When it comes to the history of feminism within psychological research and practice, and its relation to female oppression; there is a fundamental attribution error committed by some narrators and patriarchal figures. Often, women were described as hysteric or possessed individuals whose behaviour was caused by psychic tension linked to their unstable personality problems. Little was ever mentioned about how such distress was a direct by-product of oppression and abuse. Hysteria diagnoses declined rapidly during the 20th century. Some believe this was due to society’s new self-taught awareness regarding the disorder and its symptoms. According to history as experienced by Sigmund Freud (1913), “Psycho-analysis started with researches into hysteria, but in the course of years it has extended far beyond that field of work…It was conclusively proved that hysterical symptoms are residues (reminiscences) of profoundly moving experiences, which have been withdrawn from everyday consciousness, and that their form is determined (in a manner that excludes deliberate action) by details of the traumatic effects of the experiences”.
The reason why hysteria is no longer a diagnosed condition is because through history, many women went through horrific treatments that at times included hysterectomies of their uterus as a consequence of such clinical ignorance. “It was originally believed that men could not suffer from hysteria because of their lack of uterus” (Jean-Baptise, 1816). Some would now argue it was also a combination of religious dogma and patriarchy, with its former criteria containing symptoms as ridiculous as “tendency to cause trouble” or “nervousness”. On the subject, the Guardian reports: “By the 1st century AD, physicians had worked out that massaging the sufferer’s genitals with fingers lubricated in special oils could relieve the disorder. Between then and the time of Sigmund Freud, when the world suddenly noticed women had sexuality, doctors merrily went on manually bringing their female patients to what they sometimes did not realise or accept was orgasm (and, as in the film, described in medicalised terms like “hysterical paroxysm”) for about 1,900 years”.
Similarly, nowadays there are many cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence which remain unsolved. Women still get stigmatized, assaulted, victimized, and silenced whilst the criminals get away with such evil acts. When a woman appears to show emotional distress, sometimes they are deemed mentally unwell and assumed to have a personality disorder instead of having their symptoms recognized as a manifestation of the environmental and circumstantial factors at the hands of the perpetrators. This is why there are many women in the UK and the world who do not feel safe to speak about the experiences they go through. When these women are abused and triggered into emotional desolation, the abusers are able to exploit such vulnerability and use it against their victims in order to make them feel powerless, unstable; and moreover, voiceless. The perpetrator then gets the victim’s mental capacity to be questioned. This is the aetiology for modern feminist silence, a result of authoritarian patriarchy. Women who experience reaction hysteria are often the ones put through deep scrutiny, which is exactly what the abusers want. This way, the psychopathic perpetrator is able to divert the attention from himself; and in that way, the victim has no one to help them, for the perpetrator has caused them to behave in a maladaptive way so their credibility is lost.
Freud, S. (1913). Essay: On Psychoanalysis.
Hayes, N. (1994). Foundations of Psychology: An Introductory Text. London: Routledge.
Louyer-Villermay, Jean-Baptiste (1816). Traité de maladies nerveuses et en particulier de l’hystérie. Paris: J.-B Baillière. p. 116.
Etymonline: Hysteria [Online].
Wikipedia: Female Hysteria [Online].
The Guardian: Hysteria- I’m Feeling Good Vibrations [Online].