Reading 19th century literature, you might start to think that every woman was a swooning, mad hysteric. Women seemed forever prone to fainting or madness–few were ever fully in their right minds. Most acted somewhat bizarre and with high theatricality, not unlike the clothes that fashion dictated women should wear.
Hysteria was a purely female problem. Men suffered from their own version of nervous disease known as neurasthenia. The supposed problem? Women’s small size and supposed governance by their reproductive systems. That’s right. Women acted crazy because their womb overrode the power of their brains. The word even comes from the Greek word hystera for womb.
So little was known about physical illnesses, such as epilepsy and neurological diseases, that the ”nervous” illnesses were generally lumped in together with them. The idea of neuroses as distinctly and purely in the mind was a minority view. More popular were a whole series of medical models for nervous illness and the psychological and physical options for treating them. Nerves were commonly ascribed a “force” that gave vitality to organs. Hysteria and neurasthenia were said to be caused by a weakness in this force, though the psychological evidence for this “force” and its loss were never evident. Anecdotes provided more powerful proof… at least for a time.
Hysteria helped to reinforce existing gender and class attitudes. Women couldn’t hold positions of power or be trusted to vote if they were not rational beings! Hysteria worked very well at keeping women in the home and out of the public space, just what many men wanted.
Hysteria could also work in a woman’s favor, though. Being classed as “sick” or “infirm” was one way to get out of performing your expected duties as a woman. In the book The Peabody Sisters by Megan Marshall, an amazing biography of three women in the 19th century, one of the sisters, Sophia, is often ill and seems to use her illness to forge an art career for herself.
Female hysteria had mostly run its course by the 20th century. Doctors stopped recognizing it as a legitimate medical diagnosis and catch-all disease for any number of symptoms.