Ain't I A Woman?
The Struggle for Equality in Healthcare
By Shereá Denise
In 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth delivered what is now considered an infamous speech. On this fateful day, Sojourner Truth asked a room of White people a very simple yet necessary question that many Women of Color are still asking today: Ain’t I a Woman? At one point, Truth stated: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”
I sometimes believe that sense of obligation to get the world right side up again has been lost by women – particularly White women – who enjoy the benefits of healthcare and mental health systems that imply that Women of Color – specifically Black women – are not in need of the same medical attention afforded White women. I have often heard Women of Color speak about how we do not have the opportunity to be anything other than strong. How – since slavery – we have been forced to push through whatever personal issues and ailments we have to bear the load of our children, our families, and the families of others.
Take, for example, the task of wet nursing. During slavery, enslaved Black mothers who had recently given birth to children of their own were used to breastfeed the children of the slave masters. Consider that, if an enslaved woman was still producing milk, she likely had small children of her own who she could and would prefer to be tending to and bonding with, yet she was tasked with nourishing the children of the very person who was exploiting her and who would likely exploit her children. Let us also be reminded that giving birth is rarely easy, so to have an enslaved woman return to work within a short period of time after giving birth seems contrary to her own health and well-being.
Let’s also consider pregnancy and childbirth. Many enslaved Black women were used to ensure that White women were as comfortable as possible during their pregnancies and that they (and their child) survived childbirth during a time when hospitals and clinics were less common. Conversely, history tells us that –in the southern United States in the early 1800’s - an estimated 50% of enslaved infants were stillborn or died within the first year of life. It has been noted that, upon the ending of the transatlantic slave trade, White slaveowners became more focused on the health of pregnant enslaved women. Not because they were genuinely concerned about Black women’s health and well-being, but because they recognized that the children born to enslaved Black women “would build capital for enslavers.” Essentially, they were protecting what they considered to be an investment.
One could argue that, since the conclusion of slavery, the health of pregnant Black women and their unborn children has become less of a priority for medical professionals. Over the last few years we have learned about medical issues faced by Serena Williams and Beyoncé during their pregnancies. This lets us know that, regardless of wealth and celebrity status, there is something about Black women that makes our health seemingly less important to medical professionals.
Of course, there was also the recent outrage over a video of a purported medical professional who implied that physicians know – almost immediately – when patients are faking their illnesses. In my opinion, this is unprofessional and alarming. No, I do not believe that all people that visit the doctor are genuinely sick. However, I do believe that every patient deserves a medical professional that listens to the patient rather than thinking that they can immediately determine whether or not someone is actually sick. How many people has that provider dismissed because they “must be faking” or because they do not “act like” they are sick? I wonder how many of those patients who have been dismissed or ignored have been Black women who did not seem or look sick. We must consider the irony that we live in a world where Black women are expected to present as strong regardless of what life throws at them, yet that same idea of strength can prevent others from recognizing when a Black woman is truly sick or not in a healthy mental state.
Though many of the Democratic candidates for President would have you believe that the biggest issue facing our nation is having access to quality healthcare, I would argue that there is an equal (if not greater) issue, which is ensuring that all people have access to healthcare providers who can see the human that exists regardless of their melanin or their financial status.
Recently I went to the doctor complaining of chest pains. This was concerning to me because my father had just passed away unexpectedly from cardiac arrest. The physician at Urgent Care – in a rush to see the other (White) patients at the facility on this particular holiday – gave me an EKG, asked me a few questions, then provided me with prescriptions for a cough medication and pain medicine. Within a few weeks, I was able to make and go to an appointment at my Primary Care Physician’s office where I was relieved to find that a medical professional took the time to listen to me, to request a chest x-ray and to diagnose me with inflammation around my lungs. I was subsequently prescribed an anti-inflammatory and told to use my inhaler more regularly. I was also told to throw the other prescriptions away because they were not – at all – necessary. I could not help but think: What if I had not gotten a second opinion? What if I had not advocated for myself? What if I had not visited a doctor who listens to their patients? This was not the first time that I faced a concerning medical diagnosis that I believed was incorrect and I am quite sure that it will not be my last.
After going home with what appeared to be a more accurate diagnosis, my thoughts turned to the women in the generations before me. I wondered about those who died from incorrect diagnoses or the general dismissal of their medical or mental health concerns. Am I wrong to – at some level – resent how many White women seem to be coddled whenever they have a medical or mental health concern?
We cannot deny that race is a factor. I mean, if Henrietta Lacks had been a White woman, would there have been more interest in saving her life than in the duplication of her cells? I believe there would have been. In my personal research about the life of Henrietta Lacks, I found an interesting juxtaposition in how the same system that isolated, violated, and seemed to resnt Henrietta’s daughter, Elsie, profited enormously from the HeLa cells that were collected from Henrietta Lacks without her informed consent.
Though we have more and more Black women entering into the medical profession (and I hope that that has begun and will continue to address the differences in healthcare for Black women), I still have to wonder what will assist Black women in regaining our trust in medical providers and societal systems that have long since cast us to the side.
I began this post talking about Sojourner Truth and it seems only right to conclude with her as well. Sojourner recognized the difference that race played in having Black women seen as women. She recognized and spoke about the courtesies afforded White women that Black women never saw and were never offered. It is sad to recognize how the medical profession – something that can literally be about life or death – has become much like the room where Ms. Truth stood. It has become a world where so many of us have to question whether or not our womanhood – our personhood – is respected as such.
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?”