctors appointments as I found no answers to my now chronic pain. Not only were treatments limited, but there were also huge gaps of information concerning my condition.  

The more I researched and the more I consulted doctors, I came to understand these information gaps as a form of sexism that affects thousands of women across the country who suffer both gender exclusive and gender shared medical conditions. This is because the American medical system is androcentric. This male-dominated world leads to two main problems we face now, “the knowledge gap” and “the trust gap” (Dunsenbery). Medical studies often exclude women, and by doing so they create a world in which men’s bodies are thought of as the norm. Because women are seen as outside of the norm, their problems translate as less important and they receive less funding. By downgrading women’s problems, we also downgrade their word and trust them less. This is a kind of sexism that is not only systematic in medicine but also bleeds through every aspect of our society (Lindemann).

The Women’s Health Movement

For more than a century, medicine in the United States has been a male-dominated, traditional, and conservative system. The patriarchal medical system not only discouraged women from seeking careers as doctors, but it also created a culture where women’s health research and issues were marginalized, and women were denied the rights to make decisions about their bodies.  Before 1973 abortion wasn’t legal, birth control was unavailable to single women, adoptions were suspicious and treated with secrecy, and healthcare information was only available through male gynecologists (Pearson). Women felt unempowered and ignorant about their own bodies. This started to change in the 1960s as part of the feminist movement, known the Women’s Health Movement, when middle-class women began to meet together and form a close network of referrals for good doctors (Guest). Articles written in these meetings turned into the massively popular book Our Bodies, Ourselves that served to spread the word about harmful side effects of birth control pills,  alternate childbirth settings, and all over demystify medicine for women across America (Lawson).

A major catalyst to this movement was the landmark supreme court case Roe V Wade that legalized abortion in 1973. This catapulted the Women’s Health Movement forward. Women fought to reclaim power over their bodies “from the paternalistic and condescending medical community and assuming control of their own health” (Nichols). They also sought to reexamine medicine, remove oppression, and change society. The goal was to unblock withheld knowledge and to develop new knowledge. The Women’s Health Movement was not only a “liberation movement” but also an “epistemological movement” (Tuana).

Women Protesting in the sixties and seventies on Women’s Day (McKeown).

There were four main targets the Women’s Health Movement tried to tackle. First, they strove to educate women about their bodies in an effective, accurate way. Second, they worked to gain new knowledge about women’s bodies and fill in education gaps. Third, they acknowledged important chemical and hormonal differences between men and women that could affect drug trials and studies. And fourth, they reexamined and rebalanced traditional medicine that had been male-dominated for far too long (Nichols, Tuana).

By 1980, toward the end of the movement, there were 30 women-run feminist clinics that offered safe abortions, gynecological checkups, education classes, and social justice advocacy (Paula). There were two best-selling health manuals women could buy at their local bookstore. In 1972, “Title IX of the Education Amendments prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs that receive federal funding, and by the mid-seventies, the number of female medical students had nearly tripled” (Dusenbery). They had successfully won the legal battle for abortion, “established women’s health clinics, and secured important patient rights from a condescending medical system that often withheld information about the risks of drugs and procedures” (Dunsenbery).

Women marching together while linking arms to demand equality(McGrath).

Despite this progress made through new technology, research, programs, and organizations, there is work left undone that shapes our society today. A major issue they fought for and is still prevalent is our society’s lack of belief and trust in what women tell us about their bodies. We have for far too long ignored or downplayed reports from women about how their bodies have been mistreated or suffer from gynecological maladies, and this problem goes beyond healthcare.

To learn more about the Woman’s Health Movement, click here

So What is the Present Day Issue?

One of the big reasons why women’s voices today and their health care aren’t being taken seriously is that the medical community simply doesn’t know that much about their bodies. The vast majority of the medical trials in the 1900s excluded women. Like the shocking “pilot study, conducted at Rockefeller University in 1989 to investigate how obesity affected breast and uterine cancer, enrolled only men” (Lindemann). In 1985, a Public Health Service called attention to the exclusion of women in trials. Soon after, the National Institute of Health (NIH) “announced a new policy that ‘urged’ researchers… to include women in their clinical studies,” but a General Accounting Office investigation uncovered “that the NIH had done little to implement its policy on women’s inclusion at all” because it was too hard to document (Dunsenbery).

In recent years, the medical community justifies this absence by stating that the biological differences between men and women were too complex and costly to deal with. But a lot of these differences are constructed by society, something medical physicians are not often taught. The biggest difference in a woman’s body, compared to a man’s, is her reproductive organs. By making this distinction, the male-dominated medical system made a women’s reproductive organs a part of her identity and led to the idea of “hysteria” in which a woman’s behavior is directly connected to her uterus. In clearly separating women’s bodies, the medical standard became the male body resulting not only in biased trials but also affecting recommended drug dosage and treatment advice given by medical professionals (Lindemann).

