For most of history, hysteria was a physical and mental condition that had no cure and it was associated with the uterus. It was believed to cause a wide range of symptoms including, but not limited to shortness of breath, anxiety, insomnia, fainting, amnesia, nausea, paralysis, seizures, spasms, convulsive fits, deafness, hallucinations, infertility, and painful and heavy menstrual periods. From the earliest mention of hysteria from Ancient Egypt through to the Greeks and Romans, the Middle Ages and the Modern Period, physicians and philosophers came up with many sexist and unscientific hypothesizes about the cause and cure for hysteria. The contradictory culprits included a dormant sex life and hypersexuality, theories of a wandering womb or hysteria induced by witchcraft and demonic possession.
In her groundbreaking article The Race of Hysteria published in 2000, Laura Briggs explains,
“Hysteria was never just a disease. It was the way that nineteenth century U.S. and European cultures made sense of women’s changing roles.”
The social and economic changes brought by industrialization led women to want to have more agency over their lives outside of the stresses of raising a household and bearing children. Women who wanted to work, live independently from men, or remain childless were deemed hysterical and unfit for public and political life. As a result, first wave feminism and the suffrage movement became linked to hysteria and mental illness to keep women at home in the private sphere.
According to theorists during this time, the symptoms of hysteria were also indicative of overcivilization, making it a white woman’s disease. Hysteria was introduced in scientific and popular discourse to construct an evolutionary order beginning with “savage” or “barbarian” Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) culminating with “civilized” white people. White women of a certain class were portrayed as “overcivilized,” explaining the cause for their fragility and psychological and gynecological ailments, while women of color and poor people were described as “strong, hardy, prolifically fertile,” and hypersexual, and therefore closer to nature.
The purpose behind this “diagnostic fiction” was to prevent white women from taking on social roles outside the home and to justify experimentation on BIPOC women for advances in obstetrics and gynecology. A popular example of this is American physician J. Marion Sims known as “the father of modern gynecology” who perfected surgical techniques that led to today’s c-section operation on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. The invention of hysteria was doubly productive for the field of obstetrics and gynecology. Briggs states,
“The frailty and nervousness of one group [white women] provided the raison d’être of obstetrics and gynecology.”
Meanwhile, the supposed hardiness and insusceptibility to pain of BIPOC women allowed them to become experimental “material” for society’s scientific progress.
In essence, the history of hysteria overemphasizes white women’s susceptibility to psychological distress while delegitimizing and stigmatizing BIPOC women’s experiences of mental illness or madness. By reading into the whiteness of hysteria, Briggs presents racism as the primary factor that causes the disregard of Black maternal mental health issues today. The consequences of this include invalidating BIPOC women, but especially Black women’s pain and disregarding their concerns when they sense there is something wrong and potentially life threatening. Black women and birthing people die at 3 to 4 times the rate of white people from childbirth-related causes. They are twice as likely to experience perinatal mental health complications resulting in suicide or overdose is a leading cause of death.
The legacy of hysteria may be a reason why women of color do not share their symptoms of mental illness and are more likely to experience perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, but are less likely to receive treatment and support consistent with their needs. It has also made it harder for BIPOC women to get accurate mental health diagnoses and access to anti-racist, trauma informed, culturally competent mental health care.
Given how the odds were stacked up against me as a pregnant person with bipolar disorder, coming out of childbirth alive is one of my greatest acts of political warfare against a society that does not care about the lives of Black mothers, children, and families. My research and my lived experience both inform my dissertation project to create a space where Black birthing people can reimagine equitable perinatal mental health care so that our children, families, and communities can thrive.
Featured Image Description: An 1830 painting by the artist Louis Leopold Boilly depicting a woman fainting in a crowd.
Feature Image Source: Dea/G. Dagli Orti/Getty Images
Works Cited: Briggs, Laura. 2000. “The Race of Hysteria: “Overcivilization” and the “Savage” Woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology.” American Quarterly 52(2).