Ancient Greek Medical Myths about Gender Roles Featured in Time Magazine

NEW YORK – Ancient Greek medical myths about gender roles and how they still affect women today were explored by author Elinor Cleghorn in an article in Time magazine, adapted from her book Unwell Women, published this year by Dutton. The June 17 article, titled Medical Myths about Gender Roles Go Back to Ancient Greece. Women Are Still Paying the Price Today, points out that while “we expect medicine, as a science, to uphold the principles of evidence and impartiality,” it actually “carries the burden of its own troubling history.”

Cleghorn writes that “gender difference is intimately stitched into the fabric of humanness,” adding that “at every stage in its long history, medicine has absorbed and enforced socially constructed gender divisions.”

“Male dominance – and with it the superiority of the male body – was cemented into medicine’s very foundations, laid down in ancient Greece,” Cleghorn points out, noting that “in the third century BC, the philosopher Aristotle described the female body as the inverse of the male body, with its genitalia ‘turn’d outside in,’” and “women were marked by their anatomical difference from men and medically defined as faulty, defective, deficient.”

“But women also possessed an organ of the highest biological – and social – value: the uterus,” Cleghorn writes, adding that “possession of this organ defined the purpose of women: to bear and raise children. Knowledge about female biology centered on women’s capacity – and duty – to reproduce.”

“As medicine’s understanding of female biology has expanded and evolved, it has constantly reflected and validated dominant social and cultural expectations about who women are; what they should think, feel and desire; and – above all else – what they can do with their own bodies,” Cleghorn writes, noting that “medical myths about gender roles and behaviors, constructed as facts before medicine became an evidence-based science, have resonated perniciously. And these myths about female bodies and illnesses have enormous cultural sticking power. Today, gender myths are ingrained as biases that negatively impact the care, treatment and diagnosis of all people who identify as women.”

Cleghorn gives as an example, the treatment of women’s chronic pain, noting that “women are more likely to be offered minor tranquilizers and antidepressants than analgesic pain medication … women are less likely to be referred for further diagnostic investigations than men are,” and “women’s pain is much more likely to be seen as having an emotional or a psychological cause, rather than a bodily or biological one.”

Cleghorn points out that there is also a “pervasive aura of distrust around women’s accounts of their pain” embedded in medical attitudes throughout the centuries.

“The historical –  and hysterical – idea that women’s excessive emotions have profound influences on their bodies, and vice versa, is impressed like a photographic negative beneath today’s image of the attention-seeking, hypochondriac female patient,” Cleghorn writes, adding that “our contemporary biomedical knowledge is stained with the residue of old stories, fallacies, assumptions, and myths.”

There has been an increasing awareness of gender bias in recent years and Cleghorn notes that “the discrimination women encounter as medical patients is magnified when they are Black, Asian, Indigenous, Latinx, or ethnically diverse; when their access to health services is restricted; and when they don’t identify with the gender norms medicine ascribes to biological womanhood.”

“It seems ridiculous now to imagine physicians once believed that women’s nerves were too highly strung for them to receive an education and that their ovaries would become inflamed if they read too much,” Cleghorn writes, “but these outrageous myths are alive and well in a world where menstruation and menopause are still seen by many people as credible reasons why women shouldn’t hold positions of political power. When clinical research exempts women from studies and trials on the grounds that female hormones fluctuate too much and upset the consistency of results, medical culture is reinforcing the centuries-old myth that women are too biologically erratic to be useful or valuable.”

While strides are being made to address inequality, Cleghorn writes that “the only way to move forward, to change the culture of myth and misdiagnosis that obscures medicine’s understanding of unwell women, is to learn from our history.”

The article is available online: https://time.com/6074224/gender-medicine-history/.


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