A Wandering Uterus

The Curious Etymology of a Problematic Word

I want you to picture a person crying on a street corner. They are completely hysterical, tears streaming down their face and hair disheveled. They are sobbing loudly, with their hands to their face in anguish, shaking their head and desperately trying to pull themself together. I’d now like to ask you a question: what gender is the woman you’re picturing?

Maybe some of you imagined a person other than a woman, but I’d be willing to wager that the majority of you did picture a woman crying on the street corner. There are many factors contributing to this, especially the societal expectation that it’s okay for women to cry, but not men. While this is incredibly important, it’s not the topic of this article. Instead, I want you to direct your attention to the word “hysterical”.

In common use, “hysterical” has two definitions: being overcome by extreme emotion, or very funny. But historically, the word hysteria had a very different meaning, although it is intimately related to the use of the word today, particularly in its role in describing women. One way that you might be aware of this is in the fact that the term used to describe the surgical removal of the uterus is “hysterectomy”. As you may be beginning to catch on, the roots of both of these words are the Greek word hystera, which indeed means “uterus”. The term “hysteria” first appeared in English in the 17th century, and was used not so much as an adjective meaning “of the uterus”, but as a medical diagnosis which attributed a whole slew of medical conditions — especially psychiatric conditions — to the malfunction (or simply to the presence) of a woman’s reproductive tract. To backtrack a bit, the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Aretaeus described the uterus as “an animal within an animal” that roamed throughout the body. Ouch. The treatment of women’s reproductive systems as volatile, mystical, and unknowable entities is deeply rooted in our history.

Here is an incomplete list of conditions and symptoms that were mislabeled as hysteria:

Dissociation, amnesia, paralysis, spasms, seizure disorders, general pain, deafness, blindness, demonic possession, confusion, hypochondria, depression, anxiety, shortness of breath, insomnia, bloating, irritability, loss of appetite, fainting, low libido, high libido, lack of motor control, anesthesia, vomiting, hallucinations, and inability to speak.

Phew. I’m exhausted. With this many symptoms, it’s unsurprising that nearly all women met the criteria for a hysteria diagnosis.

The treatments for hysteria? They ranged from the benign to the dangerous to the downright bizarre. Get ready for another list:

Sex, masturbation, gynecological massage, lobotomy, spirit séances, magnetic girdles, hypnosis, attempts to physically move the uterus, herbal water, non-consensual hysterectomy, pungent scents, vaginal cauterization, leeches, morphine, egg yolk enema, and my personal favorite, polenta poultices.

While some of these treatments were relatively harmless, others caused immense damage to the health and happiness of the women being treated. Aggressive and invasive procedures aimed at repositioning the “wandering uterus” frequently caused severe damage to the woman’s reproductive and even digestive organs. Forced hysterectomies eliminated the reproductive freedom of many women and often caused death before the advent of safer surgery practices. Lobotomies regularly left women as empty shells with severe cognitive and psychological impairment, and often resulted in death.

But this was all a long time ago, right? Not exactly. Hysteria was not actually removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1980. That means that hysteria was still a valid diagnosis when the Voyager probes were launched on their journey past the edge of our solar system.

Because of this long history of attributing medical conditions, especially psychiatric ones, to hysteria, the word never left our vocabulary despite its removal from the DSM. We still regularly use this word to refer to women who are expressing substantial emotion, and while we may no longer connect this word to a woman’s anatomy, that link is still very much present in the word’s legacy and in the use of medicine to justify the idea that women are irrational and unpredictable.

So should we stop using the word “hysterical”? Perhaps not. But I think that it warrants a conversation about the word, as well as careful consideration regarding why - and to whom - this particular word is applied.

References:

Kapsalis, Terri Kapsalis April. “Hysteria, Witches, and The Wandering Uterus: A Brief History.” Literary Hub, 12 Apr. 2019, lithub.com/hysteria-witches-and-the-wandering-uterus-a-brief-history/.

North, Carol S. “The Classification of Hysteria and Related Disorders: Historical and Phenomenological Considerations.” Behavioral Sciences (Basel, Switzerland), MDPI, 6 Nov. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4695775/.

Sine, Shalome. “On the Sexist Etimology of ‘Hysteria,” and What Academia Did about It.” Medium, Medium, 18 Sept. 2015, medium.com/@peacelovetrig/on-the-sexist-etimology-of-hysteria-and-what-academia-did-about-it-ef98815ddb6c.

Tasca, Cecilia, et al. “Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health.” Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health : CP & EMH, Bentham Open, 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480686/.

Zafarris, Jess. “The Etymology of ‘Hysteria.’” Useless Etymology, 17 Jan. 2018, uselessetymology.com/2018/01/17/the-etymology-of-hysteria/.

A burgeoning writer with a passion for science and social justice. Find my full portfolio at https://taylorknoble.weebly.com/

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