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Culture & Conversation Media

I’m Not Hysterical—but You’re Sexist

Naomi Elster

Over the years, people in power have used “hysteria” to denigrate women’s bodies.

“Professional left-wing activists who have no skill other than agitation have trained a large group of people to do nothing but protest,” Erick Erickson wrote in a 2016 column that appeared on Fox News about the anti-Trump protesters who mobilized after the election. “Instead of trying to unite the country, they have flown into hysterics and temper tantrums.”

A century earlier and on another continent, the British government was trying to dismiss the cause of the suffragettes, using the same tactic and labeling them as “hysterical fanatics.”

These instances are part of a larger pattern. Throughout the years, people in power have used “hysteria” to denigrate women’s bodies, propagate stigma against mental illness, and dismiss the perspectives of those who might challenge the status quo.

If someone’s described as “hysterical” these days, it’s generally assumed to mean they’re upset, overemotional, or in a state where we’ll take anything they say less seriously. Which is ironic, because when you delve into the history of hysteria, you hit on some really irrational stuff.

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In both Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, philosophers and early physicians believed any physical or mental trouble in a woman was caused by the womb going a-wandering, interfering with other functions in the process. References to this theory appear in the Egyptian Kahun Papyrus from 1900 B.C., but the earliest known use of the word “hysterical”—named after the Greek word for uterus—was in the fifth century B.C. by Hippocrates, who included among its symptoms anxiety and a sense of suffocation. Then came Timaeus, another Greek text by the kind-hearted Plato, who was concerned that our uteruses got lonely on their solitary walkabouts. Apparently, a uterus was sad if it did not meet something male and produce a child. One less-than-dignified treatment involved placing something that smelled divine under the vagina to coax the uterus back. At the same time, something particularly insidious was put under the woman’s nose. But the other treatment, naturally, was sex with a man: Male semen was even believed to have healing properties.

It makes you want to roll around the floor laughing, um, hysterically.

But the implications aren’t funny: A disease cured by marriage, sex, and babies makes for an easy way to justify corralling women into a very limited role, all the while telling us it’s for our own good.

In the Middle Ages, things took another grim turn as the Christian world became preoccupied with heresy and witch hunts. Authority figures in the Church thought hysteria came directly from the devil, and treatment for mental illness was exorcism. According to the Malleus Maleficarum of 1486, pretty much the witch-hunting manual of the day, any illness—hysteria among them—a physician cannot explain is likely to have come from the devil.

The association of hysteria with witchcraft—and, by extension, women—continued for centuries. There are many theories about what malice underlay Salem’s infamous witch trials, from land disputes to a mass infection with ergot fungus (which leads to hallucinations). Following World War II, historian Marion L. Starkey wrote about the “hysteria” in Salem manifesting itself in young women who were most repressed by the suffocating puritanism of the time. Here, Starkey portrays hysteria as an exclusively female disease, but its symptoms of erratic behavior could have been a sign of the damaging effects of the patriarchy. Historically, our potential has been systematically stifled, and it’s difficult to imagine how that could have been so widespread without it affecting women’s mental health—but if that were the case, it wasn’t caused by wombs or genetic illness, but the system itself.

Unfortunately, you can’t discuss hysteria without mentioning a certain psychoanalyst. In possibly one of the most incredulous moments in modern medical history, Sigmund Freud came up with the notion of “penis envy”: when cis women realize we don’t have penises, and “penis envy” consumes us, making us act in all sorts of irrational ways. We may even prefer male children, so that we can have a penis-by-proxy. Possible effects of penis envy, according to Freud, included anxiety, or a girl trying to suppress her sexual desires—both things which could lead to “hysteria.”

The “laugh or cry” moment becomes a “scream with rage moment” when you delve a little deeper. Like when you learn about “hysterical” patient Dora, who was told by Freud that she had imagined being molested as a child. I wish the relevance of this to the modern age was something that required an explanation.

But, for all this, at least we got a good story: doctors in the early 20th century believing that hysteria could be cured by orgasm, leading to the invention of the vibrator.

It’s just become one of those fun facts that everyone knows. But the idea only comes from one source: a 1999 book called The Technology of Orgasm by historian Rachel P. Maines, based entirely on secondary sources with no female voices. One example: her claim that piped water in Roman baths could be used for masturbation, and Roman women could have known about this. The source for this was a description of the development of a Roman baths complex in the English city of Bath, which features no mention of the water pressure, or the general use of the baths by women. While it’s tough to prove such a thing never happened, a lot of historians are skeptical.

Eminent historian Helen King has written an elegant paper in which she describes how Maines potentially misinterpreted or mistranslated her sources. Historian Lesley Hall has compiled many of the reasons to doubt the vibrator story on her page, from the “enormously pervasive horror around masturbation” of the time and doctor’s fears of being accused of sexual impropriety to the lack of mention of vibrators in patent records, or, even, contemporary porn.

There’s also what writers Robinson Meyer and Ashley Fetters described as “a disturbing insight, implying that vibrators succeeded not because they advanced female pleasure, but because they saved labor for male physicians.”

Regardless, the definition of hysteria as a “female disease” started to unravel after World War II, when a lot of men returned home with “shell-shock” or “war neurosis.” Mental health and its study suddenly became a pressing issue, and in the post-war years, diagnoses of hysteria plummeted. Interestingly, there was an inverse correlation in those years, between diagnosis of depression, which is still recognized as a mental health condition, and hysteria, which was rapidly falling out of favor— probably at least partly due to women’s improving status in the Western world, and partly due to better understanding of mental health generally.

By 1980, hysteria was officially no longer listed as a psychiatric disease in the DSM III, joining homosexuality in the ranks of things formerly but no longer considered psychiatric conditions.

The term, with all its problematic history and connotations, was officially out of the medical lexicon—but it’s hung around. When you do a news search on the term, you get some very predictable responses. We’ve got “climate change hysteria,” “rape culture hysteria,” and, of course, “anti-Trump hysteria.”

Now, hysteria often means “overemotional” and is a handy weapon in the arsenal of a tone-policer, whether that’s a politician, major news outlet, or someone in the street. But it takes either a lot of privilege or a lack of empathy to not be emotional when certain topics—like rape, social justice, Trump’s war on reproductive rights—are raised. Maybe the best answer to an accusation of being hysterical is this: “Check your privilege.”

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