Representing Women’s Health 2020: A Conference Review

Beata Gubacsi reflects on the Representing Women’s Health conference, featuring topics from reproductive health and maternal loss to endometriosis and hysteria, providing insight into new research to locate and deconstruct stigma and bias in healthcare. 

Photo by v2osk on Unsplash

Due to Covid-19, Representing Women’s Health 2020 was moved online. While we missed out on a day at the University of Glasgow (where the conference was originally due to take place on 12th June), organiser Anna McFarlane’s experimental format not only worked brilliantly but could also be regarded as an example of how to run and facilitate an online conference. After being provided with sufficient information and assistance, the speakers were asked to record their presentations in advance, which were uploaded to the conference’s unlisted channel on YouTube. Since the papers were available with subtitles and for a longer period of time, they were more accessible, and allowed everyone to familiarise themselves with the content before the conference. As a result, the panels, separate Zoom meetings facilitated by Anna throughout the day, were discussion only. The questions were also collated by presentation in advance, which made the conversations smooth, friendly and informative.

Wiktoria Muryn’s presentation “Transparent Wombs, Holy (Mis)conceptions – Representations of “Foetus-Type” Visitation and Women’s Monasticism in Late Medieval Germany” opened the panel, “Wombs”. The paper focused on the different reiterations of the Visitation, portraying the foetuses overlaid on the women’s abdomens in paintings and tapestry, or in carvings inside niches, making the womb visible for the spectator. While these depictions of the “occupied womb” were relatively rare in the Medieval period, they have become associated with contemporary conservative Bible interpretations and pro-life rhetoric, displayed on anti-abortion websites and protest signs. The presentation returned to the authentic medieval context of this type of iconography, interrogating whether nuns would consider the “occupied womb” to be an anatomically correct representation of an unborn infant, and debated the implications this might have on foetal personhood. The notion of  the womb’s “visibility” returned in a totally different way in Aprajita Sarcar’s “Women As Sites: The Dichotomies of Family Planning on the ‘Female’ Body”, an analysis of the mutating narratives surrounding family planning and contraception in 1960s-70s India in the context of the Cold War. The paper began with establishing how postcolonial family planning discourse was heavily influenced by Malthusian views of economy, overpopulation and population control. Aprajita argued that the different birth control methods were communicated to women in ways that misrepresented their effectiveness and side effects, and drew attention to the lack of legal vocabulary and accountability to inform and protect these women – mostly working-class and of marginalised religious groups – whose bodies were treated as a site of medical trial for contraceptive methods.

The first speaker of the panel “Psychosomatics” was Georgia Haire with “Have you tried relaxing?: the experience and treatment of vaginismus as a contested and neglected condition.” The paper noted the numerous causes from trauma to pregnancy which have to be factored in the diagnosis, and the problematic cultural and medical approaches to vaginismus. The complexity of the condition, and the feelings of guilt and shame, often generated by the disbelief and negative reaction of partners and healthcare professionals, prevents women from seeking and receiving treatment. With an analysis of dilators, the most common form of treatment, Georgia argued the necessity of (a) deconstructing the heterosexual framing of vaginismus which privileges penetrative intercourse and male pleasure; (b) and the medicalisation of vaginismus which can legitimise women’s experience of pain and lead not only to sufficient diagnosis but better treatment as well. As a front-line respondent, Mary J. Lockwood could not do her planned presentation on her PhD topic, “‘It’s all in your head:’ Medicine’s dismissal of women living with vulvodynia”, but, fortunately, she provided a pre-recorded overview. She defined vulvodynia as a chronic condition causing burning and sharp pain, which generally met with the same dismissal as vaginismus. She emphasised the importance of training to improve communication between patients and healthcare professionals. The panel addressed another overlooked and underdiagnosed condition: in a creative, autobiographical and performative presentation “Representing Endometriosis: Thoughts on My Sick Body and Spectatorship” Veronica Rodriguez offered glimpses into her experience living with endometriosis. The illness is represented not just as its medical definition but through the notion of spectatorship which consists of the way the sick body is seen in the operating room to be deconstructed into specimen, and the very effect of this representation and self/spectatorship on the lived experience. The online conversation focused on the common denominator of the papers, namely, the normalisation of women’s pain, which can both help or hinder diagnoses and treatment.

