Have you ever suffered from PMS, cramps, or just plain old bad moods? Well, if you answered yes to any of these three things, there’s a good chance you would have been hospitalized not too long ago. For centuries, ailments such as these were thought to be caused by none other than a woman’s wandering womb. Yes, you read that right, a wandering womb. The ancient Greeks believed that a woman’s womb was capable of wandering about the abdomen and causing a woman great mental distress and extreme emotional trauma, an ailment known as hysteria.
Symptoms for hysteria include anxiety, fainting, sleeplessness, and being a difficult person. A woman with hysteria might act in extreme ways. She might scream, or cry out of nowhere, or throw wild fits. It was later realized that many of these extreme cases of “hysteric” women actually had severe mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression. In addition to the mental symptoms of hysteria, many women complained of a tingling sensation in their womb or even sharp pains (which were thought to be caused by the movement of the womb around the abdomen).These symptoms were later more correctly labeled as sex drive and period cramps.
In ancient Greece, hysteria was thought to be caused by lack of a normal sex life. Plato thought that the uterus would go into a state of depression when not joined with the male. Orgasm, it was said, was necessary for the health of one’s uterus. This idea was later lost as ideas about sex became more conservative.
There were many methods for curing hysteria. Physicians would prescribe herbs and tonics, as well as sex and proscribed orgasm.Yes, that’s right: sex. A doctor’s prescription might include daily to weekly sex in order to help alleviate the symptoms.Some doctors suggested that women try to be pregnant as often as possible in order to keep her womb occupied. Later in the 19th century, the preferred way to alleviate hysteria was by massaging a woman’s nether-parts until the pelvis began to convulse. Doctors everywhere were being trained to release the tension of hysteria through genital massages. Many practitioners found that this was a very good way to make money as patients kept coming back for multiple treatments. As technology advanced, the electronic massager was invented. This device was used solely by doctors at first, but soon they became more widely available to the public as an at-home cure for hysteria. And thus, the vibrator was born.
The vibrator was invented in France in 1754. However, they didn’t start catching on with physicians until the 1800’s. The first models were steam powered and called manipulators. They were essentially invented because doctors became exhausted of “treating” upwards of 30 women a day. In 1902, the vibrator went mainstream. Smaller, more compact versions of the doctor’s device were packaged and sold in retail. Vibrators were the fifth electronic device to be commercialized, alongside the sewing machine, fan, toaster, and tea kettle. It was at this point that ideas about the causes of hysteria were shifting, and vibrators began to be marketed for personal use rather than medical purposes.
Regardless of how it was treated, hysteria was deeply gendered. Because it was thought to be caused by upsets in the womb, it was seen as purely a woman’s disease. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates used hysteria as validation for women to be unable to participate in politics or other integral parts of society. Women were seen as too emotional and unpredictable to be trusted with political issues. This belief, unfortunately, carries on into today’s world. It wasn’t too long ago that Hillary Clinton was called “too emotional” to run for president. Not only was hysteria an absurd disease, but it was a means of oppressing women. Women with hysteria had to rely heavily on a man’s help in order to function. Rather than addressing psychological issues, women (in terms of the old gender binary model) were disregarded because they own something that men don’t–a womb. Stigmas haven’t changed. Women are still called crazy and overly emotional. Still, we come up with excuses for women’s emotions. If she’s acting out of sorts or irrational, it’s immediately assumed that she’s on her period, which discredits her emotions. Women may have wombs, but they also have minds. Although hysteria might be a term of the past, the essential gender oppression behind it continues today.