History 28th September, 2020

Women & Hysteria: A Conspiracy By Science, Society And Philosophers.

“Hey you, don’t raise your voice! Hey, stop screaming like a madwoman! Don’t laugh out loud, it doesn’t seem nice! What?! You are a woman and you don’t want children?!” 

All these are what many of us, especially woman, have heard and continue to do so in this 21st century of the not-so-progressive era. Being vocal is not a crime – up until one is independent and empowered, questions the system and even criticises it constructively. A lot of feminists have been declared as ‘hysterical’ and ‘cry-babies’. Donald Trump casually declared the left-wing as ‘hysterical’ and ‘mad’. What these situations are a result of – sustained and carefully procreated history of male atrocities, misogyny and abetting in male dominance over women’s bodies, minds and emotions. I say this because intimidating women can happen in any way – be it physical, psychological, sexual, emotional and financial.

Going back to the Origins of Hysteria

Hysteria was just seen as a mental health disorder only attributed to women. Freud worked extensively on this and even exaggerated the issue altogether and landed himself in an ocean of feminist criticism. The literature review can majorly be classified as scientific and demonological – the former with some physiological attributes granted to emotional outbursts, the latter without any evidence and entails merely imaginary viewpoints of ‘displacement of the uterus’ and the ‘suffocation of uterus’ as believed by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.

French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893, to the left of the patient) demonstrating a case of hysteria, in 1886 at the Salpetriere hospital in Paris. Image source: Science Photo Library

Plato assumed hysteria occurred due to the absence of orgasms and the uterus of the woman being sad and thus arose hysterical symptoms – also notions supported by Hippocrates and Aristotle. Hippocrates was the first to officially use the term and he attributed the cause to uterus displacement leading to abdominal cramps, emotional outbursts and this being somewhat different from epilepsy.

Galen termed the unfertilized ovum as “rotting seed” that was giving rise to hysteria in women – the worst affected being unmarried women, young adolescents and widowed women. The ‘cure’ prescribed was some fragrant fumigated scents placed near the vagina and the “professional” release of toxins by therapists. Today that sounds like a load of garbage because we have now become vocal about our sexuality and women’s sexual needs – all thanks to various campaigns and revolutions in that direction. However, history keeps reminding us of painstaking notions that persisted for so long.

The concept of hysteria has also very subtly tried to subjugate women as someone totally out of their mind, their sexual needs as the mere envy of men and thus the attempts to snatch agency and autonomy. The hierarchy needs to be maintained by the patriarchy in which most of us are in. During the 19th century, Doctor Mitchell prescribed ‘rest cure’ for Charlotte Perkins Gilman after she was diagnosed as hysterical. She was forced to lay on the bed, eat fat and dairy heavy food and she was barred from touching paper or pen – she was a writer. Years later, she smashed this sick misogynistic ordeal by her piece on hysteria and women – which we now know as the ‘Yellow Wallpaper’. The latter is a great feminist piece in which she clearly stated the treatment as a mere act of avoidance and imposing male autonomy, altogether rendering women as ‘mad’ and incompetent.

Women were mostly portrayed as someone to work on, their sexuality portrayed as a psychological issue and decided upon for them.

This isn’t the only story. Even today, women who are not norm-abiding are intimidated, slut-shamed and called home-breakers when they reject living up to the stereotypical images of the loving mother, a dutifully serving wife and a daughter for marital donation. For women who don’t like children to play with and giggle, who are ambitious and want to achieve on their own – dismissing them as hysterical and unstable is an attempt to overshadow the competency, endurance and confidence of women and society fears the latter three immensely!

Courtesy of the American Psychological Association, hysteria has been removed from the list of mental health illness and has been modified with a more scientific term (‘Convulsions’). This presented us with a realisation as to how even psychology as a field, which emerged from a movement, was also male-dominated. Women were mostly portrayed as someone to work on, their sexuality portrayed as a psychological issue and decided upon for them.

Ponder on this for a bit. Till then, signing off with a message for all women out there – speak out louder and bolder! And for the men out there – just listen.


 [Accessed 10 August 2020].

 [Accessed 10 August 2020].


Also Read: The Yellow Wallpaper Review: When Medical Science Failed Women

Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Medium

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