When Wombs Wandered: How Hysteria’s History Still Affects Women’s Health

Greta Samuel / © Culture Trip
Photo of Chloe-Rose Crabtree
History Editor10 October 2018

Once a common medical diagnosis for women, ‘hysteria’ has since been discarded as a sexist myth – but the legacy of the ‘disease’ still has an impact on how women are treated in medical and social settings today.

Suffocation, emotional outbursts, sexual voraciousness and frigidity were only some of the symptoms attributed to ‘hysteria’. Considered a “garbage-bag diagnosis” for disruptive women, hysteria has shaped Western perceptions of women’s capability and trustworthiness in both social and medical settings.

Ancient Greek and Roman doctors thought a thirsty uterus made women ill

In Ancient Greece and Rome, women’s health issues were sometimes directly attributed to the womb, or hystera in Greek. Ancient doctors believed that women experienced a myriad physical symptoms due to the uterus’s movement around the body in search of moisture, which has led to early instances of hysteria to be referred to as ‘wandering womb syndrome’.

“The symptoms womb movement produced depended on where it went,” says Professor Helen King, who focusses her research on classical studies and the history of women’s medicine. “The idea of a wandering womb was linked to the social control of women to the norm of marriage and childbearing. But wandering wombs could be caused by exhaustion or not enough to eat, they could affect pregnant women too – marriage and pregnancy weren’t guaranteed cures.”

While ancient medical documents show the womb (hystera) as a cause of some physical ailments, King cautions that it is important not to conflate Ancient Greek and Roman diagnoses with psychological hysteria diagnoses in the 19th century: “I’m not sure I’d even go so far as to call it wandering womb syndrome! To assume it corresponds to what a 19th-century doctor meant by hysteria is to take it too far.”

Greta Samuel / | © Culture Trip

Hysteria was classified as a psychological disorder in the 19th century

Over the centuries, the thought persisted that physical ailments were caused by misplaced wombs. The commonly prescribed cure was often marriage (and marital sex by extension) or pregnancy, as they were thought to affix the uterus into its rightful place. However, by the 19th century, the understanding of hysteria began to shift from a physical ailment to a psychological one that manifested in physical and emotional symptoms.

At a time when technological advancements were influencing social change and urbanisation, a moral panic began to develop, and its focus centred on the protection of women. Rather than attribute the rise of hysteria diagnoses to the breadth of causes and symptoms, the disorder was linked to women’s inability to make sense of a modernising world.

Women who challenged this? Hysterical.

It was not unheard of for fathers, husbands or brothers to send the women in their lives to asylums for hysteria treatment. However, after treatment, many patients were often worse for wear. Protestations to hospitalisation was proof of insanity and led to longer internment. Some may have actually presented symptoms of true illness, but there were also a large number of women admitted simply because they didn’t fit the feminine ideal: quiet, pliant and pious.

Did Victorian doctors really use vibrators to cure hysteria?

While new technologies were seen as corruptive to the female psyche, they did end up playing a part in the treatment of hysteria. However, unlike the 2011 film Hysteria suggests, orgasm was not the intended outcome.

“Victorian doctors were doing some very odd things to women and their genitals, but masturbating them to orgasm with a vibrator was not one of them. For a start, Victorian doctors believed too many orgasms caused hysteria. Masturbation was viewed as seriously injurious to health and potentially fatal,” says Dr Kate Lister, who runs the website Whores of Yore, which explores the history of sex and sexuality.

The myth that the vibrator was a “godsend” for doctors who were tired of manually stimulating their patients originates from Rachel Maines’s wildly popular book The Technology of Orgasm (1998), but recent scholarship has proven the theory to be faulty.

Electric vibrators were historically used to treat muscle pain or paralysis that developed from hysterical episodes and the machines were sometimes used internally to reposition the uterus, but doctors never intentionally prescribed masturbation as a cure.

Lister says that the use of vibrators for sexual pleasure is more likely a result of what she calls the “kink minute”, or “the insanely short length of time between the introduction of new technology and its adaptation for sexual purposes”.

While the vibrator myth might be a flirty icebreaker, it is ultimately harmful to how women’s health is understood today. According to King: “Maines and her users play into a male fantasy of passive women waiting for men to give them pleasure and assume historical continuity in women’s sexual expectations and practices.”

Greta Samuel / | © Culture Trip

Hysteria has shaped the way we conceive of women’s health and general credibility

Reconfiguring how we think of women’s agency over their bodies and minds is especially relevant in the age of #MeToo. As the majority of people affected by sexual abuse identify as women, the trauma of sexual harassment and assault is often discounted.

More concerning, depression and anxiety associated with sexual trauma – both symptoms attributed to hysteria – are sometimes cited as proof that accounts of sexual assault are unreliable.

“Women aren’t diagnosed as hysterical any more, but they are frequently called hysterical when they show strong emotions,” Lister explains. “Since the Ancient Greeks, Western medicine has taught that women are at the mercy of their emotions, are weaker and more unstable than men – because of their biology. We still see echoes of this today. The link between women, wombs and madness is entrenched and dangerous. ”

Further, women are sometimes told that their physical pain is a psychological manifestation – a sort of medical gaslighting that can result in dire consequences. When a woman’s perception of her own health is associated with the notion that a woman’s body is outside of her control, it places her under an inordinate amount of pressure to prove the credibility of her experiences.

It may seem wild, but even the idea that a uterus could suddenly become detached persisted well into the mid-20th century – uterine detachment was cited as a reason to exclude women from the Olympic cross-country skiing competition. Women’s emotional constitution continues to be questioned as female politicians like Hillary Clinton have been called unfit for office due to a biological predisposition towards menstruation. When it comes to physical and mental health, it is worth reflecting on the historical narratives that have influenced medical understanding of women’s ability to make sense of their own bodies and minds.

Wednesday 10 October is World Mental Health Day. To highlight this, Culture Trip is looking at how different societies are shining a light on this important issue in innovative and alternative ways.

The content of this article is provided for general information only and is not an attempt to practise medicine or give specific medical advice, including, without limitation, advice concerning the topic of mental health. The information contained in this article is for the sole purpose of being informative and is not to be considered complete, and does not cover all issues related to mental health. Moreover, this information should not replace consultation with your doctor or other qualified mental health providers and/or specialists. If you believe you or another individual is suffering a mental health crisis or other medical emergency, please seek medical attention immediately.

If you are experiencing mental health issues, in the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. Please note there are no affiliations of any kind between the aforementioned organisations and Culture Trip.

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