Unwell Women by Elinor Cleghorn – Book Review

Title: Unwell Women: A Journey through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World (review copy)

Author: Elinor Cleghorn

Genre: Non-Fiction, Women’s Health, Feminism

Blurb from Goodreads

‘We are taught that medicine is the art of solving our body’s mysteries. And as a science, we expect medicine to uphold the principles of evidence and impartiality. We want our doctors to listen to us and care for us as people, but we also need their assessments of our pain and fevers, aches and exhaustion to be free of any prejudice about who we are, our gender, or the colour of our skin. But medicine carries the burden of its own troubling history. The history of medicine, of illness, is a history of people, of their bodies and their lives, not just physicians, surgeons, clinicians and researchers. And medical progress has always reflected the realities of a changing world, and the meanings of being human.’

– Elinor Cleghorn, Unwell Women

In Unwell Women Elinor Cleghorn unpacks the roots of the perpetual misunderstanding, mystification and misdiagnosis of women’s bodies, and traces the journey from the ‘wandering womb’ of ancient Greece, the rise of witch trials in Medieval Europe, through the dawn of Hysteria, to modern day understandings of autoimmune diseases, the menopause and conditions like endometriosis.

Packed with character studies of women who have suffered, challenged and rewritten medical orthodoxy – and drawing on her own experience of un-diagnosed Lupus disease – this is a ground-breaking and timely exposé of the medical world and woman’s place within it.

My Review

Unwell Women is an utterly incredible book. It explores the history of women through the lens of medicine, and how the intrinsic patriarchal bias that exists within medicine has impacted on the lives of women down throughout the ages.

In the book, author Elinor Cleghorn (herself an unwell woman), carefully details the history of medicine and the ways in which unwell women have not been listened to by the medical community, and how women as a whole have been denied agency over their own wellbeing and health. 

The book starts during ancient times and shows how the misogynistic idea that women are second class citizens and merely walking uteri whose only function is motherhood and the servitude of men ingrained itself into early medicine leading to the dismissal of women’s pain and illnesses, and instead cast women as hysterical and delicate beings, and painted the entire gender as being dictated by emotion. 

And this idea continued through the Middle Ages, Victorian Era, and beyond into modern medicine. The book is truly extensive and meticulous, in both its historical scope and the depth of research involved in its writing, as it thoroughly details how women’s anatomy and psychology were studied in ways that worked to oppress women in society. It’s chilling to see how much of women’s suffering was treated based on how it affected the males in these women’s lives. 

To many people this book might be eye opening to see the medical dismissal of women. But for me it wasn’t. Because I’m an unwell woman. I have been chronically ill all of my life. I have first hand experience of the dismissal of my medical complaints and the misogynistic attitudes of many of the medical practitioners that I’ve met along the way. To me this book felt like it gave voice to the myriad of women like me that suffer with mysterious and invisible illnesses. Cleghorn has highlighted the glaring inequalities in the medical system that we patients intimately know about, and I’m hopeful that this book will make its way into the hands of those who need to take stock and realise that women are suffering. Understand that there has been a bias in medicine as the medical standard has always been the white cis heterosexual male. Medicine has not been impartial, and sadly this has led to women suffering. The statistics show that women are more likely to have autoimmune diseases, and yet when so many female patients first present with symptoms of pain and malaise that are tricky to diagnose it frequently results in the medical professional deciding that it’s psychosomatic. 

The book also shines light on the racial bias in medicine and shows how Black women have been dehumanised, and are still being dehumanised to this day. There are harrowing accounts of experimental surgeries being carried out on enslaved women of colour, of sterilisations being carried out without consent, and a horrifically underhanded eugenicist attitude to providing birth control to Black women in the USA. 

Overall, Unwell Women is a devastating account of how preconceptions, myths, and the frequent misdiagnosis of diseases affecting women have persevered from the ancient era to the current day. Both the history and the science are explained in clear fashion, and even though it’s incredibly detailed it never feels too wordy.

And the book’s overriding message is one that that still needs to be heard loud and clear by the medical profession today; believe women

A truly exceptional read.

*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review* 

Publishing 10th June 2021, W&N

Trigger Warning

As I mentioned in my review I’m an unwell woman. I have a number of chronic illnesses. It took over ten years for me to receive my major diagnosis and along the way I was the victim of medical gaslighting. Therefore, when reading this book I was frequently “gut punched” as it brought back a lot of painful memories. While I think this is an important read especially for those of us who are unwell women please do prepare yourself for an emotionally tough read.

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8 thoughts on “Unwell Women by Elinor Cleghorn – Book Review

  1. But, how things have changed. By no means perfectly, but a vast improvement I’d say. I can only say that as a man who was treated by mostly women medical staff for a very male issue, I am glad I was treated better than men treat women. Following a silly and avoidable injury to my nether region, I was surrounded by women medical staff – from the ER doc to the surgeon who performed the bilateral orchiectomy, to the nurses, I was treated with care and professionalism.

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    1. My friend you are indeed very lucky with regards to your medical care. Not so lucky with regards to your unfortunate accident and I do wish you the very best in your recovery. But while yes there have been a number of improvements which I applaud, women’s health is still very much a never ending minefield that we have to pick our ways through. I can assure you that the way you are treated as a patient (no matter the gender) who presents with an obvious injury such as yourself versus a female patient who presents with illnesses and pain that a medical professional can’t visibly see … well there’s a world of difference between the two. There’s the immediate tendency to say a woman is imagining, she’s over exaggerating… over my lifetime I have talked with countless numbers of women who all had to fight to get their diagnoses, and even after a clear diagnosis are still treated with a sort of medical negligence even by female doctors! It can be hard to believe that in the so called advanced western society we live in that women are still disregarded. And that disregard is even greater when you add race, financial status, religion, and geographic location into the mix. Thank you so much for dropping by my blog and commenting. 😊

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  2. I need this book in my life! I recently learned the definition of patriarchy (because I guess my generation was too busy hearing that women were equal to notice the oppression that is still woven into society.) That realization that a doctor gave generic “woman advice” and dismissed your pin, and that it’s way too common, is devastating to someone who thought the patriarchy was dead. Great review!❤️

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    1. I think it’s a book that every woman should read irrespective of their health status because of the health changes that we do go through. Because it shows how we are belittled as teens and beyond when we menstruate… pain is somehow normalised! Then with fertility and pregnancy we are again dismissed because our hormones make us “hysterical’, and once menopause comes if we have any irritable symptoms we are just ignored yet again! And then to see how our health issues were translated to inequality… it’s eye opening for sure. Definitely recommend it. And you’ll see that the patriarchy is very much dictating our lives today

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