Female ADHD: a feminist analysis


I have a master’s degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Oregon State University. I was initially motivated to apply to grad school in September 2014, when I realized that rather than continue to work in newspaper journalism, I wanted to forge a career writing online about women’s health issues through a feminist lens. But when I enrolled at OSU, in January 2015, it soon became clear to me that a large part of my future career would revolve around exposing and attempting to eliminate the sexism that has defined my experience as an ADHD woman.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, in the words of feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky, women in Western society are expected to take up as little space as possible. People with ADHD often are unruly and outspoken. So ADHD women exist in diametric opposition to the mores of our culture. Our natural behavior automatically codes us ‘wrong,’ and thus, ‘bad.’

Women in Western society are expected to take up as little space as possible. People with ADHD often are rambunctious and outspoken. So ADHD women exist in diametric opposition to the mores of our culture. Click To Tweet

Loath though I am to admit it, I’ve internalized that sexism; it has me feeling utterly ashamed of my messy tendencies. This is symptomatic not of ADHD, but of a cultural construct so entrenched, even the most die-hard feminist (yours truly) isn’t immune to it.

As Suzannah Weiss writes in a post on Everyday Feminism,

We feel pressure to avoid … acting too “masculine” out of fear that people will ridicule us, deem us undesirable, or distrust our gender identity. We are judged more harshly if we don’t keep our living spaces neat, succeed at cooking and other forms of homemaking, and do a great job entertaining guests.

Throughout history, women have been tacitly prevailed upon to perform this kind of emotional labor, “the exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations.”

As ADHD expert Kathleen Nadeau explains,

Society has a certain set of expectations we place on women and ADHD often makes them harder to accomplish. … They are supposed to be the organizer, planner, and primary parent at home. Women are expected to remember birthdays and anniversaries and do laundry and keep track of events. That is all hard for someone with ADHD.

And this paradigm isn’t confined to male-female relationships: In a post on Ravishly titled How To Be A Supportive Partner While Managing Your ADHD, Alaina Leary writes, “My partner and I are both women, so we’ve both been socialized to pick up the slack in relationships and do all sorts of unpaid and mental labor to keep things running smoothly” (emphasis mine).

In fact, the emotional labor dynamic extends beyond relationships and into the workplace. Notes Weiss, “If we are in a male-dominated profession or academic field, we feel pressure to always be perfect, lest our colleagues take our imperfections as evidence that all people like us are flawed in the same way.”

Maddeningly, this dynamic is even discernible among the very people who seek to end it: feminists. I can tell you from first-hand experience of a tendency among some members of the women’s studies academy to balk at women displaying symptoms of ADHD.

Despite this flaw, I believe ADHD women must work within the structure of feminism to gain a better understanding of their own oppression and to attempt to suppress that oppression. Why? Because much of the marginalization women with ADHD experience is due to sexism, which feminism was created to eliminate.

With that in mind, there are a few steps we need to take:

  1. We must familiarize ourselves with basic feminist theory and pinpoint the sexist underpinnings of different instances of our discrimination (see above).
  2. We need to muster up the courage to start a dialogue with those who are discriminating against us due to our ADHD, calling this discrimination what it is.
  3. We should reject any subsequent retribution, social or otherwise, for defending ourselves due to our newfound sense of self-pride.

Of course, there’s more than one kind of feminism. But for now, let me just say that this ADHD woman is done feeling ashamed of her inability to fulfill traditional gender roles as a result of her neurological impairment.

How has sexism affected your experience as an ADHD woman?

Young woman in a thoughtful pose

1 Comment

  1. lavenderandlevity February 1, 2018 at 11:02 am PST

    This is really thoughtful. I’ll have to think about how to answer the feminist question at the end, but I can definitely say having a guy who doesn’t ascribe to gender stereotypes in cleaning and child rearing is pretty much the only way a relationship works for me. I can (barely) do career, life, caregiving for a relative and chronic illness. Cleaning would be a bridge to far, so thank God he does it.


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