Breda O’Brien: The work of feminism is far from done

Women are shamed for being women not only when it comes to menopause

The airwaves have been filled recently with one aspect of women’s normal reproductive life cycles, the menopause. Women suffering all sorts of adverse effects find it difficult or impossible to be taken seriously or receive proper care.

In 2019, there were days and weeks of radio coverage of women’s traumatic experiences of childbirth. Periods are still the subject of snide jokes and put-downs.

The work of feminism is far from over so long as male bodies and patterns are considered the norm and female needs are sidelined, belittled or mocked.

This bias in favour of the male body is present even in medical and pharmaceutical research. Although controversial, animal studies, particularly on rodents such as mice and rats, are central to this kind of research. It has been known for more than a decade that much more research is conducted on male animals than on female ones.


When studies are conducted only on male mammals, including human males, it can have serious adverse impacts on women

Female mice have a very rapid menstrual cycle of four to five days. It is not because it is faster than the human female’s menstrual cycle that female mice are excluded from trials.

The reasoning is that by existing at all, female hormonal variations could skew results. Trials would be much more expensive if they had to allow for male and female differences.

Oddly, male mice have significant variations in testosterone, with males at the top of the dominance hierarchy having up to five times more testosterone than males further down the pecking order. This is not considered a problem at all.

Hormonal variations

As it turns out, research, including a 2018 study in ScienceDirect, appears to show that the females' hormonal changes do not affect the vast majority of outcomes and there are slightly higher hormonal variations in male mice. That does not mean that male-female differences are insignificant, but just that the common excuses for not researching females are not valid.

When studies are conducted only on male mammals, including human males, it can have serious adverse impacts on women. Ambien, the popular sleep medication, is one cautionary tale.

Ambien lingers longer in women’s blood. Therefore the incidence of drowsiness the following morning, foggy thinking, and increased traffic accidents were much higher in women receiving the same dose as men. In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration halved the dosage in women.

A 2020 study in the journal Biology of Sex Differences found that for 86 common prescription medications, “including antidepressants, cardiovascular and anti-seizure drugs and painkillers, women were twice as likely to have adverse drug reactions than men. Women also experienced worse side effects, such as nausea, headache, depression, cognitive deficits, seizures, hallucinations, agitation, and cardiac anomalies.”

Given the dominance of the wedded-to-work male model, it is not surprising that women working outside the home are in a kind of defensive crouch

It has also been known for a long time that women's pain is taken much less seriously than men's. In her 2019 book Pain and Prejudice, Gabrielle Jackson discovered that "women wait longer for pain medication than men, wait longer to be diagnosed with cancer, are more likely to have their physical symptoms ascribed to mental health issues, are more likely to have their heart disease misdiagnosed or to become disabled after a stroke, and are more likely to suffer illnesses ignored or denied by the medical profession".

Far more women live in constant pain. The 10 most common chronic pain conditions are much more common in women but while women make up 70 per cent of chronic-pain patients, 80 per cent of pain medication has been tested only on men.

Jackson documents how, for centuries, women’s inferiority was put down to, first, possession of a womb, and then, with advances in knowledge of the endocrine system in the 20th century, to “raging hormones”. These prejudices linger in the way “female problems” such as menopause are sidelined.

Men being taken as the norm is not confined to medicine and pharmaceuticals. It is rampant in the paid workforce.

Care work

One strand of feminism may have contributed to the problem, however. For a long time, the ideal worker was seen as a single male with no attachments other than to success in the paid workforce. Some influential feminists were determined to compete on these grounds, ironically implicitly accepting the unattached male as the norm. Caring work was often constructed as an obstacle to paid work.

While some strands of feminism have emphasised caring work, they still fall into using expressions such as “the burden of childcare” and the solution always seems to be more State-provided childcare rather than facilitating women’s choices. Nowadays, those choices often ideally involve working part-time in the paid labour force and having their caring work also subsidised in a way which gives real options.

Given the dominance of the wedded-to-work male model, it is not surprising that women working outside the home are in a kind of defensive crouch, where they will downplay any differences in their physiological needs for fear of adding to the discrimination against them. Women are still forced to feel shame simply for being women.

Neither is this model working for men, many of whom would cherish greater involvement in their children’s lives.

But the work of feminism will remain incomplete until simply being a woman is not seen as abnormal, and women are not treated as smaller, somewhat defective males.