Illustration by Beth Nicol
‘Sick Woman Theory’ was originally written by Joanna Hevda in 2016, but our society of systemic racism and patriarchal oppression existed long before. A society that has devalued women’s pain and wellness, treating women - and subsequently their wellbeing - as lesser. In her essay (available to read here), Hevda speaks on her erasure from mainstream culture and understanding as a woman of colour with a chronic illness. Hevda’s comments refer mainly to the US health system – which is both corrupt and capitalist – but even outside of the US womxn's health can still be ignored or taken less seriously, especially in regards to womxn of colour and trans womxn.
These problems are most pronounced in the US, where healthcare is privatised and thus inaccessible for many, already alienating a proportion of the population. ‘Obamacare’ - or The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - was passed by Obama during his presidency and sparked the largest overhaul of the American Healthcare system since the 1960’s. It aimed to eventually slow the growth of US healthcare spending, which is the highest in the world. It also banned companies from charging womxn more than men, which was legal and not uncommon until 2010 when the legislation was passed. Unfortunately, Trump has vowed to rid America of Obamacare as he continues his crusade against equality, as well as recently reversing health protection laws for transgender people, allowing health care workers to refuse treatment to transgender patients on the basis of their gender identity. This dystopian picture of healthcare paints ‘wellness’ as a white, cis, wealthy ideal which may be unattainable for those outside of the patriarchy. The UK thankfully has a National Health Service and less abhorrent legislation, but there are still socioeconomic factors which can affect your ability to get well, as well as micro aggressions – or blatant discrimination – that may infiltrate the process. So, who is the sick women in society? Hevda defines the sick women as “an identity and body that can belong to anyone denied the privileged existence”. Hevda feels her identity has been erased and overlooked by society, leaving her invisible and thus unimportant to the structures in place. She speaks of a women who had to wait in A&E in great pain and distress for hours as Doctors devalued her pain and delayed treatment. She coined it “the trauma of not being seen”, yet this trauma is not an exclusive one as it is also felt by the severely ill in society who are excluded from most conversations and considerations. Even when the illness is not severe, in both the US and UK marginalised groups can find themselves disadvantaged when going through the healthcare system. Women’s pain is simply not as valued as men and women are more likely to be seen as ‘dramatic’ or ‘overreacting’ when there may be a serious issue (as highlighted by Hevda’s story). When it comes to womxn’s health issues, they can easily go untreated and misunderstood. Considering the amount of potential issues that can occur with vaginas and the female reproductive system, most womxn are usually treated by a GP instead of a gynaecologist, which could potentially be dangerous and may result in inaccurate diagnosis or no diagnosis at all. I have experienced this firsthand, as I went to the doctor about seriously irregular periods, and after an STD test was simply told “periods are weird sometimes”. It was only 6 months later – with continuing irregularities and the ability to use a family members health insurance – that I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovaries. Turns out my periods were “weird” for a reason. This highlights another problem even within the UK. I was fortunate enough to be able to use health insurance to go to a private doctor, and without this I may never have been diagnosed. Although the UK has a National Health Service it is critically underfunded and waiting times can leave at risk patients without the proper care they need. It can also lead those with non-critical issues or more hidden problems to not receive the care they need to resolve the issue, or to diagnose the issue in the first place. “medical literature tends to presume a white middle class subject” Hevda believes, once again erasing the identities of those who may not be able to afford their wellbeing, a large proportion of whom are likely to be from marginalised communities due to the systemic racism and patriarchal oppression that upholds our society and is structured to disadvantage minority groups. Health care should be accessible to all as a basic human right and ones ability to be well should not be determined by privilege. No one should fear they may be denied the ability to survive or be well, or that their sickness erases them from society. Although here in the UK the health system is not ideal, some in the US are now at risk as Trump makes it increasingly harder for citizens to afford or access healthcare. Womxn’s bodies are being policed and potentially discriminated against, and Hevda’s fear of erasure she wrote about in 2016 seems like a current reality.
“When being sick is an abhorrence to the norm, it allows us to conceive of care and support in the same way”. But it is crucial that we normalise a society where the vulnerable are not forgotten and ensure that marginalised people are not further alienated when dealing with sickness as we all deserve to be heard, cared for and well. I have added some resourced below to help educate on the current situation in the US and protect the health care rights of trans people:
Written by Isobel Gorman-Buckley