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‘This book left me speechless’: a review of Elinor Cleghorn’s Unwell Women

Being chosen as my book club’s September read, this book initially had me feeling quite unenthusiastic. I am an avid reader of fiction books, being particularly drawn to their elaborate worlds, complicated characters, and unexpected plot twists. Though I have read my fair share of non-fiction books too, I can’t help but find myself more attracted to the magic, fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure genres.

However, Elinor Cleghorn’s Unwell Women has completely converted me. Being influenced by her own experience with systemic lupus erythematosus (an immune system problem), her book delves into a variety of views on Western medicine and how misogyny has highly influenced the treatment of women. Split into three parts, the book gives a detailed account of the varying approaches towards treating women’s bodies, spanning from Ancient Greece to the present day.

I couldn’t believe how utterly unaware I was of the trauma women have gone through in relation to their health. Every time I turned the page, I found myself getting more and more appalled and horrified at how women have been treated throughout history. Every chapter would hit me with a new shocking statistic or tragic historical account, and I found myself concerned to the point of utter frustration. Even some parts about the present day had me shocked! Have women not suffered enough?

Cleghorn starts her book in the period of Ancient Greece, the time of Hippocrates. This section had me more bewildered than angry. The approach to healing and treatment was as follows: “All women were unwell by virtue of having a uterus. And women who failed to put their uteruses to good use also risked losing their minds.” How ridiculous is that? So, all women who became ‘unwell’ did so because of ‘problems’ with their reproductive functions? From my modern perspective, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. ‘Unfulfilled’ and ‘unemployed’ uteruses were said to become ‘vexed and aggrieved’ if their desires for childbearing were not met. It all just seemed so unbelievable and utterly ridiculous. What I admired about Cleghorn’s perspective on this puzzling approach was how she wasn’t necessarily angry about it (unlike my feelings). Instead of shaming the history of medicine for being so biased against women, Cleghorn instead aims to educate her readers and make them aware of how limited the understanding of medicine was back then.

To this day, women’s illnesses remain unreported, undiagnosed, untreated, overlooked and, in some cases, entirely ignored. I love that Cleghorn recognises that there is still a way to go in achieving justice.

The second part of the book, which dealt with the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, was my favourite, primarily because of its crucial focus on intersectionality. For those who may be unsure of what ‘intersectionality’ is, it is a simple acknowledgement that social categorisations (such as class, race, gender, age) create vastly different and unique experiences for people. Cleghorn brilliantly applies this approach to her book, explaining to her readers how it’s naïve of us to assume that all women have had the same experiences when it comes to medicine. For example, in her chapter on sterilisation Cleghorn cleverly utilises this intersectional approach to explain how beliefs about biological and social inferiority led to an overwhelming number of sterilisations among ethnic minorities. I commend Cleghorn for her intersectional take on this entire book, as it is vital for us to understand that women are disadvantaged and oppressed on varying levels and in multiple forms.

As I moved on to the last part of the book (1945 to the present day) I unfortunately began to struggle a bit. Whilst the previous two sections had been a historical insight into the relationship between women and medicine, I found the last part to be more of a scientific account which was challenging to wrap my head around at points. However, Cleghorn appreciates that this period was one of rapid advancement in medical knowledge and technology, which made me understand why the book was getting a bit more complicated. It wasn’t an absolute deal-breaker for me, but I did prefer the simplicity of the first two parts much more than the last.

Despite this criticism, I praise Cleghorn for acknowledging the positives of this period of time. She says herself “medicine saved my life”, and highlights how unwell women are finally finding their voices. This book isn’t just a long list of complaints about the history of treating women and neither does it blame men whom Cleghorn claims are not “our enemy”.

To this day, women’s illnesses remain unreported, undiagnosed, untreated, overlooked and, in some cases, entirely ignored. I love that Cleghorn recognises that there is still a way to go in achieving justice.

What topped it off for me was Cleghorn choosing to end the book with her own personal account of being an ‘unwell woman’ – a choice which I thought rounded off the book perfectly. To me, she was clear, to-the-point, and overall, had a very powerful voice throughout. Having started the book feeling quite unenthusiastic, I can officially confirm that I no longer feel that way. I am now utterly speechless.


Comments (2)

  • In this review you managed to get across every single emotion that you felt whilst reading. It really felt more like a journey than a novel. I hope you’ve reconsidered your view on being strictly a fiction reader!

  • ‘Haven’t women suffered enough!’ – very well put! I absolutely loved your view on this book and you have done a great job in bringing it into the light! Everyone should read it! 🙂

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