The third panel, “Speculative Fiction” discussed different embodied experiences of pregnancy. Jo Rodgers began her “Imagining Abortion: Foetal Personhood and Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks (2018)” by drawing parallels between the farcical introduction of the fictional “personhood amendment” and the current US legal discourse regarding the beginning of life which disregards the mother’s own life. The novel’s structure of multiple reproductive narratives from different characters breaks down the pregnancy binary of mother and foetus. Jo argued that approaching pregnancy from a feminist, new materialist point of view, which problematises boundaries and emphasises a non-Anthropocentric interconnectedness, can reframe the discussion of foetal personhood. Accordingly, the conclusion suggested to regard pregnancy as a network, and understand abortion in context. Jonathan Thornton’s “Climate Change and Pregnancy in Naomi Booth’s Sealed and Marian Womack’s Lost Objects continued with the theme of the problematic boundaries of pregnancy. The overview of Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction and pregnancy at the beginning demonstrated that pregnancy embodies both an individual, subjective experience as well as a generalised site for anxieties regarding humanity’s future and survival to be projected on. This is apparent in Booth’s novel Sealed, imaging a skin condition “cutis” which makes the skin grow out of control, and in Womack’s short stories, depicting worlds in crisis, normalising difficult pregnancies in all species. The way the characters reflect on the changing boundaries of their bodies is similar to pregnant women’s experience of the erosion of inside and outside, self and the environment. My own presentation “‘The House of Death:’ Postpartum Psychosis and Infanticide” offered a non-traditional introduction to Weird fiction and the Weird Tales magazine (1923-1954), reflecting on the trend of opening the Weird canon to women writers. I talked about how Georgia Stroup’s “The House of Death” (1923) uses Gothic themes and fin-de-siècle medicine and psychiatry to offer a sensitive representation of postpartum psychosis and infanticide. Stroup’s defiance of the notion of hereditary mental illness, with emphasis on community support, and the problematisation of judiciary procedure, shows several overlaps with contemporary social, medical and legal approaches to postpartum psychosis and the role of intent in infanticide cases.

Keynote speaker Ria Cheyne’s recorded address stated that the current unusual circumstances of her talk required a different approach to her topic. Accordingly, “Representation, Disability, Disclosure: Uncertain Explorations” was a reflection and extension of the afterword of her monograph Disability, Literature, Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction (2019). She reflected on the stages of her academic career, whilst managing anxiety and depression, and how these experiences shaped her research. She suggested that authentic personal engagement with our topic is seldom acknowledged: academic writing is rarely treated as subjective even though it can be just as creative as any other type of writing. It was a fantastic talk, revolving around the transparency of disclosure and making academia safer, healthier and more accessible. In the discussion, she attempted to define medical humanities through its relationship with disability studies, raising the question “what is the goal of medical humanities?” Is it encouraging, engaging and organising activism and research? Or proliferating the definitions of health and illness in the way that disability studies scholars have expanded the understanding of disability? This led to the question of diagnosis, which was raised in previous panels. Ria Cheyne’s answer drew attention to diagnosis anxiety in the case of disability, recommending Tom Shakespeare’s work on disability and labels. She also offered an example based on her own personal experiences with postnatal depression: in this case, the diagnoses helped to circumscribe the experience by introducing causality and a particular time frame.

