The Hysterical History of Women’s Mental Health - Humantold

The Hysterical History of Women’s Mental Health

Brianna Halasa, MHC-LP March 20, 2023

In ancient Greece, the origin of the word hysteria, husterikos, from the word hustera, or womb, was the foundation of psychiatry.

Today, the word “hysterical” might be used to describe someone who is showing extreme or unrestrained emotion or when someone or a situation is extremely funny. The history of the word is far less humorous. 

The ancient world blamed the uterus for women’s mental health issues

As early as 1900 BC in Egypt, hysteria served specifically as a sex-selective disorder ascribed solely to women. Hysteria then, which resembled present-day symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, or fainting, was attributed to spontaneous movements of the uterus. It was often treated with various foul-smelling and fragrant substances smeared on the face or genitals to put a “wandering womb” into alignment. 

In ancient Greece, the origin of the word hysteria, husterikos, from the word hustera, or womb, was the foundation of psychiatry. Its founder, the healer Argonaut Melampus allegedly corralled and tamed Argo’s virgins when they revolted against the phallus and fled to the mountains. Today, this would be considered gathering your fiercest feminist friends and heading upstate for a weekend girls’ trip. Back then, Argo’s virgins were seen as insane because these women dared to rebel against penises. Reportedly, the women were cured with an herb remedy and sex with young, virile men. I doubt this sex was consensual. 

The ancient Greeks attributed hysteria to a lack of orgasms and “uterine melancholy,” which also influenced the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates. Virgins, widows, single, or sterile women, whom they considered sexually unsatisfied, were plagued with a “bad uterus.” The only remedy was to get hitched as quickly as possible and have a rampant sex life to push that moving, ill-mannered uterus back into its proper place. Considering the mythical lives of Medea and Iphigenia, I can think of a few issues that would lead women to madness in ancient Greece, and none of it would be remotely related to the uterus or lackluster sex life. 

New world, new scapegoat (demons this time)

Until the end of the 16th century, men blamed the very organ from which they were born for women’s mental health issues, perpetuating the harmful stereotype that women were ruled by their reproductive systems and thus could not be trusted or knowledgeable about their own bodies. With the dawn of the Counter-Reformation, a more theological vision and subsequent sexual repression took place in European countries. Gone was the notion that women needed sex to cure hysteria. Instead, a more mystical – and illogical – approach became popular, and women suffering from the illness were accused of being possessed by demons. 

These views spread to the New World, and the most infamous and tragic example of this kind of thinking occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. A group of unmarried women, all younger than 20 years old, started a circle of initiation. Chaos ensued because what community dominated by men wouldn’t feel threatened by a group of strong-minded women banning together to tap into their feminine power and fight the dark cloud of misogyny enveloping them? Once this was deemed a strict violation of Puritan ideology, the women were considered possessed. Conveniently there was no record of the initial stages of their “disease” and the events or social situation, which may have prompted it. In the historic Salem witch trial records, only the following symptoms were reported: “staring and barred eyes, raucous noises, and muffled, uncontrolled jumps and sudden movements, etc.” 

In addition to coercion, manipulation, and threats, I can only take a few sad guesses as to what Puritan religious leaders and the townspeople of Salem might have additionally done to the girls to lead them to this “diagnosis.” Judging through today’s lens, these young women were suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the result of enduring serious trauma. Staring off into space or zoning out is indicative of disassociation. According to the American Psychiatric Association, raucous noises, muffled, uncontrolled jumps, and sudden movements could indicate either severe physiological reactions upon exposure to cues that resemble aspects of a traumatic event or arousal symptoms such as hypervigilance and a heightened startle response. These were just the documented symptoms. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more. Especially if these girls were in the presence of their abusers, they most likely were being retraumatized and experiencing some of the symptoms of PTSD. Clearly, it was easier for men to blame demons than to take accountability for their actions. 

The Enlightenment shifted perspectives and mounted a growing rebellion against misogyny. As noted in the National Library of Medicine, psychiatrists now saw sorcery as “a ridiculous activity, stupidly attributed to the invocation of demons.”. In the 18th century, the organ causing hysteria shifted up the body, from the uterus to the brain. Therefore, doctors realized that if hysteria was related to the brain, then it was not just a female disease and could plague both sexes. Although given the history, it’s debatable whether some men even had brains. Considering the rampant misogyny in the history of hysteria, it was not such a seamless shift to include both genders in this diagnosis. 

Actually, never mind; Freud says it’s “penis envy” 

In the 19th century, Sigmund Freud blamed hysteria on the absence of conception or motherhood, caused by a lack of “libidinal evolution.” What did he mean? According to the sex-crazed father of psychoanalysis, women had to grapple with the loss of their metaphorical penis, and this apparently drove them to hysterics. He stated that the cure for hysteria was for a woman to regain her lost penis by marrying one. Unsurprisingly, hysteria was again largely stereotyped to women, but Freud later described hysteria in men, by diagnosing himself: “After a period of good humor, I now have a crisis of unhappiness. The chief patient I am worried about today is myself. My little hysteria, which was much enhanced by work, took a step forward.”  What does this “little hysteria” say about his relationship with his penis? I won’t speculate. 

Today “hysteria” is gone but its damaging effects are not

Long overdue, hysteria as a diagnosis was deleted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. Yet the damage perpetuated by gendered stereotypes at the expense of women cannot be undone. If you identify as a woman, I’m sure you have firsthand experience of the ways it wreaks havoc presently. Women endure blatant social and economic inequalities compared to men, such as lower levels of schooling and employment, decreased pay for the same jobs, and less representation in leadership and political positions. Furthermore, women face increased social stressors, from taking on the brunt of childcare and household tasks to intimate partner violence. Compound sociocultural factors with gender discrimination ranging from gender-biased interpersonal actions – unfair institutional practices, inequity within the familial unit, workplace, and higher institutions, violence against women, microaggressions, sexual objectification, sexist language, and assumptions about the intellectual and physical inferiority of women – and it really chips away at a woman’s self-worth and well-being. The findings from this research paper published in The Lancet confirm as much. 

Gender discrimination serves as an incredible stressor to women, especially since it is due to an uncontrollable social identity. Therefore, women are twice as likely to have generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, and depression during their lifetime than men. Women are four to ten times more likely to have an eating disorder. Lastly, women are more likely to attempt suicide than men. Given the overwhelming intergenerational trauma women have endured, topped with present-day trauma, I am in awe of our courage, grit, and inability to cower in our perpetual fight against patriarchy. 

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