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The History of Hysteria in Women’s Lives

What are the roots of the modern tendency to label women hysterical?

Key points

  • Throughout history, women’s physical and psychological ailments have been labeled hysterical, and women blamed for their symptoms.
  • Thanks to decades of trauma science, we can look back now to understand hysteria regarding posttraumatic reactions.
  • Despite scientific progress, we still marginalize intimate violence as a women’s issue.
  • Understanding history and our shared interest in addressing intimate violence is important to building a different future.

We’ve probably all heard it before: A woman expresses rage or grief and gets called hysterical. Another discloses sexual harassment or assault, and she also gets labeled hysterical.

The tendency to write off women’s emotions and experiences as hysterical isn’t an accident of history. Since it’s Women’s History Month, let’s take a look.

What is hysteria?

The term hysteria, which roughly translates from Latin to “wandering uterus,” has been applied to women for thousands of years. Though hysteria has gone in and out of fashion as a way to explain away women’s psychological and physical ailments over the millennia, the real heyday for hysteria’s study and diagnosis was in the 19th century. A central character in this history was the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris.

For years, women labeled hysterical had been locked away at the Salpêtrière with medical symptoms that could not be explained easily – problems such as fugue states, paralysis, amnesia, sexualized behaviors, and fainting. Many women who ended up at the Salpêtrière had faced great adversity and trauma earlier in their lives, including poverty and intimate violence, as documented in medical notes at the time and traced by historian Asti Hustvedt in the book Medical Muses: Hysteria in 19th-Century Paris.

The study of hysteria was popularized in the latter half of the 19th century by a physician named Jean Charcot. Charcot held weekly salons, which doctors from across Europe attended. The salons featured lectures by Charcot and women patients whose hysterical symptoms were displayed for the audience.

For reasons that psychiatrist Judith Herman explains in the book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terrorism, many of Charcot’s protégés strove to be the first to determine the cause of hysteria. Despite women’s histories of poverty and violence, Charcot and others sought out physical explanations for hysteria, suspicious of the role that reproductive organs or brain lesions might play.

However, two of Charcot’s protégés connected trauma and hysteria. One was Pierre Janet, who argued that hysteria was caused by psychological trauma. He posited that abuse led to unbearable emotions, which caused altered states of consciousness that drove the physical manifestations of hysterical symptoms. Janet’s work was lost to history for many decades, only re-gaining significant attention in the late 20th century as the study of dissociation grew.

The other was Sigmund Freud, who had traveled to Paris to train at the Salpêtrière. Based on observations of his female patients in Austria, Freud published The Aetiology of Hysteria in 1896. In that paper, he made the case that the ultimate cause of hysteria was sexual abuse.

As Herman detailed, Freud faced significant professional scorn for his claim. In the years that followed, he took it all back to argue, instead, that women had made up their stories of abuse – fooling themselves and him with fantasies (not actual experiences) of abuse. This led to the theories for which Freud is more famous today – ideas about repression, Oedipus, and the Elektra complex. Meanwhile, at the Salpêtrière, physicians shifted their attention to growing interest in hypnotism and the role that suggestibility – rather than violence – played in hysteria.

The Long Legacy of Blaming Women for Hysteria

The shift from recognizing abuse at the roots of hysteria to blaming women themselves cast a long shadow, setting the stage for the modern tendency to assume women invent stories of rape, abuse, and violence. That legacy lives on in other ways, such as how women’s physical pain is often minimized or denied. For example, a review of 77 chronic pain studies found that women’s reports of pain were characterized as hysterical, emotional, and malingering, while men tended to be described as stoic.

Of course, with the benefit of decades of research on traumatic stress, we can now understand 19th-century hysteria in terms of posttraumatic reactions to intimate violence and abuse. Despite that scientific understanding, the problem of intimate violence still tends to get marginalized as a women’s issue or a problem for survivors – rather than a problem that affects each of our communities and us.

Learning From History to Build a Better Future

We all lose out when we marginalize intimate violence as a women’s or a survivor’s issue. That’s because intimate violence ripples out to affect all of us, whether in terms of burdens to our health or educational systems or the lost potential and safety in our communities, as I explored in Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence against Women.

Women’s History Month offers an opportunity to understand the long shadow of hysteria better and, in turn, change how we approach the problem of intimate violence. If we approach it as a problem that we each share an interest in addressing, new collaborations and solutions are possible, and a different future is possible.

More from Anne P. DePrince Ph.D.
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