I’m a lawyer in solo practice in the southwestern United States. I cover a large state and parts of surrounding states, representing disability claimants before the Social Security Administration. And the patriarchy makes my job harder.
In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must, among other things, have a “severe medically determinable impairment”. This means a documented medical condition that can be expected to last for at least 12 months and which interferes with one’s life in some way. Additionally, this impairment must preclude work.
My male clients tend to have conditions that are easily documented. Heart disease, orthopedic injuries, cancer. There are objective tests for those. My female clients tend to have autoimmune diseases, migraines, fibromyalgia, and other more subjective conditions. Chronic pain doesn’t show up on an x-ray. It’s a lot harder to convince a judge that a migraine isn’t just a headache and that people with invisible illnesses have good days and bad days.
My clearest example of this was several years ago. I had a client who had five different autoimmune disorders as well as migraines, fibromyalgia, kidney failure, and liver disease. Her liver disease was so severe that she was on the transplant list. There were 3200 pages of medical records in the file. (A typical file has about 500.) The judge called a medical expert to testify. The expert said that she had somatic symptom disorder, which is the fancy medical way of saying that she has hypochondria – a mental illness. He said that all of her physical complaints were in her head and not supported by objective evidence because the drugs for the autoimmune disorders didn’t work, and if she really had them, the drugs would have worked. And he said that fibromyalgia is just a form of hypochondria.
Basically, because doctors didn’t know how to treat her effectively, this “expert” used a bunch of fancy words to go with a 19th century diagnosis of hysteria.
And the one time I had a male client with fibromyalgia and autoimmune disorders, I won with no difficulty. After all, what dude would possibly make up having a “lady disease”? (The judge even commented at the hearing that it was rare for men to have these conditions.)
The fact that medical science still hasn’t properly studied and developed treatments for conditions that disproportionately affect women has caused untold suffering. And the fact that doctors and judges don’t believe women when we report our symptoms just adds insult to injury.
The story of the resurrection of Jesus is instructive. “It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.” (Luke 24:10-11) At least five women told the apostles about the most important event in the history of the world, and the apostles were basically “oh, silly ladies”.
It’s time for the patriarchy to accept that women actually know what we’re talking about when we’re discussing our lived experiences. The apostles eventually came around. Hopefully the doctors will, too.