On the sexist etimology of “hysteria,” and what academia did about it

Hysteria comes from the Greek root hystera, meaning ‘uterus.’ Originally, it was believed that hysteria and hysterical symptoms were caused by a defect in the womb, and thus, only women could become hysterical. (Sources below.)

Hysteria has been an official diagnosis in psychology. Sigmund Freud (who did much of his work in the late 1800's in Europe, a time and place where sexual repression was an important part of the culture) used the term frequently in his notes and professionally published papers. Freud, however, was not afraid to 1) address the traumatic roots of hysterical symptoms, which often had to do with sexual abuse 2) diagnose men with hysteria. In the context of a rigid patriarchy where sex was considered unclean, both of these points of discussion were completely unapproachable for many people.

Freud is often brushed aside in Psych 101 as a nutjob who attributed too many psychological phenomena to sex and sexual experiences. What is rarely discussed is the cultural context in which Freud studied. Freud was one of very few academics (or people in general) who was willing to discuss sexual abuse. Now that we know what we know about rape culture — that it thrives in the dark — I’m thinking we have more to thank Freud for than our Psych 101 professors teach us about.

Freud aside, let’s look at the sexism behind the very word ‘hysteria’ and also the sexism behind the fear of talking about men with hysteria.

First of all, the idea that women could have womb defects which caused physical and psychological symptoms of distress is ridiculous. We know this. However, I believe that this idea is reflective of a cultural belief that women are simply less capable of being reasonable.

We as women still contend with this idea in current society. Women are typically considered less reasonable. When we’re upset, we get asked whether we are on our period. When we’re not upset, and instead feeling emotionally level, we’re considered cold. This horrendous catch-22 leaves us with only one socially acceptable option: smiling and acting warmly toward those around us is the only attitude considered appropriate for us. For women, reasonableness is simply not a social expectation. Smiles are.

I believe this problem has roots in an old, outdated culture. One which believed sick or mentally unwell women would get better if their uteruses were better aligned. One which repressed all sexual urges to the point of driving rape culture underground. The sexism of which has been discredited on almost all fronts. The sexism of which we need to completely gut from our culture today.

I also think this is a fantastic example of the way that sexism is detrimental to both genders. Men could not be diagnosed with hysteria because they did not have wombs. Besides, they were supposed to be too strong for these ‘womanly’ diseases. In turn, they could not (or would not) be treated for their psychological distress.

So, in summary:

Weakness/unreasonableness → Hysteria →woman

Women are stuck with the idea that their problems come from their uteri.

Strength/reasonableness ≠ Hysteria →man

Men can’t be treated for psychological distress.

Both genders could benefit from a dissociation between the ideas of ‘weakness’ and ‘woman’.

So, does psychology still use the term ‘hysteria’?

Nope.

Academia is slow-moving. It is a lumbering machine whose progress is sometimes flawed, sometimes stalled, always sluggish. But it moves forward.

The American Psychiatric Association did not officially kill ‘hysteria’ as a clinical term until 1980, but today even the most severe form of what was formerly known as hysteria has another name (conversion disorder).

Academia recognized that the roots of the word ‘hysteria’ were offensive to women and stalled the progress of psychology as a science. They reach down to the Victorian era of sexual suppression and ridiculous ideas about the functions of a uterus. The word itself had to be removed, and it has.

We have a lot to learn from this. Sexism and rape culture are woven through the language we speak. It’s important to recognize these words, learn our history, and change the future for the better.

I, for one, know I won’t be using the word ‘hysterical’ any time soon.