The largest panel of the day was “Contemporary Women’s Health in the UK and Ireland” with four speakers. In “Archiving the 8th, #repealmemories, and the Politics of History in Irish Pro-choice Activism”, Leah Eades provided insight into how the collected digital output of the Repeal campaign can prevent the erasure of women’s voices in Irish media, and outlined concerns and goals regarding the remembrance of the Repeal movement and the history of abortion rights activism. The new post-referendum materials coming out on the story of the campaign show several issues with how the Repeal is represented. These include the problem of narrative agency and visibility, drawing attention to the lack of LGBT+, disabled and migrant voices in relation to reproductive right movement. Traumatic #repealmemories demonstrate the emergence of burnout narratives from activists who had to withdraw to process their feelings after the referendum. And finally, there appears to be a lot of “pushback” suggesting that “things are not moving fast enough”, meaning that services are still not available in many areas, and those attending the facilities are still exposed to harassment. April Shaw’s presentation “‘The first thing that I noticed when I got clean was that life hurts:’ Women and Ageing in Recovery” shared the experiences of women who had to manage a new understanding of their bodies post-recovery, as well as the prejudice they face seeking treatment for age-related conditions. These testimonies suggest that the symptoms of ageing are often registered merely as the lack of drugs rather than ageing itself, and women in recovery show a stoic attitude to their health as an acceptance of “the damage they’ve done”. This stoicism can easily be a result of the discouragement and judgement they face in their medical interactions, and the lack of control and agency they have in this context, especially in case of reproductive treatments and processes. The data Rebecca Crowther analysed in her presentation “Reproductive health and fertility services experiences for lesbian women, bi+ women, trans men, and non-binary people in Scotland” depicted the lack of understanding regarding the bodily experiences and medical needs of LGBT+ clients. The evidence suggests that they often do not receive the required treatment or they are put off from seeking medical assistance by the general negative conduct of reproductive health professionals. Based on the data gathered, Rebecca’s concluding remarks offered recommendations for fertility services to take on to ensure better engagement with their clients. LGBT+ friendly family planning guidelines should include – among others – clear communication of contraceptive methods without assumptions or misgendering and disclosed information on how it may affect different genders, improved screening services, better legal information on surrogacy and fertility treatments, inclusive breast and chest feeding services, and support for victims of sexual violence.  The conversation of inequality in reproductive rights continued with Lynsey Mitchell’s “Law’s Patriarchy: Reading Narratives of Privilege in the UK’s Abortion Regimes.” The paper provided an overview of the history of abortion rights in the UK and Northern Ireland, suggesting reliance on vague and moralising Victorian legislature. It also shed light to the hypocrisy of the UK in failing to decriminalise and expand abortion rights in Northern Ireland while supporting it in the UK and in the developing countries as well. In the final part of the presentation, Lynsey explored the patriarchal rhetoric in judicial language which remains to recognise abortion as a privilege which can be taken away rather than a human right issue.

The last panel, dedicated to creative contributions, was kickstarted by Laura González’s “The [dis]appearance of hysteria”, addressing the history and historical representations of hysterics. She emphasised the role of gaze and spectatorship, arguing the necessity of reclaiming hysteria as a medical term. Rachel Bower’s contribution “Writing the Maternal: Poems and Reflections” explored the content of her 2018 Moon Milk collection. The discussion emphasised the refreshingly visceral and animalistic imagery depicting the postnatal ward, drawing attention to how sanitised the notion of birth and death became and how that façade breaks when dealing with reproductive loss and mental illness as a result. Laura Donald talked about her creative non-fiction piece “The Host”, which contains similar imagery to Rachel Bower’s poetry, providing insight into living and parenting with heart disease. During the discussion, she also elaborated on her research, the misrepresentation of younger women with heart disease or the lack thereof, and the horror of cardiac devices. Her blog, Hearty Tales, contains many further resources and creative pieces.

Anne Whitehead’s keynote lecture “‘Your tiny white vests, unworn:’ Contemporary elegies of maternal loss” mapped beautifully the different areas of maternal loss. She began with pointing out how invisible maternal loss in the UK is, and how it remains a blind spot even in feminist criticism. Maternal loss can be regarded as an identity issue: the impossibility of identifying as a parent when the death of a child can invalidate that definitive role, and the lack of words to express the position of a childless parent, in the way orphan means parentless child. This painful paradox can be approached as chronic pain, utilising Sara Wasson’s research. Reading contemporary poetry within this framework allows Anne to argue the importance of elegy as a medium to express grief and anger of parents who survive their children and have to cope with living with this pain. In the discussion, she addressed some of the questions arising throughout the day, offering exciting ways to revisit and redefine the terms medical humanities, critical medical humanities and health humanities. Drawing on Caroline Levine’s Form: Whole, Rhythm. Hierarchy, Network, Anne suggested that the field can assume many shapes, which can be both enabling and limiting.

Thanks to Anna McFarlane and all the speakers, we had a very productive day of sharing ideas which has certainly inspired new trajectories for further research. The very format of the conference itself is worth considering as a strategy to making similar events more approachable and accessible. For more insights from speaker and attendees, check #RWH2020 on Twitter.

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