Discuss Hysteria in the Context of Class and Gender Constructions of the Period

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  • Topic: Gender, Hysteria, Woman
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  • Published : January 10, 2013
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Hysteria is a pathological condition that reached the apex of its ‘popularity’ in the late 19th century (Maines, 1998). The history of the notion of hysteria can be traced right back to ancient times. Elaine Showalter, who was famous for her study of women and madness, describes the period between 1970 and World War I as ‘the golden age of hysteria’ (Mazzoni, 1996, p.129). Showalter (1997) states hysteria as being over-diagnosed and poorly defined and is very sceptical about the disease, referring to it as a ‘wastebasket diagnosis’ (Showalter, 1997, pg.81). Hysteria has changed throughout history in the sense of what really causes it; initially revolving around the idea that the body affected the mind, the symptoms and behaviour also varied between doctors and eras, suggesting it was never a set in stone ‘illness’, with its continually changing definitions.

Beizer (1994) stated that the concept of hysteria was metaphorically useful and actually necessary to the era’s narrative discourse. Hysteria focused around sexuality and the uterus, and diagnosis could vary from not having enough or having too much sex. Jean-Martin Charcot: the main authority on hysteria was the one in charge of deciding what was classed as over-sexualised or under-sexualised regarding hysteria, and therefore what treatment was necessary. The 19th century authority on hysteria: Charles Lasegue claimed that due to the fact hysterical symptoms are too varied and inconsistent, ‘the definition of hysteria has never been given and never will be’ (Janet, 1901, p.484). This essay aims to analysis and explain class and gender constructs in relation to hysteria.

The concept of hysteria was historically applied mainly to women. A physician in 1859 claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from the illness. (Briggs, 2000, p.246-70). The young, educated and intelligent middle class women were the most vulnerable when hysteria was prevalent. The appearance of hysteria was connected to the appearance of the ‘New Woman’, this being an educated, and intellectual feminist, one who is politically aware. Those women who therefore wanted to gain a sense of independence and a voice, those whom wanted the right to vote or a divorce were those diagnosed with hysteria. Symptoms were not physical, again questioning hysteria as an illness. (Jusová, 2005).

Hysteria is a gendered disease, which hovers between body, spirit and mind. Des Hermies (1891) stated that there remains this unanswerable question: is a woman possessed because she is hysterical, or is she hysterical because she is possessed? In the past, the church was much more highly looked upon as a form of diagnosis than how we see it today, ‘Only the church can answer, science cannot’ (Mazzoni, 1996, p.1). The majority of hysteria was classified to women, and when hysteria and diagnosis were spoke about it was fixated around women and the uterus. (Beizer, 1994); hysteria suggested that women is her uterus, is her desire; but her uterus is (or can be) sick, and so is (or can be) her desire.

Silas Weir Mitchell (1877) ‘A hysterical girl is…a vampire who sucks the blood of the healthy people around her’ (Goldstein, 1991, p.243). Women were caught in a double bind, on one side they had to be the perfect woman: delicate, innocent and feminine, and on the other: a strong, knowing, and self-sacrificing wife or mother. Mutism, anorexia and paralysis were all common in females of this time, and (Merskey 1995) suggests a metaphor for these, symbolising the lack of voice, the starvation relegated to the domestic sphere and lack of social mobility. It seems ironic that those who tried to escape the suppression of women, and fight for equal rights and independence were those diagnosed with such an illness. 19th century upper and middle class women should have been completely dependent on their husbands and fathers, and their lives revolved around this role, if they strayed away then they were susceptible to been...
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