Female Hysteria: from a Self-proclaimed Hysteric

Female Hysteria: from a Self-proclaimed Hysteric

It’s the twenty-first century. A time of innovation and a radical turnover of old-fashioned belief systems. How is it, then, that a term originating in Ancient Greece in the 5th century BC has still maintained its significance in our vocabulary today? Deeply discouraging though it may be, the practice of labelling women as ‘hysterical’ lives on.

Despite living far from the ludicrous conceptions of hysteria bandied about in the 19th century, hysteria is still figured as a female malady, though no reputable GP would diagnose you with it today. Having no modern scientific basis, allegations of hysteria are used as a silencing tool for ‘objectionable’ women who wish to vocalise their opinions. Thoughts of women being emotionally out of control present themselves in sexist lingo. Accusing women of being ‘hysterical’, for example, is simply a means by which we are reduced to the mere hormones coursing through our bodies. Our rights of speech are forced to be relinquished; our voices simply rendered white noise.

Literature is as much to blame for feminizing madness. Our view of women has been obscured by a literary inheritance that depicts women as pathologically insane – think the madwoman in the attic trope. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel The Yellow Wallpaper, features a woman who is confined to her bedroom and kept in a state of forced mental inactivity by her husband as a means of controlling her supposed ‘insanity’. She grows slowly more frenzied as she imagines herself being trapped behind the sickly folds of the yellow wallpaper. Enforced silence in literature is clearly the antidote for female madness.

But allegations of hysteria are not merely a gendered linguistic issue. Rather, they are a means by which our bodies can be used to dishonour and shame us; a device with which a woman and her opinions can be dethroned. As the first female nominee of a major party in the United States, Hillary Clinton has been subjected to rumour-mongering based on accusations of her failing health. The conservative media would have voters believe that Clinton may collapse, break into seizures and emerge ailing and incoherent in front of other world leaders if nominated as President. ‘Frailty! Thy name is woman!’ the conservative right still chants, 400 years after Shakespeare’s publication of Hamlet. The allegations surrounding her weak health, ‘Trumped’- up by right wing conspiracy theorists, suggest how hysteria diagnoses are a means in which society can grapple with women’s changing roles in society. Modern culture appears to be wrestling with the prospect of integrating women like Clinton into the public sphere, using this mechanism of silencing as a means in which her self-expression can be made more palatable to a right-wing populated by males.

It is easier for people to imagine women expressing their views through the lens of psychiatric illness. Female opinions seem to constitute a sense of ‘otherness’. Our silence is just a means by which we can adapt to masculine society.

My efforts here are not to solely castigate males for demeaning women on charges of hysteria, but to urge people to interrogate their own use of terminology. Women should no longer be attached to a term that suggests our apparent tendency to break into violent fits, sweats and tears when our voices are not heard, and we certainly should not be pushed to the periphery of politics by a demeaning of our bodies or mental health.

With women in larger numbers seeking employment, higher education, or simply a louder voice, a subversion of misogynistic language is needed to carve out our own space to display our intellectual brilliance. It’s not enough to merely laugh off this outdated pseudo-scientific term. The real work begins with abolishing not only the word itself in relation to women, but the deeply entrenched connotation of craziness, excessive emotion and irrationality that it brings.

Our frenzy –if frenzy it may be called – is fuelled only by our censored opinions.

Miriam Partington