When we look at the history of medicine, dating back into antiquity, there has always been one consistent variable: women rarely receive medical justice. Responsibility was often placed on the woman for their medical conditions, and only now are many of the conditions that women suffer from starting to gain awareness and treatment options. While medical help is available to women and assigned female at birth people, there is still a significant number of individuals who cannot receive medical diagnoses, are invalidated by medical practitioners, and feel the weight of stigma surrounding reproductive and pelvic illnesses. One particular “illness” has travelled through history and followed women despite their progress towards equality. It is responsible for much of the stigma and obstacles women must overcome to receive medical treatment, and is historically known as Female Hysteria, due to having affected mostly women. For the purpose of this article, we’re just going to refer to it as hysteria
What is Hysteria?
To understand the effects Hysteria had on women and medical care, it’s important to understand what exactly the condition entailed. Hysteria was classified by many different symptoms and behaviors. Basically, anything a woman did that wasn’t viewed as acceptable behavior was considered hysteria and needed treatment.
Some common symptoms described included:
Increased or decreased sex drive
Increased heart rate/pulse
Over the years, treatment for this condition ranged from pelvic massage, forcing the woman to orgasm to release excess fluid, leeches on the abdomen to reduce blood in the womb, and marriage.
Marriage was Freud’s input on this whole hysteria phenomenon, and he believed that the cause of it was the woman’s loss of her metaphoric penis, only to be cured by marrying a man and fulfilling her loss. Thanks for your input, Freud!
There was also the phenomenon of spontaneous uterus movement (as depicted below), which was treated by exposing the woman to different smells to incite sneezing, as well as being hung upside down in attempt to move the uterus back into its “correct” place. Hysteria entailed that the uterus was the central deciding factor in a woman’s physical and psychological health, and this unfortunate belief about uterus-having individuals was a significant focus throughout history.
Hysteria in History
We often see women, IAFAB, and especially Black and non-Black women of color portrayed as hysteric, dramatic, and abrasive when they are simply trying to advocate for their own wellbeing. History is not on their side in this matter, and hysteria is an excellent example.
As early as ancient Egypt, women’s health is depicted as turbulent and troublesome. In ancient Greece, it was becoming increasingly common to write women off as “mad,” or not having orgasmed enough. It was believed that women could be released from these conditions through sex, and that was many of the treatments recommended to women suffering from hysteria involved.
Hysteria was focused on the belief that the very presence of a uterus must cause these symptoms; the term hysteria was even coined in ancient Greece from the word hystera, which meant womb. These damaging beliefs about women remained present throughout history and have greatly impacted how medicine is used to treat and diagnose individuals with uteruses.
The Future of Medicine
Women continued to struggle with hysteria into the middle ages; as long as there were women, there was hysteria. It is concerning to think that hysteria was widely recognized and treated (mostly unsuccessfully) through experimental medicine into modernity. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the term was no longer considered a psychological condition. This was an important step towards validating women and IAFAB as well as beginning to recognize heterosexual men’s dominance in medical science.
It is becoming increasingly recognizable that women and individuals with uteruses know their bodies best, however, there are still discrepancies in how women are diagnosed and treated. It is hopeful to see modern medicine moving away from what once was the glorified opinions of men on women’s bodies and behavior and towards successful research and treatment of ailments that have affected reproductive health for centuries. Considering the increasing attacks on reproductive rights, it is necessary to remember the misogynist lens that many use to view womens and IAFAB health care; just because fewer doctors are dismissing these discrepancies in medical care does not mean the issue is disappearing. Recognizing hysteria and the implications it has had on medicine is just one step towards combating these issues.
Bella is an intern with Planned Parenthood in Florida