I’m not “hysterical,” I’m just smart.
There are few phrases as misogynistically invalidating as telling a woman to stop being “hysterical.” Apparently, British MP Philip Hammond didn’t receive this memo as evident by his words thrown at his fellow member of Parliament, Mary Creagh during a recent debate. Creagh is a member of the British Labour Party and has been representing Wakefield in Parliament for over a decade. Upon asking a “fairly routine” question to her colleague, Hammond retorted with the classic hysteria accusation preferred by men who are unable to logically refute their female counterparts. When met with the demand of a withdrawal of the offensive statement by Creagh and her fellow Labour representatives, MP Hammond responded with yet another classic evasion of accountability by claiming, “I didn’t call her hysterical — I urged her not to be hysterical.”
Creagh was justifiably outraged by the remarks from Hammond and in a radio interview following the incident, she was asked by the male host if hysterical was a “trigger” word for her. (In case you’re wondering, yes, the year is indeed 2017). Once again, a woman in a position of power was accused of being over sensitive, simply for demanding the same respect awarded to men.
It’s incredible to me how pervasive the effects of gendered diseases from antiquity are 2,000 years later. Though more in line with the Victorian connotations of the disease, the accusation of hysterical behavior all comes back to the womb and how supposedly detrimental it is to women’s ability to function in society. And as a well-educated woman in the field of languages, Creagh acknowledged exactly that.
She writes that she had “learned that the word hysteria comes from the Greek word hystera, meaning uterus. It was the first mental disorder attributed to women, caused by supposed defects in the womb. The Victorians used the hysteria diagnosis to silence and imprison women who failed to conform to their norms of womanly behaviour.” Creagh understands not just the societal role of crying “hysteria!” to any woman with a voice, but the historical roots of the word. And with this I couldn’t help be both impressed and inspired by MP Creagh, all the while saddened by the privilege of accepted ignorance of men in power.
Reading this article not only recalled our lessons of the “wandering womb,” but most notably our viewing of the movie, Hysteria. Creagh was a regular modern Charlotte Dalrymple, refusing to accept the misogynistic diagnosis. Just as Charlotte saw right through all of the ridiculousness that is “hysterical behavior,” Creagh demanded respect, acknowledging the power that the word hysterical has, and how it’s been historically used to “silence and patronise women” who are unafraid to speak their minds.
While this article infuriated me beyond belief, I actually finished it with a sense of pride and strength. MP Mary Creagh’s refusal to comply with gendered rhetoric was inspiring to say the least, especially for a woman such as myself who is pursuing a career in the male-dominated field of biomedicine. Understanding the history behind words such as hysteria gives us the ammunition to fight it head on and stand strong. Her knowledge of the Greek roots of the word made me quite glad that I’m taking this class.