Happy Women’s History Month!

Article by: McKenna Hereford, Ph.D.

Now more than ever, we want to amplify the importance of Women’s History and undercurrents that continue to permeate our culture and laws, both insidiously and glaringly.

Being a woman is both a shared and individual experience that’s socially constructed. When we think about “women”, we must vigilantly remember that this identity exists as part of a constellation of a person’s self rather than in a vacuum. Trans women are women. Black women are women. Disabled women are women. Childfree women are women. Women with all kinds of anatomy are women. All these groups might have similar and incredibly diverse experiences that transcend an identity-by-identity point-based privilege walk. 

Our healthcare system in the US currently and historically demonstrates these simultaneous experiences clearly. Women are more likely to be discriminated against in healthcare as a whole and face higher infant mortality rates than other industrialized countries. Black women face alarming infant mortality rates due to structural gendered racism. Trans and gender non-conforming women and uterus owners are also facing unique discriminatory experiences in our healthcare system, including being stripped of access to gender-affirming care as I write this message. 

When we think of the dark history of our healthcare system, we might think about hysteria treatment or the Stanford Prison Experiment. We might know about the egregious Tuskegee experiments and the warranted lack of trust in healthcare. But how many of us know about the Puerto Rico Birth Control Pill Trials or the dark formative history of obstetrics, including actively experimenting on enslaved women’s bodies without anesthesia, with consequences that reverberate through the system today? 

These consequences are more than the academic articles I’ve shared here; more than the abstract, intellectual, jargon-filled debates often written by those that are not women. Many of us have personally experienced gynecological/obstetric procedures without anesthesia because of the long-held misinformation about our anatomy. In the current climate, many of us are forced to make increasingly difficult health decisions with varying levels of support. In a recent doctor appointment where I was considering my own reproductive rights, real risks, and health, my doctor made the decision for me, stating “everything has risks”, because, to him, a medication change and reproductive risk hold similar weight. And I’m a cis White woman with a Ph.D. 

Our own field is not immune, despite the large presence of women. Just this morning, I went toe-to-toe with violently transphobic therapists and “experts” discussing the recent mass shooting on my personal social media. We forget the intersections of all kinds of identities that are beyond a checkbox that proves to others we are culturally competent. We see this frequently. We move more quickly to diagnose eating disorders in white women, neglecting many other clients showing similar warning signs. Black women who seek our help are labeled “resistant“, a word we see in only one other context that’s “defying orders” during interactions with law enforcement. Disabled women are conceptualized as theatrical or histrionic. We use “promiscuous” as an arbitrary value judgment toward women clients when discussing the number of current sexual partners. Mental health systems, too, weaponize “professionalism” to police our bodies and demand compliance. This is especially true for minoritized women of color who are often targeted simply for their presence in these spaces and then simultaneously coerced into wiping tears from the faces that have violated them.

Today, the current sociopolitical climate echoes these historical messages. It’s hard not to feel uncertain, overwhelmed, and fearful of the future. We might also feel pressured to do everything to help, leading to no action because of the sheer paralysis we feel. Here’s where connecting to our history can help! Social movements and change have succeeded by collective groups that focus on their strengths. We’re seeing this now in healthcare as well, such as Dr. Blair Peters providing gender-affirming surgeries that are also transforming our relatively limited knowledge about sexual anatomy and Dr. Rachel Rubin correcting misinformation about menopause and educating others about the incredible data on localized estrogen treatment. 

Everyone is part of women’s history and future. My request to you in closing out this month is to consider capitalizing on your own strengths to advocate while importantly remembering to rest. In a macroculture that values personal responsibility, the weight of contributing to social change feels immense. It allows the current system to thrive. Rest and collective efforts are the heartbeat.

Go deep with one of our therapists.