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Women’s health encompasses physical, emotional, and social health associated with female reproductive and sexual development over the lifecycle, or any medical condition more common among women. The sociology of women’s health includes the study of gendered politics within medicine, medical training, doctor-patient interactions, self-care, illness behavior, and health care utilization. Women’s health can be more broadly construed to include the relationships between gender inequality and health, even among men.
In most countries women on average live longer than men, but appear to experience more sickness and ill-health than men. This gender paradox in health where ”women are sicker, but men die quicker” is an overly simplistic generalization, because while women tend toward more physical illness, disability days, and health care utilization, men experience more life-threatening ailments such as heart disease, respiratory disease, and cancer. Biomedical explanations argue that physiological sex differences contribute to different sex-specific disease rates. Sociomedical explanations consider social constructionism and gender role theories: gender differences in material circumstances, social roles, social support, and lifestyle explain the gender patterning of health and mortality.
Perhaps the predominant sociological focus on women’s health has been the medicalization of women’s lives. As women are more often patients than men, women’s lives may be more easily subject to medicalization. Examples of medicalization research in women’s health include: Barbara Katz Rothman’s analysis of the expanding definition of ”high-risk” pregnancy; Anne Figert’s study of the politics that define PMS as a medical and psychological disorder; Margaret Lock’s research on the divergent medicalization of menopause in the USA and Japan; and Emily Martin’s study of how bio-medical textbooks unnecessarily use gendered language to describe gamete production, conception, menstruation, and menopause.
Feminism enhanced women’s entry into medical fields. Now about a quarter of physicians in the US are women, but nursing remains a nearly exclusively female occupation. Gender stratification operates at all levels within these fields, with women doctors more likely to specialize in pediatrics, family practice, and obstetrics/gynecology than men. The predominant dyads within medicine (doctor-patient and doctor-nurse) are gendered and hierarchical. Thus, medical settings have contributed to studies of dominance, authority, and gender.
Inclusion of women as physicians has contributed attention to the differential treatment of women as second-class patients relative to men and to the exceptional treatment of women as patients who receive excessive intervention. Such treatment may not result from overt discrimination, as the gender system is strongly related to ideas about illness, etiology, and treatment. McKinlay (1996) identified patient, provider, health system, and technologic influences on the gendered detection of heart disease.
The modern women’s health movement succeeded in the 1970s by demanding informed consent for sterilization surgery and drug package inserts for the Pill, buoying larger movements in self-help and consumerist health care. Following public pressure to change the way biomedicine was conducted and organized in the USA, in 1990 the National Institutes of Health founded an Office of Research on Women to oversee the systematic inclusion of women in clinical studies.
- McKinlay, J. B. (1996) Some contributions from the social system to gender inequalities in heart disease. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 37: 1-26.
- Figert, A. E. (1996) Women and the Ownership of PMS: The Structuring ofa Psychiatric Disorder. Aldine de Gruyter, Hawthorne, NY.
- Fisher, S. (1988) In the Patient s Best Interest: Women and the Politics of Medical Decisions. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Lock, M. (1993) Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. University of California Press, Berkeley. CA.
- Martin, E. (1987) The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
- Rothman, B. K. (2000) Recreating Motherhood, 2nd edn. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
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