International Women’s Day: Reclaiming Hysteria

“Live as domestic a life as possible.  Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.” –Silas Weir Mitchell

This was the prescription given to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a nineteenth century feminist author diagnosed with “hysteria.” And because this very publication is predicated on the concept of hysteria, I find it fitting to devote a few moments to the history of reclaiming a diagnosis which has continued to entrap women until the 1950s. If you find yourself asking what ailment precipitated Gilman’s need for medical treatment, you might be interested to note that it was, quite simply, her literary career. 

Hysteria originated in the late 1800s when physicians like Silas Weir Mitchell decided that women were suffering from mental illness as a result of taking on roles incompatible with their gender. This included the pursuit of higher education, disagreeing with one’s husband, or train travel, each of which was a decision so scandalous, it was considered to rip the uterus out of the body and cause a mental disruption so severe that women could no longer function in polite society. As such, hysteria became a blanket term encompassing anything that could be considered wrong with a woman who transgressed against societal norms.

And because these norms were primarily constructed by men, it meant that the medical profession– which was dominated exclusively by male physicians like Mitchell– got to decide that every expression of female individuality constituted hysteria. So, if you’re a female author who’s frustrated by the lack of equal publishing opportunities in the nineteenth century or you’ve had zero orgasms this year and you want to write about your sexual dissatisfaction? Congratulations, you’re hysterical! And depending on the leniency of your husband or father, you might be entitled to a nice cure consistent of vaginal leechings– because if hysteria originates in the female productive system, then bugs must suck out all the delusions of equality– or a “rest cure” pioneered by Mitchel. Under the latter system, you could expect to be confined to your bed for up to 23 hours a day with your only exercise consisting of sponge baths and “electric vibrator” treatments by your physician. 

Forbidden to read, write, paint, or engage in any form of intellectual activity, a female patient could expect to follow the prescription outlined above: one which literally relegated her to staring at the wallpaper, prohibited from developing or expressing any opinion. So, this article is for every woman who dares to contribute to this publication in direct defiance of a diagnosis which would have seen her confined to bed rest or a “lunatic asylum” until almost 50 years ago. (Because, yes, “hysteria” remained on the books as a genuine medical diagnosis until the late 1950s). And that’s why we need every woman who keeps shrieking, keeps writing, keeps creating in any form that demands her voice be heard. Every one of our creative efforts is an attempt at reclaiming hysteria, at reminding the world that we deserve to shriek against the madness which would keep us repressed. That’s why we, as The Hysteria Collective, stand in proud defiance of the stereotypes which bind us, and we write on in rebellion of the diagnosis which would keep us from allowing our voices to be heard.

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