The patriarchy dismisses women’s pain; the matriarchy glorifies it


Two new books have just been published about women and pain.

Abby Norman wrote Ask Me About My Uterus; A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain, about her efforts to find physicians that would take her pain from endometriosis seriously.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Ignoring women’s pain has been raised to high art by the matriarchy in the form of the natural childbirth movement.[/pullquote]

…Norman describes what it was like to have her pain dismissed, to be told it was all in her head, only to be taken seriously when she was accompanied by a boyfriend who confirmed that her sexual performance was, indeed, compromised. Putting her own trials into a broader historical, sociocultural, and political context, Norman shows that women’s bodies have long been the battleground of a never-ending war for power, control, medical knowledge, and truth…

Maya Dusenbery has written Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick.

Dusenbery explores the deep, systemic problems that underlie women’s experiences of feeling dismissed by the medical system. Women have been discharged from the emergency room mid-heart attack with a prescription for anti-anxiety meds, while others with autoimmune diseases have been labeled “chronic complainers” for years before being properly diagnosed. Women with endometriosis have been told they are just overreacting to “normal” menstrual cramps, while still others have “contested” illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia that, dogged by psychosomatic suspicions, have yet to be fully accepted as “real” diseases by the whole of the profession.

Both books blame the patriarchy for dismissing women’s pain.

As a review of Norman’s book in The New Republic, The Reality of Women’s Pain explains:

And yet, women are everyday confronted with forces eager to deny the reality of their pain—whatever its form, and however insistently it clamors… Accepting the reality of women’s pain would compel a new—to many, nettlesome—gender dynamic, correcting for the many years when women have been treated as a footnote or afterthought in medicine. It would require the acknowledgment of guilt from some quarters, not by the patient as so often has been the case.

Whose fault is this?

Women’s suffering has often been unnecessary—disturbingly so. Rather, it has been imposed through the negligence, complacency, and apathy of a male-dominated field. After all, discounting women’s pain is no mere accident or bad habit—it has served as a strategy for protecting men and the world that serves them.

That’s true as far as it goes, but what neither author appears to address (I haven’t yet read the books) is that ignoring women’s pain has been raised to high art by the matriarchy in the form of the natural childbirth movement. Childbirth pain isn’t merely discounted; it is celebrated.

Grantly Dick-Read, the father of the natural childbirth movement, was an avatar of patriarchal medicine. As Laura Briggs argues in The Race of Hysteria: “Overcivilization” and the “Savage” Woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology, the heart of Dick-Read’s philosophy — comparison between “overcivilized” white women and “primitive” women who gave birth easily — was not merely a racist fantasy, but reflected the anxiety that men felt about women’s increasing emancipation.

This anxiety over women’s increasing education, independence and political involvement was expressed in medicine generally, and in obstetrics and gynecology particularly, by the degeneration of women’s natural capabilities in fertility and childbirth compared to her “savage” peers. Simply put, the result of women insisting on increased education, enlarged roles outside the home and greater political participation was that their ovaries shriveled, they suddenly began to experience painful childbirth.

Surely then the nearly exclusively female natural childbirth industry of midwives, doulas and childbirth educators would take the pain of childbirth seriously and treat it aggressively. Instead they have done the exact opposite; they have insisted that it should be glorified instead of treated. Dick-Read lied when he said that “primitive” women do not have pain in labor. The natural childbirth industry goes one better and lies that childbirth pain is beneficial, should be celebrated and on no account should ever be abolished.

The motive for the patriarchy in discounting women’s pain was their contemptuous sexism and their selfish fear that women’s emancipation threatened them. The motive for the matriarchy in discounting women’s pain and even glorifying it is their selfish fear of economic competition from doctors who can effectively treat childbirth pain with epidurals. The victims in both cases are women whose pain and anguish are thoroughly ignored.

The traditional medical patriarchy was grossly remiss in dismissing women’s pain and they should be called to account. But as the advent, refinement and widespread use of the epidural demonstrates, they do attempt to treat women’s pain. The natural childbirth matriarchy is worse; they don’t merely disbelieve women, they evince the utmost contempt for women by celebrating their agony in childbirth. It is long past time that the matriarchy be called to account.