Ep. 16 Female Hysteria: Blame it on the Uterus
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
Tell me, have you ever felt any of these?
Shortness of breath
Heaviness of the abdomen
Loss of appetite (for food OR sex)
Well then you just may be suffering from Female Hysteria. Or you know you’re a regular human woman. But not according to men hundreds of years ago. And we all know that men know everything there is to know about women.
Female Hysteria was considered an actual medical disease as recent as the 1950’s, but it goes back much much further than that, dating back to 1900 BC in Ancient Egypt.
It was first recorded in the Kahun Papyri, a collection of ancient Egyptian texts regarding a variety of topics, including medical issues. There was actually a separate one just for gynecological issues (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kahun_Papyri )
One such issue was known as Wandering Womb.
This theory was also popular in Ancient Greece, and Plato even described the uterus as a living creature that wanders throughout a woman’s body, “blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease.” Another man, Aretaeus of Cappadocia described the uterus as “an animal within an animal”.
The whole idea was that the uterus moves around the body, putting pressure on other organs thereby causing a myriad of health issues. Sounds pretty legit to me.
So what do you do with a womb that just won’t stay put? You try to entice it back to it’s rightful place by scent therapy. This totally medically sound therapy included placing good smells by the genitals and bad smells at the nose, thereby forcing that unruly uterus back to it’s correct place.
So in Ancient Greece most women were susceptible to this so called illness, including childless women, but in the 2nd century, a dude named Galen, a physician and philosopher, omitted childless women and said that the most vulnerable group was “widows, and particularly those who previously menstruated regularly, had been pregnant and were eager to have intercourse, but were now deprived of all this”.
He was also like “no, the womb doesn’t move throughout the body, that’s just silly but let’s keep doing scent therapy to be on the safe side, oh and you need to have sex.”
Basically, the widow was missing the dick because her body was used to getting it regularly. And that without it she could get very sick.
One thing this Galen guy worried about was the “female seed”. He said that without regular intercourse the female seed would become trapped in the uterus and become venomous to the body. Unlike the “male seed” which is released.
Thus hysteria became known as the “Widow’s disease”.
Galen started treating hysteria with a Hysterical Paroxsym, aka an orgasm. In his notes he said:
“Following the remedies and arising from the touch of the genital organs required by the treatment, there followed twitchings accompanied at the same time by pain and pleasure after which she emitted turbid and abundant sperm. From that time on she was free of all the evil she felt.”
So sex and scents remained the standard cure for some time until in the middle ages another cause was suggested. Any guesses?
Demonic possession, because why not?
It was thought that demonic forces were attracted to people who were prone to melancholy, especially women and old people. Because we all know men are never sad. As we know, it wasn’t just hysteria that was thought to be demonic possession, but rather all mental illnesses.
Despite the possession theory, the most common treatment was still sex. But self treatment was a no-no. Oh no, a woman could only be cured by sexual intercourse with a man because semen was said to have healing properties.
Unmarried or widowed women could go see a midwife for “manual stimulation” with oils and scents to “purge the uterus of any fluid retention”. Reputable doctors sent women to a midwife, but we both know there were many who would have treated her themselves. And then charged her for it.
Doctors would also advise the parents of the affect woman to find her a husband, because as we all know the thing that makes women the most depressed is being unmarried.
One doctor, Abraham Zacuto wrote in his 1637 work Praxis Medica Admiranda:
Because of retention of the sexual fluid, the heart and surrounding areas are enveloped in a morbid and moist exudation: this is especially true of the more lascivious females, inclined to venery, passionate women who are most eager to experience physical pleasure; if she is of this type she cannot ever be relieved by any aid except that of her parents who are advised to find her a husband. Having done so the man's strong and vigorous intercourse alleviated the frenzy.
— Maines, 29, 
So...yeah, that happened.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians started to think that rather than a physical issue with the uterus, hysteria was caused by an affliction of the mind. It was thought that the stress of the average woman’s life at the time made her more susceptible. It was also believed to be a “behavioral deviance” and women would sometimes go so far as to be placed in a sanatorium.
One doctor, George Beard compiled a 75 page list of possible symptoms of hysteria. So basically, anything could be contributed to hysteria. This was mostly in the Victorian Era when women were encouraged to be particularly prudish. It was thought that with all the modern innovations and social restrictions womens bodies were basically forgetting how to woman so they became hysterical.
It was so prevalent, that women even started carrying around smelling salts in case of fainting.
So with everyone having hysteria and needing massage therapy, doctors were getting tired, or at least their fingers probably were. They needed a solution, and fast.
Enter the vibrator.
That’s right, it’s believed by some that hysteria was one of the driving forces behind the development of the vibrator. Though this can’t be completely confirmed, it is a hypothesis believed by many.
Fun fact: the vibrator was the 5th household appliance to become electrified.
By the time we reach the 20th century, the number of women diagnosed with hysteria starts to decline, mostly due to better medical understanding. Hysteria had become kind of an umbrella term, and as medical understanding advanced less symptoms were attributed to hysteria.
For example, seizures. For a long time seizures were thought to be caused by hysteria, but as epilepsy was discovered and studied, seizure was taken off the symptom list.
But even still, Hysteria was still seen as something mainly affecting women, and as some sort of lack of femininity. Sigmund Freud had a lot to say about it, but it’s exactly what you would expect from him and really nothing I haven’t said already. He did, however, start treating it with psychoanalysis.
However, in the end, the so called cure was still marrying and punching out a bunch of babies. I imagine a punch card.
Supposedly, a husband and child would help the woman to “regain the lost phallus”.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the term was officially dropped by the American Pyschiatric Association. And the term “hysterical neurosis” was in the DSM (a huge book listing diseases and illnesses) until 1980.
Though the terms aren’t used today, the impact is still there in many ways.
So ladies, the moral of this story is that masturbation saves lives.