As a woman, one might have heard the phrases, “you are overreacting”, “don’t be hysterical”, and “you are too sensitive” too many times — be it while calling out sexism, problematic words or behaviour or just existing.
Such words are used to keep women from accessing power. When women talk about systematic oppression, constant suppression of their basic rights, speak with assertion, take up space, own their bodies, say no, or even laugh loudly, the blankets of power slip, leaving the men with cold feet.
To reclaim that power, men blame women for their excess of being. These gendered norms have been passed on as tools of dismissal and usually mean two things: be a woman but not too much and be so in accordance with the endless restrictive ideals we impose on you.
To keep women in the repressive cages created by patriarchal systems and ensure that they don’t step out, they have been subjected to demonisation, hunts, and the creation of false mental disorders such as “hysteria”.
Hysteria as a tool for suppression
For centuries, the word ‘hysteria’ has been one of the most actively used words to extend dismissal. It has its origin in the 5th century BC, when Hippocrates first used it and believed that it was caused by a “wandering uterus.” The word is rooted in “hysterikos” which means ‘of the womb’, highlighting how society linked wombs with overreaction and incredibility.”
Having a womb was seen as inferior, a weakness by male philosophers such as Aristotle, who stated that females are deformed males.
“As a general rule,” the French physician Auguste Fabre wrote in 1883, “all women are hysterical. And every woman carries with her the seeds of hysteria.”
Talking about the pathologising of the female experience to keep them submissive and powerless, Sady Doyle said, “Not only is the actual word “hysteria” gendered — it once referred to an exclusively female disease, a mental illness thought to be caused by a malfunctioning uterus — there is a very long history of critics using accusations or innuendos about women’s mental health or emotional stability in order to shut down their political voices.”
Pain and morality bias
Perceived hysteria was also the reason behind the gaslighting of women’s pain by physicians. From the misdiagnosis of endometriosis to shaming women who chose epidural during birth, the dismissal of women’s pain is deeply embedded in the cultural narrative. To ask for relief from pain is considered to be less of a ‘woman’ — the idealised silent, tolerant and submissive woman. Culture can’t be delinked from medicine. It has a powerful influence on medicine and science.
Even today, period pain is up for debate. People who menstruate are asked to prove that they are not exaggerating their pain and that they deserve paid leave.
Women’s pain, like their existence, has always needed to be justified.
Of the many perfections imposed on womanliness, morality has led the dance between patriarchal power and cultural oppression. Women are projected as culture bearers, so any behaviour that is seen as deviant is labelled as immoral.
Hysteria has been one of the many ways of pathologising femininity to set a template for the consequence of not following the imposed gender constructs. The use of a woman’s body as a way to establish power is still the norm. Be it through pink tax, sexual violence, or abortion rights.
Freeing the ‘Madwoman’
Emotions have always been gendered. Restrictions and repressions have caused serious damage to generations, which are slowly being recognised. While sensitivity in a man strips him of his privilege, a woman showing an emotion labelled to be masculine. For example, it is considered that rage makes her a ‘madwoman’ or makes her ‘hysterical’ — a false narrative peddled to keep women from finding their voice, from finding out that rage is rooted in historical baggage, memories of oppression, and intergenerational discrimination, and more importantly, that this rage is valid.
As Rebecca Traister says in her book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, women’s anger sparks change: “What becomes clear, when we look to the past with an eye to the future, is that the discouragement of women’s anger — via silencing, erasure, and repression — stems from the correct understanding of those in power than in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.” Trans women are repressed even further.
Language is often used as a tool to communicate and exercise power, codify discrimination, and promote a socio-cultural ideology. From sitcoms, films, books, and Instagram reels, to offline conversations, terms such as ‘hysteria’ are used to promote an age-old narrative working hard to dismiss women’s emotions and voice.
All of this is to establish women’s unreliability when they expose inequality and ask for equity. Normalising gender gaps and male privilege makes it easy to keep women on the periphery, close enough for superficial participation and far away from real impact.
Aisiri Amin (She/her) is a freelance journalist specialising in gender, culture and social justice. She is the co-founder of INKLINE, an international media website featuring solutions-focused stories. Aisiri can be found on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Featured image source: Shreya Tingal for Feminism In India