Is there a difference between calling a woman or a man “hysterical”? The word’s origin as the term for a psychological disorder grounded in female physiology suggests the answer is yes.
Amid a discussion about the culture of violence towards women, journalist Steve Price repeatedly interrupted and talked over Guardian columnist Van Badham. Their kerfuffle peaked when, to audible audience gasps, Price accused Badham of being “hysterical”. Her rejoinder, that “it’s probably my ovaries making me do it,” exploded on Twitter.
On The Project, Price later asserted that Badham’s status as a woman was irrelevant to the meaning and impact of his characterisation of her as hysterical. Gender and history, he said, had nothing to do with it.
Yet hysteria’s long, dark past as a medical diagnosis casts a shadow over our modern colloquial use. With a genealogy that can be traced back 4000 years to ancient Egypt, hysteria can arguably be understood as Western civilisation’s first conceptualisation of mental illness.
Ancient physicians attributed erratic female behaviour to spontaneous movement of the womb, with which the disorder shares its Latin root.
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By its very definition, hysteria could not afflict men. The hallmark behavior of a hysteric – overly emotional, out-of-control, irrational – was uniquely characteristic of women and linked directly to their anatomy.
Over millennia, Western medicine and culture reinforced the connection between the understanding and interpretation of women’s behaviour and their reproductive capacity. In more modern times, this knot tightened as the emerging field of psychology tied the diagnoses of so-called nervous disorders to women’s reproductive organs.
Nineteenth-century physicians widely attributed mental disturbance in women to a malfunction of their sex organs, a phenomenon that had no parallel in the diagnosis of male patients.
Treating hysteria with hypnosis, French neurologist JM Charcot emphasised that it afflicted both men and women, but nonetheless the wider medical community continued to link female psychology to female physiology. Advocating a rest cure, British physician WS Playfair attributed nervous disorders to “uterine mischief”.
At the other end of the spectrum, the “grim apotheosis” of this mind-body link took the form of hysterectomies, oophorectomies (removal of the ovaries) and clitoridectomies. Beginning in the late-1800s and continuing into the mid-20th century, doctors treated women’s mental disorders by removing the uterus, ovaries or clitoris that were believed to be the problem.
Sigmund Freud, whose ideas dominated Western psychology for much of the 20th century, also promoted a theory of hysteria that was ultimately grounded in physiology. He believed hysteria to be an expression of stunted, immature sexual development. The uncontrolled behaviour of the hysteric served as an outlet for frustrated sexual impulses that had failed to develop beyond infantile desires for parental affection.
Despite arguing, like Charcot, that hysteria could afflict both women and men, Freud was far from egalitarian in his thinking. Women’s intrinsic inadequacy, experienced psychologically as “penis envy”, left them vulnerable to hysteria. For men, a diagnosis of hysteria bore a clear medico-cultural stamp of feminisation and emasculation.
Hysteria today is no longer an accepted medical diagnosis, but the word lives on as a colloquial way to deem someone out-of-control and irrational. It can, as Price notes, be levelled again women and men, but it beggars belief that he did not acknowledge the word’s lingering gendered overtones.
The fact is, describing someone as “hysterical” associates them with a trait deemed feminine – if levelled against a man, the charge would impugn his manliness.
Price’s refusal to acknowledge the power of this word, so freighted with gendered meaning, is evidence of his male privilege. He asserts his right to determine the very terms of debate and denies the reality of others.
Calling out offensive language is not, as those on the Right would have it, political correctness gone wild. It is a strategy for resistance.
Only by shining a light on how we use language to degrade and diminish others – in this instance, women – can we challenge injustices that run the gamut from mansplaining to murder.
About The Author
Paula Michaels, Senior lecturer, Monash University