“We literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology.”

Dr. Janine Austin Clayton, the Associate Director for Research on Women’s Health and Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health (Dunsenbery).

This ripple effect is unfair and dangerous. For example, because the symptoms of heart attacks differ in women, they are seven times more likely to be sent home from the emergency room while experiencing a heart attack (Sehgal, Dunsenbery). Other examples include the fact that “Women with abdominal pain wait in emergency rooms for 65 minutes compared with 49 minutes for men… Doctors rarely communicate (or understand) how drugs from aspirin to antidepressants affect women and men differently. ” (Sehgal).

Not only are women being sent home because of ignorance, but also because their doctors do not trust them. Countless women are leaving the doctors office feeling demeaned and devalued, and this reaction to women’s pain starts from the time she is a girl. As a study published in January 2019 in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology shows, adults looking at a child getting a finger prick believe the child to be in less pain when that child is a girl. This connects to stereotypes of males as stoic and strong and females as emotional (Stanley-Becker).

A very informative TED Talk on this issue by Alyson McGregor (TED).

To learn more about the present day problem, click here

So What Can We Do?

This pervasive sexism is finally being called out and addressed. Organizations have formed like the Women’s Health Specialists of California that offer services like abortion, adoption, birth control, and education to women.  The #MeToo movement has also encouraged women to share their stories and find a community as well as inspire cultural change. And the knowledge gap is beginning to close, as Carolyn M. Mazure said, “We’re really talking about a very short period of time that we have now begun to seriously study women and seriously look at sex differences” (Dunsenbery). But in order to discuss biomedical differences in research, Dr. Vivien Pinn says there needs to be “a cultural shift within science… we’ve made progress… but we still have many gaps of knowledge related to women’s health” (Dunsenbery). To further combat these problems there are things the average person can do to listen and engage. There are great local support groups for health issues and health clinics, like Planned Parenthood, that an individual can support financially, as a volunteer, or even as a patient. Another option is writing a local politician or congressman to support federal research dollars for women’s issues, or to support equal healthcare for women. I also recommend Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick by Maya Dusenbery, which covers this topic more deeply, mixing science and sociology. There is also a great interview on Fresh Air by Terry Gross who talks with Dusenbery about her book. Educating oneself is an incredibly effective way to make this issue relevant. However, the easiest and most important solution here is to listen to the women in your life when they talk about their bodies. Listen and trust in what they say.

Women marching to be heard (Sossi).

Although bringing this issue to the forefront of our discussions will catapult change, because of its scale and history, effective change will need to be made on a larger plain. The MeToo (or #MeToo) movement is giving women a voice that we have to listen to. We have to take this movement seriously and make the systematic changes needed to address the institutionalized biases against women. We also need to inform the medical community of this mistreatment by teaching courses on systemic sexism in medical school. In a perfect world, we could raise children in a gender-neutral environment. Or start examining the pervasive misogyny that colors every aspect of our culture and way of life because this is the root of the problem. Although deep-rooted sexism is a large beast, we can start to address it bit by bit.

To learn more about what we can do, click here

Similarly to The Women’s Health Movement in the 20th century, change starts with women voicing their mistreatment. The Women’s Health Movement was able to make huge strides in education which in turn empowered women. And a modern link has been shown between research and trust. By closing the “knowledge gap” we can also close the “trust gap” (Dunsenbery). In using the MeToo movement, women’s voices can be heard and validated, thus we can start to chip away at the systemic misogyny that holds us all back. And maybe someday we can go forward with a new sense of knowledge and trust.

To see my work cited, click here

Thank you for reading, I welcome comments and feedback.

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  1. April 28, 2019 by Kendall.Harris

    Hi Rosie, great job! I found your topic to be very interesting and I did not know much about this issue before reading your web page. The research about the Women’s Health Movement was very extensive and informative. I was not aware of how relevant and apparent this issue is today and I am really glad your webpage educated me about this issue.

  2. April 29, 2019 by Kealia Victorino

    Thank you for raising awareness for such an overlooked yet significant problem. I was particularly moved by the statistics you included after the quote, for example, that women are seven times more likely to be sent home while experiencing a heart attack. These real life and dangerous facts effectively demonstrated the severity of the issue. Other than females voicing their mistreatment, in what ways can persons working at hospitals and medical care facilities combat this problem?

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