Thalidomide and Sexism

First published in The Portsmouth News, 27/05/2014


In 1958, two things happened in the UK that had an impact on families and, in particular, the women in them. Firstly, the Church of England gave their moral backing to family planning, and secondly, the drug thalidomide was licensed for use.

I watched a documentary about thalidomide recently. It was uncomfortable viewing and disturbing on many levels: as a human being, a mother, and also as a woman. Any female who has suffered the nausea of morning sickness can appreciate the wish to pop a pill to take it all away. When it strikes, it is consuming, ruining the initial months of pregnancy.

But what I hadn’t realised was that thalidomide is a sedative. It was prescribed for morning sickness as a psychosomatic cure, due to the belief that the nausea itself was psychological. It was suspected that pregnant women felt ill because they were emotionally over-wrought at the thought of being pregnant, and not because they were essentially being poisoned by progesterone.

So, aside from being the cause of the greatest pharmaceutical disaster known to humankind, thalidomide also came with a distinctly unhealthy dose of sexism.

As women, even the language of our reproductive systems is built upon a sturdy foundation of patriarchy. The word ‘uterus’ has its roots in the Greek ‘hystera’, meaning hysteria or hysterical. Ever since Eve took the flak for The Fall, women have been seen as hormonal, unstable, and therefore incapable, creatures.

The only thing I consciously try to model for my girls is decent human behaviour, but I want them to see that mummy works, daddy works, and we make decisions together. I don’t believe that feminism means you shouldn’t stay at home with your kids; I simply believe it to mean that you should have choice, and the ability and freedom to make up your own mind about which options to choose.

Women and men are not the same, it’s daft to suggest that we are, but we should undeniably be of equal human value. It’s been a struggle throughout history to convince people, even ourselves at times, that this is true, and we are not helped by our very language betraying us. Just look back at that sentence: his-story.

I truly hope that the future my daughters and my friends’ sons are entering is a future filled with options, an appreciation of difference, and a strong sense of self-worth, irrespective of gender. Simple wishes, but not easily fulfilled.



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