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Why Only Women Get Hysterical

Medical opinion of women in the nineteenth century was absurd.

The medical establishment's opinion of women throughout Western history has been particularly wanting, due in no small part to its misconception of women's seemingly magical reproductive powers. Predictably, the Church didn't help any, as it considered women's sexuality to be like some vicious beast ready to lash out at any moment. As Carole Rawcliffe notes in her book, Medicine & Society In Later Medieval England, "The curse of menstruation, first inflicted upon Eve as a result of her fall from grace, came to be seen as another badge of infamy, born conspicuously by all womankind." Reproductive ability proved mysterious and threatening to early doctors, who thought it a source of evil. Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset describe the prevailing view of postmenopausal women in Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages:

Whatever the reason put forward, the work of the imagination in the Middle Ages transformed woman into a "machine" capable of producing a certain dose of poison every month... As for the older woman, after menopause, the poison contained in her body had to find an exit; the venomous humour was evacuated from the body by means of the eyes...

Similarly, Albertus Magnus, in his Middle Age work Secrets of Women, claimed that "women are venomous during the time of their flowers [periods] and so very dangerous that they poison beasts with their glance and little children in their cots, sully and stain mirrors, and on some occasions those men who lie with them in carnal intercourse are made leprous." Ranke-Heinemann notes in the classically titled Eunuchs for Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church the perils that befell children conceived during estrus. These youngsters might be stillborn, "possessed of the devil, or leprous, or epileptic, or hunchbacked, or blind, or malformed, or feeble-minded, or club-headed." Menses were considered a poison, and menopausal women were considered repositories of this distilled evil. The cessation of menstruation in post-menopausal women would cause a buildup of the malignant humors; the older they got, the worse the proposed condition. Rawcliffe writes, "Clearly, a penurious old crone surviving by the skin of her few remaining teeth presented a prime target for abuse and denunciation."

A Womb with a View

Equally distressing was the problem of "uterine displacement", first described by Hippocrates. Jacquart and Thomasset go into detail:

Because of this displacement, the womb came into sympathy with the upper parts of the body; this explained suffocation and sensory disturbances, and justified the use of fumigations: to push the womb downwards, one made the patient inhale through the nose fetid-smelling substances.

Medical doctors, starting with the ancient Greeks and making it all the way to the early twentieth century, were firmly convinced that aberrant behaviors displayed by women were directly caused by their uteri. This perception of the uterus as a troublesome organ and thus the direct cause of varying malaises made it until the beginning of the twentieth century. It was a widespread belief of the medical community that the uterus precipitated a large number of diseases and aberrant behaviors. This belief peaked at the end of the nineteenth century, when white, middle-classed women went through an epidemic of "hysteria". To investigate this matter, we'll start with what Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have to say in their book, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness:

[Medical doctors theorized that] each human body contained a set quantity of energy that was directed variously from one organ or function to another. This meant that you could develop one organ or ability only at the expense of others... because reproduction was woman's grand purpose in life... higher education could be potentially dangerous. Too much development of the brain, [doctors] counseled, would atrophy the uterus.

More succinctly, we can look to nineteenth-century German scientist P. Moebius in his "Concerning the Physiological and Intellectual Weakness of Women" as cited by Ehrenreich and English:

If we wish woman to fulfill the task of motherhood fully she cannot possess a masculine brain. If the feminine abilities were developed to the same degree as those of the male, her maternal organs would suffer and we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid.

Spoken most authoritatively. One wonders what his wife had to say about this.

Everybody Must Get Stoned

Unfortunately for the doctors, they also considered the maternal organ to be so potent in affecting behavior that women might be carried away in any number of passions. So while it was understood that sexual feelings were "unwomanly" or "pathological", women were still subject to the overwhelming control of their uteri, and occasionally had their free wills usurped by the fertile tissues. To check for this "problem", doctors would fondle the privies, watching carefully for a reaction yet ready to defend themselves lest they awaken the wild, passionate, uncontrollable succubus within (it was important to determine if the uterus was influencing behavior, but it might take several assistants to pry a lust-crazed patient off you). Physician Robert Brudenell Carter wrote in his 1853 tome On the Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria,

... no one who has realized the amount of moral evil wrought in girls... whose prurient desires have been increased by Indian hemp and partially gratified by medical manipulations can deny that the remedy is worse than the disease. I have... seen young unmarried women... asking every medical practitioner... to institute an examination of the sexual organs.

