Female Hysteria: 7 Crazy Things People Used To Believe About The Ladies' Disease

11/21/2013 09:32 am ET | Updated Nov 21, 2013
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Deeply disheartening though it may be, the practice of labeling women "crazy" is alive and well today, and its roots are deep. As in, it's-been-happening-for-thousands-of-years-and-has-been-pretty-well-tolerated-by-most-of-society deep.

Hysteria was the first mental disorder attributed to women (and only women) -- a catch-all for symptoms including, but by no means limited to: nervousness, hallucinations, emotional outbursts and various urges of the sexual variety (more on that below).

To make clear how far we've come in our understanding of women's mental health, and how far we have yet to go, here's a little trip down memory lane -- a tour of just seven of the weirdest things so-called "experts" used to believe about female hysteria. (You know, in addition to it being an actual thing that existed.)

1. Hysteria was caused by wandering wombs.

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Ah, those pesky wombs -- never staying still, always stirring up problems. According to a comprehensive history of female hysteria compiled by researchers from the University of Cagliari in Italy, Egyptian texts dating as far back as 1900 BC argued that hysterical disorders were caused by women's wombs moving throughout their bodies. The ancient Greeks believed it, too. In the 5th century BC, Hippocrates (i.e., the founder of western medicine, in what may not go down as his greatest achievement) first coined the term "hysteria" -- from "hystera," or uterus -- and also attributed its cause to abnormal movements of the womb in a woman's body.

2. And experts believed the condition was incredibly common.

crowd of women

Thomas Sydenham was an influential British physician who lived from the mid- to late-1600s, and clearly thought that crazy ladies were wandering around everywhere. According to Mother Jones, Sydenham once declared that female hysteria -- which he attributed to "irregular motions of the animal spirits," was the second most common malady of the time, just behind fevers.

3. Sexy thoughts were a symptom.

woman daydreaming

Fainting, outbursts, nervousness and irritability weren't the only hallmarks of female hysteria; certain core aspects of female sexuality, desire and sexual frustration were also on the list. As Mother Jones reports, "excessive vaginal lubrication" and "erotic fantasy" were also both considered symptoms of the disease. The horror!

4. It could be cured by pelvic massage ...

woman orgasm

At various points in history, the massaging of a woman's pelvis (i.e., her genitals) was embraced by many a health expert as the cure for female hysteria, resulting in "hysterical paroxysm," or orgasm. Though the practice dates back to the renaissance, and even before, it became a money-maker for the medical establishment during the Victorian era. "By the early 19th century, physician-assisted paroxysm was firmly entrenched in Europe and the U.S. and proved a financial godsend for many doctors," Psychology Today explains.

5. ... or vibrators ...

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When the vibrator emerged in the late 19th century, explains technology historian Rachel Maines [technology historian] in her book "The Technology of Orgasm" explains, it was intended as an "electromechanical medical instrument" to provide more reliable and efficient physical therapy to women believed to be suffering from hysteria. And it was a welcome advance. Doctors "sought every opportunity to substitute other devices for their fingers," Maines writes.

6. ... or a good hosing.

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According to Maines' investigations, at various points, high-pressure showers or hoses were also used to treat hysteria (as was clitoridectomies it should be said). One French physician, writing in the mid 1800s, explained that at first this sort of high-powered douching was unpleasant, but then, "the reaction of the organism to the cold, which causes the skin to flush, and the reestablishment of equilibrium all create for many persons so agreeable a sensation that it is necessary to take precautions." Women weren't supposed to indulge in this hydro-therapy for more than four to five minutes ... or else. (Like so much of the woefully inaccurate nonsense surrounding female hysteria, or else what isn't entirely clear.)

7. And the established medical community held onto these beliefs for a very long time.

woman psychologist

It's easy to laugh-off female hysteria as preposterous and antiquated pseudo-science, but the fact is, the American Psychiatric Association didn't drop the term until the early 1950s. And though it had taken on a very different meaning from its early roots, "hysterical neurosis" didn't disappear from the DSM -- often referred to as the bible of modern psychiatry -- until 1980. Sadly, we're still feeling the impact of this highly-entrenched medical diagnosis today. The "crazy" and "hysterical" labels are hard ones for women to completely shake.

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