Female hysteria

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Not to be confused with Hysteria.
Women with hysteria under the effects of hypnosis
Water massages as a treatment for hysteria (c. 1860)

Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis (distinct from male hysteria), made exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized by medical authorities as a medical disorder. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for many hundreds of years in Western Europe. Hysteria of both genders was widely discussed in the medical literature of the nineteenth century. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms, including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and "a tendency to cause trouble".[1] In extreme cases, the woman might be forced to enter an insane asylum or to undergo surgical hysterectomy.

Early history[edit]

Further information: Wandering womb

The history of the notion of hysteria can be traced to ancient times; in ancient Greece it was described in the gynecological treatises of the Hippocratic corpus, which date from the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Plato's dialogue Timaeus compares a woman's uterus to a living creature that wanders throughout a woman’s body, "blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease."[2] The concept of a pathological, wandering womb was later viewed as the source of the term hysteria,[2] which stems from the Greek cognate of uterus, ὑστέρα (hystera).

Another cause was thought to be the retention of female semen[clarification needed], thought to mingle with male semen during intercourse. This was believed to be stored in the womb. Hysteria was referred to as "the widow's disease", since the female semen was believed to turn venomous if not released through regular climax or intercourse.[3]

Nineteenth century[edit]

Advertisement from 1910.

A physician George Taylor in 1859 claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. George Beard, a physician catalogued seventy-five pages of possible symptoms of hysteria and called the list incomplete;[4] almost any ailment could fit the diagnosis. Physicians thought that the stresses associated with modern life caused civilized women to be both more susceptible to nervous disorders and to develop faulty reproductive tracts.[5] In the United States, such disorders in women reaffirmed that the US was on par with Europe;[clarification needed] one American physician expressed pleasure that the country was ”catching up” to Europe in the prevalence of hysteria.[4]


Number of French psychiatric theses on hysteria.[6]

During the early twentieth century, the number of women diagnosed with female hysteria declined sharply. This decline has been attributed to many reasons. Many medical authors[who?] claim that the decline was due to lay people gaining a greater understanding of the psychology behind conversion disorders such as hysteria.[6]

With so many possible symptoms, hysteria was always[when?] considered a catchall diagnosis where any unidentifiable ailment could be assigned.[citation needed] As diagnostic techniques improved, the number of ambiguous cases that might have been attributed to hysteria declined. For instance, before the introduction of electroencephalography, epilepsy was frequently confused with hysteria.[7] Many cases that had previously been labeled hysteria were reclassified by Sigmund Freud as anxiety neuroses.[7]

Today, female hysteria is no longer a recognized illness, but different manifestations of hysteria are recognized in other conditions such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, conversion disorder, and anxiety attacks.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maines, Rachel P. (1998). The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria", the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6646-4. 
  2. ^ a b King, Helen (1993). "Once upon a text: Hysteria from Hippocrates". In Gilman, Sander; King; Porter, Helen; Rousseau, G.S.; Showalter, Elaine. Hysteria beyond Freud. University of California Press. pp. 3–90. ISBN 0-520-08064-5. 
  3. ^ Roach, Mary (2009). Bonk: the curious coupling of science and sex. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. p. 214. ISBN 9780393334791. 
  4. ^ a b Briggs, Laura (2000). "The Race of Hysteria: "Overcivilization" and the "Savage" Woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology". American Quarterly 52 (2): 246–73. doi:10.1353/aq.2000.0013. PMID 16858900. 
  5. ^ Morantz, Regina M.; Zschoche, Sue (1980). "Professionalism, Feminism, and Gender Roles: A Comparative Study of Nineteenth-Century Medical Therapeutics". The Journal of American History 67 (3): 568–88. doi:10.2307/1889868. JSTOR 1889868. PMID 11614687. 
  6. ^ a b Micale, Mark S. (1993). "On the "Disappearance" of Hysteria: A Study in the Clinical Deconstruction of a Diagnosis". Isis 84 (3): 496–526. doi:10.1086/356549. PMID 8282518. 
  7. ^ a b Micale, Mark S. (July 2000). "The Decline of Hysteria". Harvard Mental Health Letter 17 (1): 4–6. PMID 10877868. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Libbrecht, Katrien (1995). Hysterical Psychosis: A Historical Survey. London: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1-56000-181-X. 
  • Micale, Mark S. (1995). Approaching Hysteria: Disease and its Interpretations. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03717-5. 
  • Micklem, Niel (1996). The Nature of Hysteria. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-12186-8. 
  • Augsburg, Tanya (1996). Private Theatres Onstage (Hysteria and the Female Medical Subject). UMI. 

External links[edit]