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Thoughts on Hysteria

by Mabel Holes 2 years ago in history

or the 'Crazy Woman'

Do you have a uterus? Do you sometimes feel anxious, experience sexual desire, or ‘cause trouble for others’? Well, then, you may just be suffering from Wandering Womb Syndrome! Yes, that’s right, it’s totally possible that your womb has taken a mind of it’s own and started to wander freely around your body, causing all kinds of mischief…

.. that’s what the ancient greeks would have thought anyway. The ‘father of Medicine’ Hippocrates described the condition at length, and fellow physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia even described the womb as “an animal within an animal”, moving of its own accord and causing various symptoms when it collides with other organs. These symptoms included, but were not limited to, loss of appetite, insomnia, fluid retention, headaches, shortness of breath, and (quite dramatically) sudden death. Scent therapy was applied in many cases, as it was thought that the uterus had a liking for ‘nice smells’ and could be coaxed back into its correct place by placing these smells near the vagina to attract it, and placing bad smells under the nose of the afflicted to drive it away. If that didn’t work, simply sneezing might do the trick (I know).

It sounds ridiculous to us now of course, but this idea of the wandering womb laid a lot of the groundwork for a medical diagnosis which came about many centuries later - hysteria.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, theories about retention of fluid and menstrual blood in the uterus took over from the wandering womb theory, and physicians recommended women have regular sexual encounters with their husband, and ideally have lots of children, to avoid this build up of fluid. Self-treatment, or masturbation, was not recommended because this meant that women wouldn’t receive the ‘healing properties’ of semen (I know).

Finally, in the 18th and 19th century, scientists and physicians started to associate hysteria with the brain, rather than the uterus. French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (known as the founder of modern neurology) is particularly famous for his studies on the subject, and paved the way for the understanding that certain psychological symptoms can arise from trauma, and affect men as well as women. Most people ignored the fact that men could suffer from this, so hysteria remained a female-exclusive affliction. At this time, massaging of the pelvis and genitals to the point of orgasm was the primary approach of treatment, termed ‘hysterical paroxysm’, and was done by doctors or midwives. It is thought that this may have encouraged the development of the vibrator, to relieve physicians of such a laborious task.

Okay, so times have changed considerably. Now, as of the mid-twentieth century, hysteria is no longer a formal diagnosis, so you may be wondering why I’m bothering to write about this at all. The thing is, the patriarchal foundations of the diagnosis still prevail in today’s society. Women of the past, our ancestors, were diagnosed with hysteria when, essentially, they did not care to fall in line with society’s expectations of them. When they didn’t want to marry, or when they didn’t want to have children, or when they didn’t simply sit and shut up, as they’d been taught. In Edwardian newspapers, the Suffragettes were repeatedly dismissed as being hysterical, and it did wonders for damaging the public’s perception of the cause, and hindering their tireless fight to get women’s voices heard. Accusations of mental instability have long been used as a quick way of silencing women.

I have a problem with this. The more we dismiss and trivialise women’s emotions, the more we stand to normalise gaslighting and abusive relationships. And the more we tell women that they’re crazy for feeling perfectly normal emotions, the more we stigmatise and belittle those people with actual mental illnesses.

What strikes me is that we, as a society, need to rethink the way that we associate femininity with being inherently irrational. It seems to be universally accepted that women are just emotionally unstable, end of story. How many ‘psycho’ ex-girlfriends have you been told about? How many ‘hysterical’ feminists?

You are not crazy for expressing emotion. You are not crazy for feeling anxious, or enjoying sex, or sometimes putting yourself first. You are not crazy for speaking up. Speak up!


About the author

Mabel Holes

medical student in the UK, who spends her spare time writing ✨

instagram: @mabelholes

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