The History of Hysteria
When we say someone or something is hysterical, we usually mean they are super emotional, like, uncontrollably so. And we’ve all been there. A person might become hysterical after finding out their pet died or their partner was unfaithful. We console them as much as we can until they stop crying and then we hope time and love will heal them. You and your friends probably thought Bridesmaids was hysterical. Because it was. But eventually your giggles subsided, you stopped speaking only in Kristen Wigg quotes, and you moved on (ish).
Hysteria wasn’t always seen as something someone just moved on from. In fact, historically, the term hysteria was used primarily as a psychiatric diagnosis, and has been linked to over 4000 years of women’s subjugation.
This dates all the way back to Ancient Greece. Hippocrates was the first to use the term. He claimed that hysteria was a diseased caused by an inadequate sex life, which would lead a women’s uterus to migrate from its proper position in the body. You read that right. They thought the Uterus could move, migrate all the way up the body to the mind and cause all sorts of bad things to happen.
The best way to fix this wandering uterus, of course, was to improve the sex life. Women with hysteria were advised to have more sex to potentially improve symptoms. Often this sex could be supplemented with different herbs and fragrances applied to the face and genitals, which would help in coaxing the uterus back to its proper position. Hippocrates created an important connection here, one that would last for millennia to come. In identifying this women’s illness, he made it seem that women were vulnerable to mental illness in general.
The Problem: Sexual frustration
The Cure: Sex
Flash forward to the Renaissance, we can see that little progress was made. Italian physicians continued to diagnose women with hysteria, and they still saw the uterus as the organ that made women vulnerable for physical and mental disease. Even in the Victorian Age women carried smelling salts in their bag. If they felt faint or uneasy, they were instructed to smell those salts. Just as Hippocrates had suggested in ancient times, these salts were said to urge the wandering womb back to its proper place in the body.
In the 19th century onward, the focus on the uterus waned, but the focus on women did not. Hysteria continued to be a catch-all diagnosis that was reserved almost exclusively for women. An American physician named George Beard assembled a 75-page list of potential symptoms of the disorder (and after the fact called that list incomplete). Psychiatrists thought that essentially any bodily function could be affected by hysteria. Some of the most widely accepted symptoms are considered normal today in the context of female sexuality.
Naturally, the cure at the time was sexual stimulation, either at home or or at the doctor’s office. Popular treatments included the use of an electro-mechanical vibrator or even a high pressure water shower applied to the abdomen. I am not joking. The popularization of these “orgasmic” treatments actually sparked the commercialization of the vibrator in the late 1880s. Yep, vibrators were invented and originally used primarily in medical offices.
The Problem: Tons of stuff
The Cure: Orgasmic Treatment (aka sex)
In the second half of the 20th century the prevalence of hysteria as a diagnosis sharply declined. Today the diagnosis is seen largely as a pseudoscience. The decline of “hysteria” as a diagnosis is definitely tied to the feminist movement more generally, as women more comfortably began to inhabit the public sphere.
Still the common diagnosis of hysteria in the late 19th and early 20th century has often been the subject of much scrutiny for scholars of women and gender. They argue that the disorder played into a long narrative of female exclusion and dismissal. Hysteria was used to keep women out of the public sphere, and the diagnostic criteria make it seem as if the label was a consequence for women who fell out of their typically feminine roles and behaviors.
The Problem: Women not acting like “women”
The Cure: Diagnosing them with Hysteria to relegate them
That’s the hysterical history they didn’t teach you in class. It’s important to remember that this notion that women were just intrinsically “crazy” can still play out in nasty ways today. Like when someone dismisses your feelings because you might have your period. Or when people say that girls are just too emotional. The more things change, right?