Countless women have heard the term “stop being so hysterical.”
Hysteria was first accurately described in the second millennium BC and was defined as a disease only affecting women until the 18th century. Throughout centuries, hysteria has been medicalised, punished, and clinically studied. It has been linked to witchcraft, sex deprivation, and disobedience. In summary: it has been weaponised into a form of social control.
Etymologically, the word hysteria derives from the Greek word for ‘womb’. In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates and Plato spoke about hysteria ‘wandering around’ women’s bodies causing a range of maladies. This idea that women experienced a unique sickness because of their physiology is still in today’s medicine. In the 18th century, the diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ became really popular. In 1748, French physician, Joseph Raulin, believed hysteria to travel through the air, and while anyone could contract the ailment, women were more predisposed because of their ‘lazy and irritable nature’. A later French physician, François Boissier de Sauvages de Lacroix, accrued a list of symptoms of hysteria including shortness of breath, excessive yawning, and uncontrollable laughter. He argued that the condition was not airborne but came from sexual deprivation. This erotic explanation was famously taken up by Sigmund Freud.
As the scholar, Mark Micale puts it, the term hysteria is essentially “a dramatic medical metaphor for everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable”. The explanation for women’s unwillingness to participate in patriarchal systems such as marriage and childbirth was to medicalise them for their ‘craziness’ and ‘wildness’. This unwillingness to participate included writing about abusive romances (Emily Bronte), desiring to study mathematics, and ‘exhibiting signs of lesbianism’. Woman’s orgasm, the most mysterious of all, was naturally included in this. Some historians, notably Rachel Maines argue that ‘manual stimulation of the genitals’, and later vibrators, were used as a treatment for hysteria. Other historians argue that women with hysteria were pushed to marry and have regular sexual encounters with their husbands. Due to the fact that masturbation was taboo, in cases where sex was used as a treatment, a man had to be involved. However, other historians argue there is no real evidence that manual stimulation was used.
In any case, the idea that ‘a good orgasm’ (even if done coercively) will cure hysteria is a fundamentally patriarchal understanding of the link between the body and the mind, with some masculine domination nicely worked in. Throughout history, women have been systematically raped as a method of control, and the treatment of hysteria is no different. The idea that sex between husband and wife is a marital duty, even when it’s forced, is a rhetoric of abuse that continues to this day. In fact, spousal rape only became illegal in the United Kingdom in 1991, in 1993 for the United, and in other countries, it is still legal. Similarly, the idea that a man, in marrying a ‘hysterical woman’ is making a self-sacrificial contribution to society is despicable. It is also important to mention those women who were institutionalised in an asylum, or forcibly married, for being queer. We know that ‘corrective rape’ has long been a ‘treatment for queerness’ under the guise of insanity, and all I can say is that those women will not be forgotten.
As well as personal hysteria, mass hysteria is the rapid spread of heightened emotion through a large group of people. Although mass hysteria has psychological causes, it can have physical effects. The causes of mass hysteria are unclear and theories vary from ‘groupthink’ to environmental stressors. Some famous examples are the Salem Witch Trials and Choreomania in 1518 France. Mass hysteria is much less common today than it once was, the reason for this is unknown, but some psychologists argue that women are more prone to mass hysteria than men. Whether this is because women tend to respond to stress differently, or that men are generally less empathetic, is also unknown. Mass hysteria is something that humans have been obsessed with for centuries, and crops up in hundreds of stories, from Dionysus and the women of Argus to The Falling.
In reality, hysteria is not a woman-only outpouring of sexual deprivation. It is a coverall phrase used to talk about a disproportionate expression of emotion and can affect anyone, regardless of their genitals or sexual situation. Whether or not we take a pathological understanding, extreme emotions can be scary and those experiencing them should be properly cared for. De-sexualising and de-feminising hysteria are essential to really examine what is going on when humans ‘get hysterical’. Scientists can use hysteria’s important historical context to acknowledge the assumptions and misconceptions which have been adopted into our modern understanding of mental health and emotions.