history of misogyny

Hysteria

Hysteria. There’s a lot of it about. The entire world is in turmoil, and the news seems to jump from one crisis to another: the economic crisis, Brexit, Syria, the pandemic, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Ukraine. Not to mention all the ongoing crises that aren’t mentioned. Everyone is on edge, and no one has a complete picture of anything. My friend recently shared this cartoon from Bill Bramhall of the New York Daily News.

Cartoon by Bill Bramhall (2021)

But I’m not going to talk about global hysteria today – at least not directly. Today, I want to talk about where the word hysteria comes from. If you don’t already know this story, it will surprise you.

The wandering womb

The word hysteria comes from the same root as the ancient Greek word for womb. This is no coincidence. Centuries BCE, there was a theory – probably originating in ancient Egypt and perpetuated by the likes of Hippocrates, Plato and Arataeus of Cappadocia – that claimed women could suffer from a “wandering womb”. The womb, they said, could move around, and by doing this it caused no end of problems: it caused disease by bumping into other organs, it caused fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath and even death. The treatment? Foul smells to repel the womb and sweet smells to attract it, to encourage it to return to its proper place in the body. Oh, and being pregnant as much as possible and having consistent sex. Nice one, Hippocrates.

The Romans – and therefore most of Europe – and the Islamic world, caught these ancient Greek ideas and ran with them. Even, centuries later, when it was conceded that women’s wombs did not in fact move around their bodies, bumping into things and causing havoc, the womb itself was still held responsible for all manner of things – almost exclusively emotional and psychological. And people called this hysteria.

Tightening the corset

In 18th-century France, a physician by the name of Joseph Raulin claimed that hysteria could be spread through the air. Anyone could catch it, he said, but women were more likely to contract it because of their “lazy and irritable” nature. Another French physician, François Boissier de Sauvages, claimed the cause was a woman not being sexually active. Hmm…

In the 19th century, women in Europe and North America were frequently diagnosed with this condition. Some of them may have been suffering from mental health issues. Many of them, I presume, were just a bit much for their families and/or society to handle. If a woman was outspoken, belligerent, non-conformist, or simply demanded to be treated as an equal with the other half of the population, it wouldn’t have been difficult to obtain a diagnosis of hysteria. In fact, Medical News Today reports that even infertility and “a fondness for writing” were considered symptoms of this “condition”. A popular treatment during this time was the “rest cure” which basically involved shutting a woman up in a room and forcing her to do nothing. This was what happened to American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and was the inspiration for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper. I studied this story at school, and it affected me profoundly. It is the handbook of how to take an intelligent, free-thinking woman and drive her mad. Interestingly, Perkins Gilman was prescribed this treatment after exhibiting symptoms of depression. The same doctor who prescribed the “rest cure” for her, Dr Silas Weir Mitchell, prescribed outdoor exercise to men suffering from the same symptoms. As someone who has experienced severe depression, I am in no doubt about which of those treatments would support recovery, and which would worsen the symptoms exponentially.

Other 19th-century “cures” for hysteria included performing hysterectomies and giving women orgasms with specially-designed instruments (the forerunner to vibrators). Hard to believe. But that was all years ago, right? The medical community no longer accepts “hysteria” as a credible condition. (Although it didn’t disappear properly from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980!) However, the idea that women are unreliable, prone to exaggeration, unable to control their emotions or make rational decisions is still pervasive in our societies today.

Womb-bias in the 21st century

I remember seeing an interview (with a woman) in the run-up to the American election when Hilary Clinton stood as a presidential candidate. The woman said women shouldn’t be presidents because of their hormones – they would be starting wars all the time! To which the interviewer (a man) responded by asking her if she knew that practically every war in history had been started by men.

It isn’t just people’s off-the-wall opinions that point to the continued existence of the belief in female hysteria, though. Statistics prove it too. Take this extract from Dr Aviva Romm’s book, Hormone Intelligence.

A 2001 study, “The Girl Who Cried Pain,” found that when both men and women present the same symptoms, health care providers are more likely to give pain-relieving medications to men, while women are more likely to receive sedatives, suggesting that medical experts perceive women as “hysterical,” with psychogenic or emotional symptoms, and not “real” pain or a medical problem.

Dr Aviva Romm, Hormone Intelligence

Or how about this one, from her website at avivaromm.com.

More women die of heart attacks in the hospital each year than men. Let me make that even more clear – women already in the hospital who then report heart attack symptoms, are more likely to die of heart attack than men in the same situation. We are more likely to be told it’s anxiety or stress, and are more likely to be given a sleep, anxiety, or pain medication, whereas men are more likely to receive an appropriate cardiac workup.

Aviva Romm, How to Talk to Your Doctor and Get the Health Care You Need

That is frightening. But you are probably asking yourself, as I did, why? Why go to such great lengths to undermine women? To make them seem feeble, irrational, unreliable and incapable, when they make up half of our society – and the half, at that, which can grow and birth more or us and, historically, has been responsible for healing (not theorising, but real healing), keeping the home fires burning and everyone cleaned and fed?

Fear what you cannot understand

I have my own theory here: fear. People fear what they cannot understand, and so men feared women because they were innately different, somehow. They looked at the world in a different way, had different values and their bodies were so, so different … connected, somehow, to the waxing and waning of the Moon, bleeding cyclically, growing little humans inside. Incomprehensible, thousands of years ago. All that power in being connected to nature, in being able to create life … Terrifying. What if they wanted to take dominion over men? Better to get there first. (If only they had realised that the Feminine way is community not domination…) So they went for the womb – the very thing that makes women so fundamentally different from men. Aristotle, that great ancient Greek philosopher who we all think of with such reverence for his wonderful ideas, actually put out the idea that women were deformed men.

A perfect world

Women and men ARE different – physically, obviously, but far more so than most people realise – down to the very rhythms of our existence. And psychologically too. The point of this post is NOT that women are better than men. I do not mean to suggest that a world dominated by women would be a good thing. Yes, I believe that our world is crying out for Feminine energy. Not to be ruled by the Feminine, but to have both Masculine and Feminine energy in perfect balance. Because we need both energies – equally – to create a world where we all can thrive.

“In amongst the chaos, suffering and destruction, a healing force is wanting to be known – the power of the Feminine.”

Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer, Founders of Red School, Wild Power

In botany, a ‘perfect’ flower is one that has both male and female parts. A closer-to-perfect world, like a perfect flower, needs both the Feminine and Masculine in true balance. Helios and Selene. Yin and yang. This is not a new idea – it is older than hysteria, as ancient as we are – older, in fact, because the natural world has always known it.

In my next post, I’ll explore reclaiming our Feminine power. See you there!

Sources

The Controversy of ‘female hysteria’, Maria Cohut Ph.D. (2020) Medical News Today

Hormone Intelligence Dr Aviva Romm

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