Hysteria: Pathologizing the Female Experience

Illustration of Eve committing the original sin and being punished with childbearing  from Jacobi Rueffi.  De Conceptu et Generatione Hominis.  Francoforti, 1580.Rare RG91.R9

Image of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as Eve reaches for the forbidden apple. This drawing is included in a sixteenth-century midwifery manual between pages of depictions of painful childbirthing. Like many 'symptoms' of hysteria, pregnancy is a natural state of being often portrayed as a malady. 

As the story goes, all of humanity was doomed the moment that Eve gave into temptation and plucked the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. Supposedly, her submission to her "feminine weakness" reflected a lapse in judgement which relegated all future generations of women to suffering.

This sensibility provides a cultural foundation for the disease category known as "hysteria." From the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, hysteria became a catch-all diagnosis for a myriad of symptoms experienced by women. In particular, any behavior that deviated from an idealized feminine norm was attributed to hysteria. Arguably, it would have been more difficult to find a symptom that was not indicative of hysteria than to list one that was. Symptoms ranged from headaches and fainting to moodiness, joint pain, and even the normal functioning of the female body. With her feminine impulsivity and emotion, Eve would have been hysteria’s poster child.

Still, if Eve was a walking hysteria diagnosis, why didn't the hysteria ‘epidemic’ come about until the nineteenth century?

In this exhibit, we argue that the standardization of medicine ― prompted by the Enlightenment  ― had a major part to play in the social construction of hysteria. Relatedly, the emergence of biomedicine amplified the pathologization of the female body and mind. As the medical gaze increasingly categorized healthy women as ill, female experiences were increasingly coded as symptoms, giving rise to the hysteria epidemic of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

With the spread of hysteria came the advent of drugs for hysteria; these medicines claimed to relieve symptoms of female existence. The Industrial Revolution catalyzed the widespread sale of these drugs, which were the precursors to modern products that claim to cure the effects of being female. Today, for-profit entities market the 'normal' female to women, profiting off of the notion that natural female bodies and processes are abnormal. Parallels abound between hysteria medications sold a century ago and feminine hygiene and pseudo-feminine hygiene products found on shelves in the 21st century. 

In the sections to come, we examine the social and cultural developments which led to the hysteria 'outbreak' of the 19th century, the avenues through which the female mind and body became pathological, and the aspects of this epidemic which endure centuries later.

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