All in Her Head: The Truth and Lies Early Medicine Taught Us About Women's Bodies and Why It Matters Today

Image of All in Her Head: The Truth and Lies Early Medicine Taught Us About Women's Bodies and Why It Matters Today
Release Date: 
February 13, 2024
Harper Wave
Reviewed by: 

“The problem is not that ovarian cancer is silent; it’s that we are not listening.”

Shockingly, the attitudes of many in the medical establishment have not changed that much since the 1800s when it comes to understanding female reproductive organs, menopause, hormonal activity, and sex to name a few. Horrifyingly it appears women are also being undertreated and ignored for cardiac care, urology, and even certain cancers compared to the degree of care men receive. Elizabeth Comen’s book is a long treatise on historical injustices to female freedoms, bodily autonomy, and health, not the least of which was the lobotomy, practiced on women whom were noncompliant with their husbands after being chucked into sanitariums.

Though there has been progress in the last 30 years thanks to the integration of many more female clinicians, the treatment meted out by male physicians is still disrespectful, ignorant, and harmful to women. And many women are socialized to just put up with it, rather than disagree, as so often revealed by Comen herself. Of course, any woman who disagrees with a clinician is labeled as difficult, whereas a male will be listed as a patient with expressed concerns, and additional tests will be conducted to rule out X or Y or Z. The female may be told to accept her condition. For example, bladder leakage post childbirth is often not treated in the US, but a prostate leakage is always treated as an unacceptable condition.

Throughout Dr. Comen’s text she cites numerous examples of women being told to accept their conditions, the limitations of the treatment, and to expect less. Male physicians are far more likely to interrupt their female patients and lack the ability to demonstrate empathy. To be fair to men, this is not true of all, but there are gaps in the medical education clinicians are receiving who are responsible for direct patient care. “We need to stop apologizing for our medical needs and starting asking the questions that lead to better knowledge, better health, and better lives.”

“Bicycling by young women has helped to swell the ranks of reckless girls who finally drift into the standing army of outcast women of the United States.” Hysterically, the medical community at one time felt that cycling too much would deform women’s bodies, rendering them unable to reproduce! Women with muscles or who wore pants, as late as the 1970s were not welcome in a lot of corporate and community environments. The bicycle however won out, as it represented freedom, and women’s abilities to stray further from home and oversight.

It appears many healthcare authorities still view women as untrustworthy when it comes to making their own healthcare decisions, but of course, they are expected to oversee the health of their men. OK to nurture, not OK to take charge. As Dr. Comen states, nobody is promoted just for their kindness, or for empathy, or for making patients feel seen. Yet, these are all traits women are expected to embody and exhibit in all settings, lest they be seen as noncompliant.

In the 1700s women who enjoyed their sexuality were often suspected of being masturbators and diagnosed as hysterical. “Hysterical women were those who don’t listen, didn’t cooperate, didn’t behave, and their symptoms often seemed rooted in the defiance of convention.” As late as the 1970s the birth rate of Native American women was nearly halved by Indian Health Services through forced sterilization.

In the 1930s when artificial insemination was developed, reporters (men) rushed to disabuse the notion women would use the same methods to impregnate themselves without the involvement of men. And here the Santa Barbara News-Press assured its readers, “There is no likelihood, in other words, that women will take over the world completely, banishing the males, made wholly superfluous, to the battlefields where they might conveniently exterminate themselves.”

And finally, this review would not be complete without mention of the clitoris and the lack of description in medical journals as well as training for clinicians to understand how to locate it, and very importantly, not injure this citadel of pleasure. This ignorance persists to this day. As any modern women knows the location of the g-spot is still the missing link in sexual relations.