That a sizeable proportion of Dr. Carter's patients got stoned and were so hard up that they begged for pelvic exams strikes this author as improbable. Perhaps being a randy 25 years old and giddy with the recent distinction of being called "doctor", he might have been indulging in a flight of fancy. What's equally amusing is the Ehrenreich and English's somewhat naive response to Dr. Carter's descriptions: "Did Dr. Carter's patients actually smoke 'Indian hemp' or beg for internal examinations? Unfortunately, we have no other authority on the subject than Dr. Carter himself." These women are gracious in granting the benefit of the doubt indeed.

Put your Problems to Bed

Anyhoo, there seemed to be a lot of fantasizing going on. This view depicting women as sexually voracious was widely held, and because the women needed to keep their uteri healthy to reproduce (no learning!) but not developed to the point of gaining control (no drugs or masturbation!), the medical community had to figure out some way to get to the happy medium. The solution: bed rest. "All sources of mental excitement should be perseveringly guarded against," said the doctors. This provided a convenient argument as to why women shouldn't be in medical school ("they would faint in anatomy lectures," claimed nineteenth-century physicians) and why they couldn't vote (a contemporary legislator claimed, "Grant suffrage to women, and you will have to build insane asylums in every county, and establish a divorce court in every town. Women are too nervous and hysterical to enter into politics.") It was widely understood that women weren't fit to do anything (The medical community conveniently ignored the legions of poorer women who toiled in the fields or were servants).

This business about hysteria stemmed from the idea that women were fragile, nervous wrecks who would freak out at every opportunity:

The patient... becomes agitated; falls if before standing, throws her limbs about convulsively; twists the body into all kinds of violent contortions; beats her chest; and, though a delicate woman, evinces a muscular strength which often requires four or five persons to restrain her effectually.[1]

While invalidity and stifling bed rest were easy to cope with for both the husband and the doctor, hysteric fits certainly weren't. The medical community struggled to come up with a cure, yet were stymied. That is, until a few of them started to notice, as Ehrenreich and English put it, "the disease spread wildly, yet almost exclusively in a select clientele of urban middle-class white women between the ages of fifteen and forty-five." Ehrenreich and English continue to reveal that "With mounting suspicion, the medical literature began to observe that hysterics never had fits when alone, and only when there was something soft to fall on. One doctor accused them of pinning their hair in such a way that it would fall luxuriantly when they fainted." Being confined to one's bed for years at a time would probably lead to some sort of attention-getting outburst, but unfortunately for its practitioners it just led their husbands and doctors to conclude that they were irrational, unpredictable, and loony.

Put on the Wife-Beater

Meanwhile, despite these skeptical reports in the journals, most doctors felt that it was necessary to treat hysteria rather than accommodate women's emotional needs. The historian Carrol Smith-Rosenberg, as quoted by Ehrenreich and English, says "doctors recommended suffocating hysterical women until their fits stopped, beating them across the face and body with wet towels, and embarrassing them in front of family and friends." Nineteenth-century doctor F.C. Skey: "Ridicule to a woman of sensitive mind, is a powerful weapon... but there is not an emotion equal to fear and the threat of personal chastisement... they will listen to the voice of authority." As hysteria began to crop up all over the nation, the doctors felt that more and more punishments were required to bring it into check, while still vainly trying to categorize it as a physical disease rather than just a put-on by housewives desperate for attention. With the cases mounting, doctors were quick to diagnose any independent action by a woman as hysteria ("especially a women's rights action," intone Ehrenreich and English darkly) and humiliated or beat them accordingly. As one might well imagine, scores of middle-aged well-to-do housewives laying bedridden, embarrassed and heckled into submission might not be very good for the country.

Enter Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who decided that hysteria really was a mental problem and spent a lot of his time convincing these same plighted women to just suck it up and accept their joyless roles in Western middle-class society. This paved the way for extensive abuse of valium by similarly subjugated women in the 1950s, and was only recently corrected by day care centers which allowed them to go out and have careers. The next challenge is to stop children from going hysterical. Ritalin?


  1. We guess the anonymous author, cited by Ehrenreich and English, meant "four or five men", but couldn't quite bring himself to say so.


  1. Barbara Ehrenreich, Deirdre English. Complaints and Disorders : The Sexual Politics of Sickness. Feminist Press, 1991.
  2. Carol Rawcliffe. Medicine & Society In Later Medieval England. Sutton, 1998.
  3. Danielle Jacquart, Claude Thomasset, Matthew Adamson. Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages. Princeton University Press, 1988.
  4. Uta Ranke-Heinemann. Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven : Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church. Penguin, 1991.

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