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

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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 diagnosed with hysteria.

Ushher points out hysteria is ‘a made of protest for women deprived of other social or intellectual outlets or expressive options.’ (Ushher, 1991, p.91). Hunter (1983) also states, hysteria is ‘a feminine discourse in which the body signifies what social conditions make it impossible to state linguistically’ (Hunter, 1983, p.485). Usher (1991), hysteria was ‘the daughter’s disease’ (Ushher, 1991, p.91). Hysteria was also traditionally seen as colluding with the nuptial metaphors of much mystical discourse, especially feminine. During the Victorian period, “the close association between femininity and pathology became firmly established…madness became synonymous with womanhood’ (Ussher, 1991, 64). Quite clearly many frowned upon hysteria and females were the root of the illness.

The hysteria diagnosed with men was very different from that of women, in the sense it was much more socially accepted. This again shows the gender bias hysteria holds. Charcot (1885) made a controversial claim to have established the existence of male hysteria, which he only found to exist among the lower classes. He associates hysteria with marginalised groups, the women and the poor males. This is in comparison to class within females, as we know the upper class were those branded with the ‘illness.’ It seems extremely stereotypical then that lower class men were those diagnosed with hysteria, most probably due to the lack of independence and rights, yet women who fought for these were the ones diagnosed.

In 1982, Freud worked with many hysterical patients, whom were mostly women. He published ‘The Defence of ‘Neuro-Psychoses’ which stated that in hysteria ‘it is chiefly sexual ideas (in women) that have proved unacceptable to the personality’ (Johnson, 1993, p.1). The adjective hysterikos means ‘coming from the womb/suffering due to the womb’ (Gilman, et al., 1993, p.1-30). Items used to ‘cure’ hysteria were ones that either removed or stimulated the clitoris (Isaac Browns 1812-1873). Again another sexualised view of the illness and again relating back to a female body part. Charcot’s patients gave demonstrations of their symptoms and acted them out. Women were shown in vulnerable positions, mostly looking like they are in a state of madness.

Showalter (1987) ‘When the hysterical women became sick, she no longer played the role of the self-sacrificing daughter or wife…Instead, she demanded attention from others’ (Showalter, 1987, p.133). For Graeco-Roman medicine, a disease of the female reproductive apparatus was caused by unwanted sexual abstinence. It was said the demon had taken the wombs place and wandered about the female body. The woman, who was diagnosed with hysteria, was no longer a ‘sick human’ but now the victim, or even worse an accomplice of Satan and a witch. The main historiographer of hysteria; Ilza Veith said ‘the exception of the few who were fortunate enough to come into medical hands, hysterics became victims of the witch craze’ (Kroll, 1973, 276-283). Again the focus is always upon the female, and even when referred to in literary evidence the female is always the focal point.

Doctors were hostile to the hysterical patient, maybe because they recognised the ‘illness’ functioned as a critique of society’s values? Showalter (1987) said the doctors needed hysterical women as muses and then hysterical women needed doctors to speak for them. Women were used as a scapegoat and were the victims who were given a diagnosis to explain hysteria. Showalter also stated that ‘anorexic girls paraded physical starvation as a way of drawing attention to the starvation of their mental and moral faculties’ (Showalter, 1985, p.128-129). Starvation today has become more accepted, due to people such celebrities and role models been involved in this behaviour. It just proves how much society has changed, as now males with anorexia are seen as much more abnormal than females. This contrasts to the anorexia in hysteria.

Not only is hysteria very gendered towards females, but it was also represented as an embodiment of female nature in the eyes of males, Maines (1999) refers to hysteria as being a womb disease. In turn-of-the-century texts, it is specifically around the representation of women or traditionally feminised men. Throughout the 19th century, the hysteric is definitely a female as we can see from the vast literary evidence. Hysteria was a construction of the time to stop women having a voice and undermining males, and hysteria could be said to be the suppression of women. This then links into class, the upper and middle class females should have been completely dependent on their husbands and fathers, and if they weren’t they were seen as ill. As well as this those striving for a better life, independence and the right to have a voice were also susceptible to been diagnosed.

Society has changed greatly since hysteria, yet there is still a slight bias towards men as the dominant human. In a sense, Freud solved the problem of hysteria by viewing it as a neurosis, and stating it happens unconsciously, and it was therefore, no longer seen as an illness as such. It can be said that hysteria was abandoned in 1908 by psychiatry and is no longer a recognized illness, yet it seems that hysteria has manifested into 30 different disorders and conditions such as schizophrenia, depression and Tourette’s. Therefore, in a sense, one disorder has disappeared, yet a lot more have appeared, and so, so much new history does indeed begin from 1908.

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