If you have a female reproductive system, you may have heard phrases like "you must be on your period" when feeling emotional, sensitive, or upset. We know hormones take up a big part in how we feel around our monthly cycle. We may get more upset than usual but in no way are we overreacting or being irrational. The preconception that those with a uterus are more sensitive or even hysterical is built from social constructs and their definition of femininity. These preconceptions are not new, they've been around for centuries, and the retaliation for these beliefs came with a hefty price for those who were wrongly diagnosed with hysteria.
Hysteria was believed to be a mental disorder attributable only to women. We now know this isn't true, but even as far as ancient Egypt, women were believed to suffer from it due to their uterus movement. Wait; what? Yes, the Greeks and the Egyptians believed that the uterus would migrate around the body and pressure other organs, resulting in depressive syndromes, seizures, suffocating, and other deadly symptoms. Later on, this theory was debunked, but for years, our wombs were the evil masterminds behind all health issues surrounding women. So our reproductive systems were the basis of beliefs throughout the time that we were weaker, easily influenced, and irrational.
Later on, many physicians and philosophers would say that women were more prone to hysteria than men. Some would go as far as to say we are born with hysteria, that it is built as part of our behaviors, like the french physician Auguste Fabre said. The idea that women were hysterical came from our actions; it was their reasoning as to why we behaved differently than men.
"Throughout its history, of course, hysteria has always been constructed as a "woman's disease," a feminine disorder, or a disturbance of femininity.." - Elaine Showalter, Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender
Blood is bad!
Even though we have progressed as a society to get rid of most gender-based misconceptions, we still suffer from the taboos and the misinformation behind menstruation or period blood. In many countries, it is viewed as impure and menstruating individuals are restraint from everyday activities, so can you imagine what these people had to go through back in the day?
Period blood was not only viewed as impure, but society went as far as saying it was poisonous and contaminative. What a great time to be alive! Danielle Dalechek, in A history of blood: hysteria, taboos, and evil, explains how some depictions of hysteria included the idea that the uterus was capable of such problems because it was full of blood. And the treatment for this? Trust me; you don't want to know. Bloodletting and hysterectomy were commonly used for the remedy if you were lucky; if not, you would earn a place in an asylum.
Apart from the withdrawal of blood to let impurities out of your body, vibrators were the way to go during the 1800s and early 1900s. In a previous post, we wrote a little about the history of vibrators, and in it, we briefly explained how they were used as a cure for hysteria. At first, doctors would treat their patients with pelvic massages without the intention of it being erotic or sexually stimulating, and after the Industrial Revolution, machines and gadgets were brought into the doctor's office to help with these "massages". It is safe to say that patients diagnosed with this mental disorder later found more fun usages for the machines.
So, what is hysteria?
Even though the word hysteria comes from the Greek word uterus, the term is no longer related to people with them. Hysteria can be found in all genders. It is known as a conversion disorder in psychology, meaning that it is not a single condition, rather than symptoms, and it appears to be neurological and very rare. According to Lisa Fritscher from Verywell Mind, "it is a relatively rare mental illness, with 2 to 5 out of 100,000 people reporting symptoms per year." It includes selective amnesia, volatile emotions, overdramatic behavior, among others. Hysteria can come from a traumatic experience or as a symptom of a mental illness, it can be rage, instability, anxiety, and not because of your gender.
We have come a long way, but we're still not there yet. Even though we are not taken into asylums for our behaviors, the stigma is still there. And all of this is an excellent example of how we've never had control over our bodies and how we are deemed weak, volatile, and irrational. We are not unreasonable, and we are not hysterical, let's step away from the social standards society has built upon us and treat others with respect.
The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/medical-vibrators-treatment-female-hysteria
Female hysteria: The history of a controversial 'condition'. (n.d.). Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/the-controversy-of-female-hysteria
The History of Hysteria. (2019, July 31). Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/history-quackery/history-hysteria
Hysteria Beyond Freud. (n.d.). Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft0p3003d3
Moore, L. (2020, January 30). A history of menstrual blood: Hysteria, taboos, and evil. Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://hekint.org/2020/01/30/a-history-of-blood-hysteria-taboos-and-evil/
Tasca, C., Rapetti, M., Carta, M., & Fadda, B. (2012). Women and hysteria in the history of mental health. Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480686/