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America’s History of Medical Misogynoir

The term “misogynoir” was coined by queer, black feminist Moya Bailey to describe the intersection between racism, sexism and colourism, where darker-skinned women are subjected to vitriol; especially when they are prominent social figures and in the media. Women like Caster Semenya, Serena Williams, Ciara and several others have been victims of violent misogynoir perpetuated by the media. Misogynoir has divested from its initial streamlined meaning and has come to mean a general prejudice against or mistreatment of black women inspired by sexism and racism or colourism.

Historically, misogynoir existed even before the word came to exist. America’s history is fraught with stories of oppression and exploitation and fields like the medical field, particularly gynaecology, is tainted by the remnants of racist oppression today. James Marion Sims, the founder of modern-day gynaecology made his many medical findings by operating on enslaved black women without anaesthesia. Sims neither recognised nor acknowledged the humanity of those women. According to him, the enslaved women were “willing” and had no better alternatives. His inhumane practices were rationalised in some intellectual circles and seen as necessary evils for scientific advancement. The field of gynaecology was not very advanced in the mid 19th century because of the stigma around female organs. Everything related to women was either regarded as trivial or taboo. This sexism inspired neglect was a contributing factor to the experimentation on black women. Many medical schools relied on black bodies as anatomical material. Medical colleges were reputed to hire “resurrectionists” to excavate freshly buried bodies of black people for experimentation. In the American era of eugenic laws, forced sterilisation also disproportionately affected black women.

Henrietta Lacks was a woman who had cervical cancer whose HeLa cells were instrumental in the advancement of medical research in numerous areas including the development of the polio vaccine and; they continue to be useful today. Samples of Lacks’ cancerous cells were taken during her treatment in the segregated ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital and they were experimented on, reproduced, and disseminated without her knowledge or consent. Though there is an appreciation for Henrietta’s unknowing contribution to modern-day medicine, there is still no acknowledgement of the misogynoir that made them believe it was okay to use Henrietta Lacks’ cells for research without her consent.

Misogynoir often manifests as the masculinisation of black women, especially dark-skinned women. Black women who do not fit into eurocentric standards of what a woman’s appearance should be; black women who are dark-skinned or have certain features that don’t tally with the conventional requirement of “softness” are mistreated in varying degrees.

Targeted for research and excluded from innovations, black women have the highest childbirth mortality rates in America. Scientific misogynoir’s lasting effects are evident in the alarming number of black women who die avoidable deaths during childbirth. “Of the 658 women who died of maternal causes in 2018, black women fared the worst, dying 2½ times more often than white women (37.1 vs 14.7 deaths per 100,000 live births)”.

Many white medical practitioners even today have internalised baseless, racist myths concerning the pain perception of black people. The belief that black people have thicker skin and feel less pain contributes to the neglect and dismissal of black people and their medical complaints. Dr Susan Moore, a black physician was receiving treatment for COVID 19 when she experienced the misogynoir of medicine firsthand. Her white doctor was dismissive of her complaints, refused to give her something for the pain and insisted that she prove to him that her condition was worsening. Unfortunately, Moore died from COVID 19 related complications. Her video detailing the racist treatment she had encountered went viral and opened up a discourse about medical racism. The notion that black patients exaggerate or lie about their pain is founded on baseless biases and racism that bleeds into medical care. In the 1800s, American experimental medicine was heavily used to justify the enslavement of black people by attempting to prove that black people were genetically inferior to white people. They tried to prove that black people feel less pain to justify the inhumane treatment that enslaved black people experienced.

The BMI system is another racist system that misdiagnoses black women of obesity disproportionately compared to other races. The system was conceived with white European men in mind and with no consideration for medicine. Despite the obvious ridiculousness of it, the BMI system has not been phased out and it continues to further racist practices and stereotypes.

One significant test of a society’s strength is how well its healthcare endures under pressure. A cracked healthcare system is often magnified by a pandemic and the COVID 19 pandemic provided an insight into how neglected black women were in the American healthcare system. Being one of the leaders in scientific research, it is indicative of that obvious exploitation of women – especially black women – and the lack of inclusion by the very same exploited group is a reflection of society as a whole. Safety of women from science while saving women using science is yet another hurdle to cross on the road to true equality.

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