The Sad Story of the Hysterical Uterus

There has not been a scientifically definitive physiology of female anatomy until quite recently but strange images from its ambiguous history still haunt the common imagination and impact on women’s self image. None is stranger than the female womb.

An anatomical “reality” that persisted in Western medical lore since ancient Greece was that the female uterus becomes displeased and displaced, and wanders through the body, negatively influencing the brain (I kid you not!). “Hysteria” is derived from the Greek word for uterus.

In a fit of fury the female uterus went travelling through the body, causing all manner of emotional disturbances – hence hysteria, hysterical – and hysterectomy.

The mental condition of hysteria afflicted legions of women of all ages throughout the patriarchal centuries, and was considered the most common disease after fever. In menopause, specifically, “the belief was that the failure to menstruate caused the uterus to travel around the body, eventually negatively influencing the brain”.(Louis Banner In Full Flower)

The descriptions of hysterical patients painted a terrible caricature of the feminine. Old treatments included bed rest, binding, beating, purging, bloodletting, and, in worse cases, hysterectomy and/or clitoridectomy.

A kinder treatment evolved in the 19th century, when hysteria became a veritable epidemic, especially in the white middle classes. The doctor massaged the genitals until there was a healing convulsion and moist spasms (an orgasm by any other name), which relieved the patient for a while – until the next appointment. Hysteria was considered chronic and incurable, requiring ongoing treatment.

Electric vibrators were developed in the mid 19th century to help the overworked doctors and ease the hysterical women. They were even marketed to women at home for self-treatment, and were advertised in consumer catalogues and magazines. (There were vibrators in the house before vacuum cleaners.) However, by 1930 vibrators had gone underground, and were not openly advertised again until they re-emerged as sex toys in the 1960s. (This is according to Duana R Anderson in The wondering Uterus & A Brief History of the Vibrator)

The treatment of hysteria was taken over by psychology, and Freud pretty much evolved his world-shattering theories based on his work with hysterical (and frigid) women. And, well, we should be grateful for that.

He explained hysteria as the physical and psychological expression of inner psychic conflicts about sexuality. (Psyche turned into soma.) He explored his patients’ personal history for clues, practised the talking cure (hugely innovative for its time), and developed psychoanalysis.

In my view, these legions of hysterical women were literally quivering with centuries of misogynist repressions, bursting to break out of the traumatized collective psyche; an epidemic erupting out of the universal unconscious where the goddess of myth lay buried.

In the good doctor’s own words, “The character of hysterics shows a degree of sexual repression in excess of the normal quantity, an intensification of resistance against the sexual instinct (which we have already met with in the form of shame, disgust and morality), and what seems like an instinctive aversion on their part to any intellectual consideration of sexual problems.

“This trait … is not uncommonly screened by the existence of a second constitutional character present in hysteria, namely the predominant development of the sexual instinct. Psychoanalysis … reveals the pair of opposites by which it is characterised – exaggerated sexual craving and excessive aversion to sexuality.”

Modern psychology succeeded in shifting hysteria from the realm of superstition. You could say it cured the mass hysteria; by 1952, it was officially declared a non-disease.

Freud introduced the concept of libido, the psychic energy expressed through sexuality that lies at the root of every living individual, and drives our desires and impulses. It can be repressed, expressed, controlled, or transmuted. But it exists – a priori!

Psychology helped to make conscious the compulsion of instincts hidden in the unconscious psyche. Basically ordinary people could now understand their behaviours and symptoms as expressions of underlying psychic/psychological conflict. Jung introduced the idea of the collective unconscious, which illuminated the universality of dream images and personal unconscious content.

The hysteric’s subjugated sexuality was now the very stuff of the modern age, just waiting for the 1960s to burst out on to the world stage of the post-war baby boomers. The sexual liberation of that period was a huge and abrupt cultural change. Perhaps we forget now just how radical and fundamental it was – this sexual break from the past.

However, before we get too satisfied with this development, we need to ask ourselves why, with hysteria safely unplugged, we now have a virtual epidemic of hysterectomies, now the second most frequent surgery among American women, with caesarean section delivery being first. One in three women in the United States has had a hysterectomy by age 60!

If our hysterical uteruses are no longer travelling through our bodies affecting our brains, why are so many women having them cut out?