Elinor Cleghorn offers an epic yet approachable social, cultural and scientific history of women's health in Unwell Women, tracing the sexism and racism seen in modern Western medicine from ancient times through the present day.
"We are taught that medicine is the art of solving our body's mysteries," Cleghorn writes in the introduction. "And we expect medicine, as a science, to uphold the principles of evidence and impartiality." But, as she shows over the following chapters, medicine is anything but impartial, steeped as it is in social and cultural histories. From its earliest recorded days in ancient Greek texts, medicine has both inherited and reinforced the socially constructed gender binary, falsely reducing womanhood to a person's "capacity--and duty--to reproduce."
Drawing on extensive research, Cleghorn reveals medicine's long history of misdiagnosing--and mistreating--women, with sections on ancient and medieval times, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the mid-20th century to today. The resulting tome is massive in scope, but in Cleghorn's expert hands, this long history does not feel unwieldy. Each chapter carries clearly into the next, as Cleghorn peels back the layers upon layers of misogyny and sexism baked into medical concepts of "unwell women"--and the corresponding "treatment" options that often did, and do, more harm than good. Throughout, she also acknowledges the depth of racism inherent in the already sexist system, calling out the horrors inflicted on enslaved Black women in the United States in the name of research, for example.