Misogyny In Women's Health Care Is Rampant -- And We've Had Enough

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Photoalto / Michele Constantini / Getty Images (left Image) & Timeline / YouTube (middle images) & Medioimages / Photodisc / Getty Images (right image)

In many ways, women’s healthcare has come a long way in the past century or two. When modern medicine first began in America, women weren’t even allowed to practice it, and although the first female American doctor (the badass Elizabeth Blackwell) graduated medical school almost 170 years ago, it’s been a s-l-o-w process to include more women in the field.

In the 1980’s, for example, only 21% of doctors entering the field were women. We are now at a little under 50%, but women doctors are consistently paid less than male doctors, and are more likely to drop out of the field.

Hmmm…does anyone smell institutional patriarchy and misogyny right there?

Almost every woman I know has had an encounter with a doctor that reeked of gender bias and misogyny as well. It’s a male-dominated field, shaped by centuries of patriarchy, and we all feel it.

Don’t get me wrong: There are some excellent male doctors out there who take women seriously, treat them with respect, and are woke to women’s issues and identities. But sadly, sometimes it feels like finding a male doctor like this is like a needle in a haystack.

And believe me, I know that female doctors can be guilty of this too—after all, they’ve been indoctrinated by the same gender biases that their male peers have been. But at least they know what it’s like to be a woman in this world, and how vulnerable we are to patriarchal bullshit, especially when it comes to our bodies.

The ways in which misogyny shapes the world of women’s healthcare runs deep, and to point out every instance of it would take several lengthy essays, at least. But let’s take a look at a few of the ways that misogyny has shaped women’s health care over history, and still does today.

The husband stitch

You’ve probably heard of the husband stitch, where a doctor, upon repairing a women’s perineum after childbirth, adds an extra stitch or two in an attempt the make the vagina tighter for her husband’s sexual pleasure. Besides the fact that this is like the most horrifying thing ever, anyone who has taken a basic female anatomy lesson should know that stitching the perineum tighter would have no bearing on the tightness of the vaginal wall and that doing so would only cause more pain for a women when she attempts postpartum sex.

But I digress. The point of all of this is that yes, the husband stitch is real, and it’s practiced to this very day. And more of us are talking about it, thanks to scores of brave women who are coming out and telling their stories.

And also? FUUUCCKK you to any doctor who has performed this “service,” especially those who have done so without permission. I can’t.

Twilight sleep

Can we talk about “twilight sleep” during childbirth for a second? It’s something that I heard about as a teen and it seriously haunts me to this day. It was a practice common from the early 1900’s until the 50s and 60s. Basically, most obstetricians were men at that time, and because they had no idea how to deal with a woman giving birth, they completely knocked the woman out with a cocktail of morphine and scopolamine so that they could take over the delivery of the baby for her.

But the woman was still half-conscious, and while her memory of the event was supposed to be blocked out, she still was active during the event, and experiencing pain as well. Reports of women becoming uninhibited, hallucinating, howling, thrashing, and needing to be physically restrained are common. All while these women were half-naked, spread eagle, and delivering babies.

If this doesn’t sound like a horror movie, I don’t know what does. And while the practice was abandoned by the 1970s, that really wasn’t that long ago, when you think about it. You have to wonder how that kind of violent misogyny still informs childbirth in America today. Spoiler alert: it does.

Routine episiotomies in the 50’s/60’s (and still today)

Yup, there is nothing that makes my blood boil more than when unnecessary procedures are performed on women’s bodies, especially at their most vulnerable times like during and after childbirth. And yet, here we are.

You think of routine episiotomies (where doctors make a cut on a woman’s perineum during childbirth to help deliver the baby) as an antiquated problem of the past, right? I know I have mostly thought of it as a practice used routinely during the 50s and 60s. Well, despite the fact that this practice has been shown to be unnecessary and a cause of more problems than solutions, including pain and long-term damage to women, it is still being used quite routinely today in certain hospitals.

Dr. Emiliano Chavira, a maternal and fetal medicine specialist at Dignity Health’s California Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles tells NPR that he sees this practice often. He explained that the doctors who do this are usually doing so for their own benefits. They are just more comfortable doing them—plus, they want to speed up the delivery process. Sorry, but I think my experience of childbirth is more important than what time you get home for dinner.

“Certain segments of the obstetric community are very slow to modernize the practice,” says Chavira. “They’re very slow to abandon procedures that are not a benefit and, in fact, may be harmful. And it’s really disappointing.”

Nope, it’s worse than disappointing. It’s misogyny, plain and simple. Routine violence and violation of women’s bodies.

Yep, patriarchy is alive in well in the arena of healthcare for women. And it’s not just specific practices like the ones mentioned here. Several studies have shown that women are less apt to be taken seriously when they complain of pain or other ailments. They are also slower to be seen in the emergency room than men.

And it’s not just studies or reports that show this. We all have our stories of gender discrimination in the healthcare arena. Almost all women have felt at times that they weren’t listened to, that procedures were carried out without their knowledge or consent, or that their bodies were disrespected, or even violated.

But this is a new generation. There is a new wave of women who are willing to speak out about this, to say #MeToo, I’ve been a victim of this, and it isn’t OK.

Ladies, let’s keep sharing our stories. It’s so important. We need to expose the bullshit misogyny that we’ve experienced in healthcare, and in all arenas of life. We are so done. None of this will be tolerated anymore. No fucking way.

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