How the Patriarchy Makes My Job Harder

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.

Inscription on the door at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, reading “He is not here – for He is risen”

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.

Trudy

Trudy is a lawyer living in the southwestern US. She has two cats who allow her to live in their house in exchange for a steady supply of food and treats.

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4 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    The male apostles only “came around” when they saw Jesus themselves. They didn’t decide on their own to believe the women. And back then there actually were female apostles, even if they weren’t believed; today women in the church don’t even have that.

  2. Caroline says:

    This is maddening, Trudy. To see women get the short end of the legal stick over and over again, because their diseases and conditions are less able to be seen via x-ray. This is something that needs to be talked about more. I’m glad you wrote this piece documenting this injustice.

  3. Katie Rich says:

    I’ve read about how much medical research neglects women and female bodies, but I hadn’t heard about the additional strains for women to qualify for disability payments. Thank you for sharing this perspective. So frustrating.

  4. Ms. Louise says:

    This is my daughter’s lived experience. She has myalgic encephalomyelitis (“Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” – a dismissive term that sounds like you’re just tired and complaining about it) that usually keeps her bed-bound, foggy-brained, in pain, isolated from life. She cannot work, (and some days can barely make it to a bathroom) She has to fight to qualify for social security disability benefits because this condition is not clearly understood/defined, and affects women far more than men. She spent years being told it was all in her head because the doctors didn’t have an answer.

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