Sexism and its numerous facets have been unfolding their intricacies since time immemorial, and the list seems to be never-ending. The case of the apparent hysteria in women is an excellent example of how sexism can be found in fields such as medicine and science as well. Here is how:
To start, the extremely well-known and overused term “b****** be crazy” is not as new as we would want it to be. Apparently, b****** have been crazy since centuries to come, or so they say. And it is not the least bit surprising how they reached this very logical conclusion.
Google defines hysteria as “a state in which a person or a group of people cannot control their emotions, for example cannot stop laughing, crying, shouting, etc.” but this was not the case until a few years ago.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, there came about a very heavy usage of the word “hysteria”. It was a medical condition diagnosed in women when they portrayed, at least according to the men, irrational or uncontrollable behavior.
The word “hysteria” is derived from the Greek word “hystera” which means uterus, which makes the origin of the entire problem a sex-biased issue. To baffle you even more, Hippocrates and Plato claimed that the womb, hystera, wandered around the female body, causing a variety of mental and physical conditions.
So, to put it in short, until the late Middle Ages, the uterus was thought to be a free-floating organ.
Hysteria was blamed for a variety of ailments and attitudes, including nervousness, fainting, irritability, anxiety, boldness or outspokenness, sexual desire, and so on. The very origin of the term is linked to the idea that any display of emotion or force from a woman is an indication of her fragile nature and inherent instability, this is found in its usage even today.
The physicists of that era came up with the symptoms, causes, and cure for “hysteria” which to be honest were no better than the diagnosis. they diagnosed hysteria based on a long list of common symptoms including headache, forgetfulness, irritability, insomnia, hot flashes, excessive vaginal bleeding, heaviness in the limbs, usage of coarse language, severe cramping, difficulty breathing, mood swings, nausea, anxiety, drowsiness, loss of appetite, aging, back pain, and the list goes on.
Galen, a philosopher, and physician disagreed with the free-floating uterus theory, believing that the retention of ‘female seed’ within the womb was to blame for the anxiety, insomnia, depression, irritability, fainting, and other symptoms experienced by women. Throughout these classical texts, almost any symptom, from fevers to kleptomania, could be believed to be due to the female sex organs.
Female hysteria was treated with pelvic massages. If a female patient became flushed and relieved during a pelvic massage treatment for hysteria, doctors explained that she was having a hysterical paroxysm, also known as an orgasm. Sexual intercourse was also thought to be the best treatment for hysteria, and it was also easy to accept because anything creating marital obligations was good.
Franz Anton Mesmer, who practiced “mesmerism”—or hypnotizing his patients into thinking they had been cured—believed that a physiological fluid primarily caused the unpredictable behavior in women.
American doctor Silas Weir Mitchell, who had a particular interest in hysteria, began endorsing the “rest cure” as a “therapy” for this illness in the 1850s. Rest treatment included extended periods of bed rest and strict prohibition of any intellectual and physical exertion. Women who Mitchell considered to be suffering from hysteria were given this therapy first and foremost. On the other hand, he would suggest that males with hysterics get lots of outdoor activity.
In later years, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, clarified that this psychological dysfunction was entirely related to emotional activities and neurological processes, rather than a womb needing an orgasm. Consequently, for a very long time, the term was used to describe a wide range of symptoms, reinforcing negative gender and sex stereotypes. It is also important to note that many of the issues doctors tried to address with female patients were not issues when they appeared in male patients.
Hysteria remained an umbrella term covering things about women that males found perplexing or understandable. It was officially removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a medically-recognized diagnosis for women in 1980. It may have been declassified as a medical condition in women but what has prevailed through generations is the need to undermine and overpower what women think.
The negative statements associating normal human behavior with hysteria are centralized to women even today.
Men are mostly stated as hysterical in a positive sense, whereas a woman is referred to its negative aspects, as per its current definition. It is still used to tag a woman’s inability to manage their emotions. The usage of these words have repercussions. These sexist labels completely discredit the point of view of women. Hence, in comparison to males, women are less trusted in important roles. When two people are acting in the same way, our society tends to see women substantially more harshly than men. A woman just seems hysterical unless proven otherwise.
Even in the field of medicine, women are taken less seriously when it comes to their discomfort. Comments like “it’s all in your head” get thrown around a lot.
Stephanie Shields, PhD, has been studying the intersection of gender and emotion for over 30 years. “[There’s] a stereotype that women are less in-control of their stronger emotions,” she says. “His emotions are believed to be a response to situations; her emotions are believed to be a reflection of her weaker character.”
History has not shied away from keeping women oppressed all thanks to the beloved concept of patriarchy. It is one of the many words used to encourage the age-old narrative that works to silence the voice and feelings of women. We need to modify the gendered misuse of hysteria, which has historically been used to suppress and stifle powerful women. The adverse usage of this word in today’s world owes its existence to the centuries-old subjugation of women simply because of their different methods of self-expression and the inability of men to understand the same.
Now, whose problem is that to fix?
This post has been written by Ipsita (2nd year)