Throughout history, women who rejected their societal role as daughter, wife and mother, who expressed discontent with this role, who even mildly expressed unhappiness or a desire to be more, were lumped together under the same diagnosis — hysteria. Because of this diagnosis, women were treated for mental health issues when they were perfectly healthy, and the true causes of women’s mental health issues were left ignored.
Hysteria comes from “hystera,” the Greek word meaning womb or uterus, which they believed was sentient, and wanted to be filled (with a baby) all the time. Hysteria, then, was what the Ancients determined happened when a woman’s womb was not filled.
The ancient Egyptians believed that if the uterus was not being satisfied by sex or impregnation, it would leave its place in the pelvis in search of this satisfaction elsewhere in the body. This condition was known as wandering womb, which was believed to cause a myriad of diseases and led to the use of hysteria as a catch-all phrase for disruptions in women’s mental health and physical health.
Of course, even ancient women had to live with confusing dichotomies. This diagnosis is massively contradictory because, despite their uteri requiring sex, women were not supposed to desire sex or acknowledge their sexuality in any way. Those who did were considered abnormal and were consequently accused of being witches.
The 16th and 17th Centuries
As men moved into professions where they were allowed to actually interact with women’s uteri and genitalia (midwifery and gynecology), women who were previously experts in the field began to be devalued. Midwifery, a familial profession, was no longer allowed to be passed down.
During this time, women’s health problems were considered frightening, Arnaud de Villeneuve even saying, “With the help of God I shall here concern myself with matters having to do with women, and since women are most of the time vicious animals, I shall in due course consider the bite of venomous animals.”
The most famous case of hysteria in America during the 17th century occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. A small group of girls began exhibiting hysterical behavior, such as fits and random spasms. The girls claimed they were possessed by the Devil and began accusing women left and right of being witches who had cursed them. This led to a massive investigation in which 100 women were imprisoned and 19 were deemed guilty and hanged.
The 18th and 19th Centuries
In the 18th century, doctors considered the best cure to hysteria to be marriage, and that it was “highly beneficial in removing hysteric Disorders.”
In the 19th century, male doctors, through neglectful practice, killed hundreds of women because they refused to wash their hands before and after examining them. Also, at this time, hysteria had moved from the uterus to the brain and the concept of a “wandering womb” was largely rejected. Because hysteria became associated with the brain, it opened up the possibility of men suffering from hysteria.
However, that doesn’t mean discrimination against women’s mental health ended. Now, women could be admitted into mental institutions as “melancholic,” “insane” or “nymphomaniac” when they did not adhere to the expectations of their husbands or society. Popular cures for unruly women were clitoridectomies and ovariotomies.
Physicians in the 19th century had negative and harmful ideas about the attitudes of hysterical women, describing them as “difficult, narcissistic, impressionable, suggestible, egocentric … labile … personally and morally repulsive, idle, intractable and manipulative” with an “unnatural desire for privacy and independence.”
The rhetoric used to characterize women’s mental health was rife with sexist attitudes. As the above paragraph demonstrates, the way women with mental health issues were viewed was not just negative but openly hostile.
The 20th Century
The 20th century ushered in new ideas and theories, including those of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, a psychological theory and therapy technique that aims to treat mental disorders by exploring the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious using techniques such as free association and dream interpretation. His other theories included those like the Oedipal complex and penis envy.
Freud shifted the way hysteria was understood; hysteria is not the result of a lack of conception but is instead the cause. He thought hysteria was a disorder that stemmed from the Oedipal complex, which he defined as when a daughter has repressed sexual feelings for her father. If these desires are not recognized/addressed, then there is a stunt in the woman’s libidinal evolution, and she develops symptoms of hysteria.
Later in the 20th century, as people began to build on Freud’s theories of psychosexual stages, the focus of women’s mental health shifted more toward sex. Freud theorized that as a young girl matures, a transfer occurs in her erotic zones from clitoral to vaginal. Those who built off of this theory stated that a failure of “vaginal orgasm” would lead to frigidity and if a woman preferred clitoral stimulation to vaginal intercourse then she was trying to behave like men and was rejecting her maternal obligation. This rejection was thought to lead to mental health issues such as neurosis, isolation and social disintegration. Other behaviors that rejected the norm, such as lesbianism and feminism, were also associated with clitoral sexuality.
The 21st Century
The realm of mental health for women, and in general, is a lot better today, and there has been a lot of progress within this century, especially in the last several years. There is more awareness of mental health issues and there are efforts being made to reduce the stigma and stereotypes associated with it.
Because mental health issues were associated with women in such a negative way and for such a long time, it came to be seen as a sign of weakness. Activists today are working to debunk this stereotype for both men and women. Mental health awareness is becoming more prominent in the workplace, at home and in the media.
In order for this growth to continue, the past must be taught and acknowledged. However, when interpreting the past, we must be careful not to oversimplify it, because oversimplification of the past can lead to oversimplification of the present. Mental health awareness has come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.