A Brief Herstory of “Hysteria:” Kamala Harris the Newest Diagnosee

by Sora Leigh

This week, California’s US Senator Kamala Harris was ridiculed for her persistent style of questioning Jeff Sessions during a Senate Intelligence Hearing regarding Russian Interference in the US Elections, first cut off by other senators and later referenced during an Anderson Cooper CNN segment when Jason Miller, former Trump campaign adviser, said Sessions “knocked away some of the hysteria from Kamala Harris and some of the Democrats who wanted to make this a big partisan show,” as reported by the Washington Post. 

Sexism is nothing new for womyn in government, especially womyn of color (Harris is of Tamil Indian and Jamaican-American descent), as Christine Emba points out in her recent OpEd: “if a female member of Congress is willing to press hard to get answers and results, shouldn’t she be celebrated for it? In men, such intensity is read as effectiveness; in women, it’s seen as irrationality.”

The concept of “hysteria” or womb-sickness from the Greek hystera, is seeped in millenia of sexism, pre-dating the word to Egyptian times. The concept firmly took root in Greek medicine thanks to Melampus:

The Argonaut Melampus, a physician, is considered its founder: he placated the revolt of Argo’s virgins who refused to honor the phallus and fled to the mountains, their behavior being taken for madness. Melampus cured these women with hellebore and then urged them to join carnally with young and strong men. They were healed and recovered their wits. Melampus spoke of the women’s madness as derived from their uterus being poisoned by venomous humors, due to a lack of orgasms and “uterine melancholy.” (Tasca et al.)

Thus began a long tradition of treating the “wandering womb” disease or female hysteria. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, doctors continued to pathologize the female libido. Womyn prone to depression, anxiety, or other physically or mental health problems were diagnosed with “hysteria.” Physicians recommended that their patients have more marital sex. Clitoral massage treatments that brought womyn to orgasm (hysterical paroxysm) were administered in the physician’s office using the newly patented vibrator (one of the first electric appliances), and vibrators were even marketed for home-use.

While it seems like a no-brainer that sexually satisfied womyn would suffer fewer mental health issues, the problem here was the pathologizing of the normal female libido and the labeling of such as a disease. Womyn who suffered from real mental health disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar may have been lumped into this “hysterical” category with others who were simply coping with a strict patriarchal society that limited their access to professional, personal, and sexual satisfaction.

While the diagnosis has faded (and is not included in the DSM), the concept lives on within collective consciousness. While “hysterics” once referred to the “fits” of the mentally ill, now it refers to an overly emotional or irrational outburst, or a situation of mass fear or political frenzy.

We can see why “hysteria” is the perfect word to undercut a female politician like Harris, implying that she is both inept and irrational, while also hinting that she might be whipping up unnecessary partisan turmoil.

Edma contends, and I would agree, that while the constant discrediting of professional womyn on the basis of emotionality is inappropriate, we should not label “emotional” a negative trait. Perhaps the passion that womyn bring to their careers (and the bedroom) is undervalued. When womyn like Harris deeply care about justice and discovering the truth, they are naturally more dogged in their questioning. When the passionate energy womyn exhibit across all realms of life is adequately valued, we will be able to stop squabbling about “hysterical” female politicians.

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