The days of sneaky wombs and shivers are over. Our attitude towards illness and medicine in today’s world may be very simple and very trusting. We admittedly don’t fully understand ourselves, but put our faith in the doctors to understand our bodies better than we presumably ever could. We take pills for everything and though we don’t really know what we’re taking, we have very little choice other than to trust the doctors and hope for the best!
Before doctors were able to sufficiently test patients or medicines and remedies; the world was a very different place. People were given opium for the slightest pains or diagnosed with apoplexy (fainting too often). We certainly don’t have to worry about death from ‘mortification’ or spontaneous combustion anymore! Hysteria; now understood as uncontrollable excitement or emotion, was initially dealt with as psychoneurosis. Unsurprisingly, women were the main culprits. In Victorian England, women were seen as emotional, dependant and gentle; so of course they were naturally more susceptible to illness. The ‘disease’ hysteria was a psychological stress that would cause physical symptoms. Women would be taken suddenly ill, suffer fainting spells, sleeplessness, develop amnesia, perhaps even blindness and paralysis…. Basically; anything could happen! General opinion was that these physical issues had no other cause than a result of working themselves up.
Whatever the genuine source of this smorgasbord of illnesses women encountered, it became irrelevant as soon as the doctor prescribed the cure. From that point in, the game was up! If you were sick before, prepare to be sicker – doctors were dishing out highly addictive substances as medicine. Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White, suffered with gout – similar to arthritis – yet his troubles came not from pain, but from nervousness he developed. This nervousness and screaming – incidentally, not dissimilar to ‘female hysteria’ – was a result of his addiction to laudanum, a cocktail of opium and alcohol which the doctor prescribed to treat the gout. Ten years later and heavily addicted to the drug, Wilkie Collins describes menacing ghosts and monstrous women who haunted him through his hallucinations. But he escaped the ‘hysteria’ diagnosis, as in the 1800’s it was considered only a female trouble. Women didn’t need to be as far gone as having chemically induced visions to be called mad; and the label was used liberally to oppress.
Now let’s face it, women can be a bloody pain! To get the nagging wench off your back, why not turn to the old, “hysterical, weak and helpless” line of argument? Put them away and lock them up. If their heart races or they’ve seen an intimidating face – off with you to bed! Men, we already know, controlled nearly every aspect or a woman’s life and could also get rid of women pretty easily if they didn’t die in childbirth first. By 1859, John Conolly, one of the most imminent ‘mad doctors’ in the country, was advocating the confinement of “young women of ungovernable temper . . . sullen, wayward, malicious, defying all domestic control” (John Churchill).
This is particularly interesting since hysteria was first used as an umbrella term to explain any female physical symptoms, and was now being used as a term for any perceived mental difficulties or unlikeable personalities, meaning it would be a lot harder to challenge. From an excuse of sheer ignorance and lack of medical experience, hysteria became an excuse to exercise tyranny on women. Conolly and his partner L. Forbes Winslow were responsible for (falsely) certifying the kidnapped Rosina Bulwer-Lytton (Charles Dickens’ friend’s wife) as insane. As soon as a woman behaved unfeminine and improper, her husband could just pop her down to the loony bin.
It was believed that the female reproductive organs had a strong connection to the woman’s emotions. At the London Asylum, Dr Bucke believed female hysteria could be cured by removing the cause of the disease; the genitalia. Acting to cure the body is to cure the mind, Bucke performed hysterectomies on patients at the asylum. This was thankfully stopped in 1902 and better, alternative cures were on the scene. By the 19th century an effective and acceptable cure for hysteria, and the standard cure set into action across Europe and America, was discovered. Doctors would apply vegetable oil to woman’s genitals and …massage her. They found that a female orgasm (and finding of the clitoris I imagine…) relieved women of hysteria. This was at odds with the idea that both sexes still believed women didn’t have sex drives. Their role was to satisfy the man, right?
So symptoms of irritability, sleepless nights and anxiety could well have been none other than sexual frustration. Of course during the ‘treatment’ they couldn’t call it an orgasm, since women weren’t supposed to get them, so it was a paroxysm. These ‘hysterical’ women we can thank for the invention of the first vibrators – frankly, the doctors would get a bit tired spending hours relieving women and so the first mechanical apparatus was invented… I imagine the Gentleman Doctor in his white coat and glasses, reading his paper over his knee in his Harley Street office, whilst applying a rudimentary dildo to the quivering Society Lady with her legs akimbo!
Furthermore, the Greek idea of the ‘wandering womb’ which Hippocrates proposed is the underlying reason why Victorian women carried smelling salts to revive them if they felt weak or unwell. A quick sniff was meant to keep your womb in check, since it didn’t like strong smells and would budge back into place and behave itself.
In terms of what doctors called hysteria, surely every woman (and man!) who ever lived has experienced it. What is interesting is the way in which the woman’s body was pitted against her. What have I learnt? Men are mad and like to mess with women’s bodies as though to stop them being proper women. Oh, and it’s really important to huff some paint-stripper once in a while to stop one’s womb going walkabout. Gotta keep that wily thing on a leash!