Ms. Gina Colantino
June 7, 2012
How Freudian Hysteria Caused Women to Forsake Nurturing
Imagine that you’re a woman in the 19th century, a man’s world. You have just had your first child and have been experiencing sad, lonely feelings and numbness in your arms. Your husband takes you to see a psychologist by the name of Sigmund Freud. He thus diagnoses you with his latest theorized disorder, hysteria. Dr. Freud then says that the only cure is an immediate hysterectomy. Your “insanity” makes you an incapable mother. Freud’s diagnoses of hysteria led women to the brink of insanity as they were lured to forsake their roles as mothers. During the same time period, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein represents hysteria, thus undermining the stereotype of only women being emotionally obsessive or unstable.
In the late 19th century, the practice of psychology was receiving much notability. Psych wards and mental hospitals were established for those thought to be a harm or nuisance to society. Even the sanest person could have been locked behind bars for the rest of their life if they showed need for further care or if they failed to cooperate with the administration. There was an order to how things were done during this time period. Women were to be homemakers and take care of the nine plus children that they had birthed. To be unable to fulfill these duties as mother and wife was disgraceful to not only the woman, but to the entire family who would become motherless. As psychology was making its rise as a credible and wise profession, so was one notable psychologist –Sigmund Freud. Freud had made headway in his heyday publishing Aetiology of Hysteria in 1896. In this book, Freud discusses the cause of hysteria in women only. Now the word “hysteria” comes from the Greek root, hystera, meaning womb (Gray). The Greeks were likely the first ones to discover hysteria, but Freud is the psychologist who is given credit for the discovery. Hysteria itself is defined as "a psychiatric condition variously characterized by emotional excitability, excessive anxiety, sensory and motor disturbances, or the unconscious simulation of organic disorders" (Gray). What this definition means is that the condition is diagnosed as a mental illness that heightens the emotions while slowing the motor skills. Freud found much of his evidence from research of scientists before him as hysteria had been around for centuries before his published work. Women seem to be the main sufferers of hysteria. Freud credits this cause to motherhood, so the female demographic could be explained there or there could be social motives behind these diagnoses. Since emotion was repressed in men, women were seen as hysterical when they displayed any signs of discontent or feeling. During this time period, most women didn’t argue with men as they were seen as inferior beings to men in society. It was a largely patriarchal society in the nineteenth century and women were seen as second-class citizens. There is reason to believe that hysteria was a ploy for the continual suppression of women. Even in a time of determent, there was hope. There were those who did retaliate against the oppression from men. These women were part of the first feminist movement whose hard work gave way to the right to vote.
Not only was psychology on the rise, but women were also on the cusp of a social and political revolution in the late 1800’s. With Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott attending the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 in New York, they made the first widespread stand for women’s rights (Library of Congress). Susan B. Anthony would join them four short years later to advocate for political rights. Together, this trio was unstoppable. They went to Congress with bills to pass. Anthony even rallied against prostitution in 1875 demanding equality among men and women so that women didn’t have to stoop to...