Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wandering Wombs: A Brief "Hystery" of Women's Medicine

WARNING: Depending on where you work, this may be NSFW. If you are uncomfortable reading about the history of female sexuality, skip this one. Even though it's enlightening and a little bit hilarious.

So I've been doing a lot of research on "hysteria" lately. And let me tell you, people were completely insane and woefully uninformed when it came to women's health. For like, MOST of human history.

Nowadays, we use the term "hysterical" to mean "crazy" or "experiencing large emotions." But until about 50 years ago, it was considered an actual medical condition exclusive to women.

And it goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Hippocrates (as in "the Hippocratic oath," yeah--that guy) believed that hysteria was caused by a wandering womb. (Hysteria comes from the word hystera, which means "uterus.") See, the basic idea was that lacking the warmth and lubrication of either pregnancy or "the male member," the uterus was prone to wander around the body, blocking important passages and causing disease and general mayhem. As Jacob pointed out, Hippocrates basically said, "I need to create a problem that my penis will solve." (If that ain't patriarchy, I don't know what is.)

By the 1800s, female hysteria was considered an epidemic, with an estimated 1 in 4 women suffering from it. Its symptoms included irritability, sexual desire, faintness, nervousness, shortness of breath, changes in appetite, and "a tendency to cause trouble," among other things.

But don't worry--doctors could get that pesky wandering uterus back into its proper place! Surgery and water hosing were used in drastic cases, but most women could find relief in a "pelvic massage," administered by a doctor.

Let's just call it what it is. (And I apologize if this is crude...) Women throughout the 1800s were going to their doctors on the regular for a hand job.

But take note! Sexual pleasure had nothing to do with it! No, doctors all knew that women experienced no sexual pleasure or desire--they simply submitted to their husbands in the name of duty and procreation. There was no such thing as a "female orgasm." Treatments for hysteria resulted in a "hysterical paroxysm," which was a release of tension caused by that wandering womb.

Jacob pointed out that it's strange that so many women were seeing doctors for the "treatment"--wouldn't it be simpler to just...take matters into their own hands?* Probably. But women were also taught that they didn't experience sexual desire or pleasure, so when they felt it, it was probably incredibly shameful. Masturbation was considered "self-abuse," with a host of dangers associated with it. I think many women really did believe in the medicine of the time--what else was there to believe? It's much safer and more acceptable to visit a doctor for the treatment of a medical condition.

Here's the rub, though.** By the late 1800s, doctors' hands were getting tired. Fatigue and cramps kept them from giving successful treatments. And so, in 1880, Dr Mortimer Granville patented the electromechanical vibrator.


That's right. The vibrator was invented because Victorian doctors were getting cramps from giving hand jobs to middle and upper class women.

"Personal massagers" became a huge hit, and they were sold everywhere from the corner market to the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. Regardless of what was actually going on, they were considered medical instruments, and there didn't seem to be any kind of shame or furtiveness attached to them. It seems bizarre now, but ads like these seemed pretty common:









At least, ads like this were common until the 1920s. Because what started appearing in the 1920s? Pornographic films. The use of "personal massagers" in film stripped them forever of their medical use, and from that point on, there was no escaping the sexual connotation. Vibrators disappeared from the mainstream advertising world until the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Nowadays, you don't often see ads for vibrators in mainstream magazines, but if you're interested in buying one, they aren't very hard to find.

And the disease "hysteria" was finally, FINALLY removed from the diagnostic world officially in 1980, with the publication of the DSM-III.

Please note that 1980 was only 5 years before I was born.

I mean, doctors had figured out long before this that the "wandering womb" theory was bunk and that women did experience sexual pleasure/desire. Throughout the early 1900s, "hysteria" came to also include what we now know as PTSD and mood disorders, which affected both men and women.

But here's what I want to point out. Here's why all of this matters. Aside from giving you an interesting thing to share at parties, I actually have something meaningful to say with this post.

I think that women today are still feeling the effects of thousands of years of being diagnosed instead of listened to. Women's legitimate emotional experiences are still being dismissed as the result of "hormones."


For so many generations, women were seen as emotional creatures incapable of making meaningful decisions. They were seen as needing either pregnancy, intercourse, or medical attention to keep their wombs in their proper place. In times throughout history when women were treated as property under the law, not given a voice in government, and subjugated to lives of domesticity, they responded with "irritability, nervousness, and the tendency to cause trouble." And when they responded this way, they were told that they had a medical condition.

I'm so grateful to live in a time and place where I have so much. I'm so grateful for the men and women who fought so that I could live the immensely privileged life I lead. But the work is not complete. We still have over 2000 years worth of bogus medicine to overcome. Somewhere buried in our collective unconscious is this persistent idea that women can be dismissed because they are emotional, because they are slaves to the hormones in their bodies.

The reality is that both men and women are emotional creatures who are capable of making meaningful decisions anyway. And it's time to acknowledge that.



*pun intented
**pun also intended

2 comments:

Anna Harrison said...

this is a fantastic report and history you've given. PEOPLE ARE CRAZY. And I am so glad to live in this time, although, in some ways... I'm not. Deep thoughts here. ;)

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