The History of Hysteria: Sexism in Diagnosis

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The female body has long been misunderstood. Women are often misdiagnosed by doctors, either due to the belief that they are over-dramatizing symptoms or because of a lack of adequate research on illnesses predominantly faced by women. As frustrating as this is, it’s no new phenomenon.

Dating back to 1900 BC Egypt, an ancient medical document known as the Eber Papyrus contained references to hysterical disorders thought to be caused by abnormal movements of the uterus. In the 5th Century BC, Hippocrates was the first to coin the term “hysteria” and agreed with his predecessors that this so-called condition — attributable only to women — was due to a “wandering womb,” believed to be caused by sexual inactivity. Recommended cures were, naturally, that women should increase sexual activity within the bounds of marriage. This diagnosis was not founded in science or medical research (though that may seem obvious now), but in gender bias against women and their experience of emotions and the perceived lack of sexual interest.

As currently defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, hysteria is, “behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess.” An alternate, psychiatric definition is, “a psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychogenic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral functions.” While the definition of hysteria might seem broad, it has also altered over time. While medicine and mental health have changed a great deal over the centuries, hysteria is a historically gendered diagnosis that often served as a catch-all when doctors couldn’t identify another illness. It was extremely common to find women labelled as “hysterical” defined more by their stature as women than by their symptoms. Continue reading The History of Hysteria: Sexism in Diagnosis