In Review-Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World by Elinor Cleghorn

Written by Rachel Barnes

In this compelling book Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World, Elinor Cleghorn unravels gendered discrepancies within Western medicine that have plagued female bodies and minds throughout the centuries.

Cleghorn has a background in feminist culture and history, which she utilises to explore historical to modern medical anecdotes. Her descriptions of the shocking injustices that have been carried out by people and institutions meant to deliver care elicit rightful anger from any compassionate reader. Cleghorn primarily focuses on the experiences of the patient; the Unwell Women at the core of her book are a group that she identifies with personally.

Picture credit: Book Depository

As briefly explained in the introduction and conclusion Cleghorn herself is a sufferer of lupus: a commonly misdiagnosed autoimmune disease that overwhelmingly affects women. Cleghorn’s personal connection to female sufferers of pain and their need to be recognised helps spur the book onward without taking up too much space as she maintains a factual, uncompromising tone, holding pertinent sympathy for the victims she discusses.

Whilst the book eloquently spans stories from antiquity to modernity, there is room for a more analytical discussion between wider historical social context and specific medical matters. For example, the author discusses witch hunts in Chapter 2 ‘Possessed and Polluting’, offering an interesting connection between the misunderstanding of menopause and the victimisation of older women. However, this connection between medicine and the widespread phenomenon of witch hunts could have been made more explicit.

What Cleghorn does do well, is to subtly demonstrate how attitudes toward the female body and sexuality have persisted through to our present day: for example, sexist assumptions about feminine modesty continue to plague the gynaecological experiences of women from the Victorian era to now. Cleghorn also adeptly connects the failings of female dissections performed in the 1500s, to findings made about the full scale of the clitoral organ as recently as 2005. She lets the facts speak for themselves: indicating the extent of willful ignorance that renders the female body a mystery.

Overall Unwell Women is a fascinating (and painful) exploration of the individual experiences of countless women throughout medical history. Even as a woman with few medical complaints it was impossible not to feel a connection with the stories recounted in this book. Cleghorn constructs a mosaic of female experience from the voice of the patient, a voice which even now is generally unheard. During a time of intense personal medical anxiety Cleghorn’s message of trusting one’s own pain above all sheds a hopeful tear as she looks retrospectively at a history of clinical neglect. After reading this book one would hope that we are finally on a path to trusting the bodies and minds of all women. 

Written by Rachel Barnes