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Women's Health from Hysteria to Hysterectomy

Last week, since we didn't have an episode, we posted about two important topics in women's health historically: hysteria and sterilization. You can read all about the history of those topics on our Instagram, but we couldn't fit in absolutely everything. One of our followers (shout out to Tammy!) pointed out that we didn't talk enough about the darker side of hysteria. So, here it is:

From ancient Egypt through the 20th century, hysteria (Greek for "wandering womb") seemed to plague women around the world. According to Constantine the African’s Viaticum and Pantegni as well as the Canon of Avicenna and Arnaldus of Villa Nova’s texts, women were not seen as "'patients' to be cured but rather as the "cause " of a particular human disease."* Viewing women this way made it easy for doctors to subject them to cruel and inhumane treatments. Robert Battey, a 19th century doctor, developed a surgery called ovariotomy (a surgery removing ovaries). He performed this on hundreds of women who were thought to be suffering from hysteria, nymphomania, melancholia, and insanity as a result of "menstrual disorders." Another common "solution" for hysteria in the 19th century was placement in an asylum. In a Victorian society, where women had virtually no autonomy and their fathers and husbands maintained complete control over their lives, anxiety and depression were rampant. The problems of this dynamic were twofold; not only were women at higher risk for mental illnesses that at the time were diagnosed as hysteria, but their husband's and father's also had the authority to sentence them to an asylum rather than treat their illness in a more effective and caring way. This resulted in many women from "respectable families" being shipped off to asylums, which only worsened their mental states. Hysterectomies and other gynaecological surgeries were common practice in asylums. Surgeons like Dr. R. Maurice Burke were criticized for the "mutilation of helpless lunatics," but doctors continued performing life-altering surgeries on mentally ill women in asylums into the 20th century.

In the 20th century, lobotomy became the surgery of choice for the mentally ill. Lobotomy is the practice of literally poking holes in the brain, either via the skull or the eye sockets. According to a 1937 New York Times article, lobotomies were recommended for patients suffering from "Tension, apprehension, anxiety, depression, insomnia, suicidal ideas, delusions, hallucinations, crying spells, melancholia, obsessions, panic states, disorientation, psychalgia (pains of psychic origin), nervous indigestion and hysterical paralysis." Many of these symptoms overlap with hysteria— insomnia, anxiety, depression, hysterical paralysis— so, even though there isn't much research about it, I think it's likely that many people were lobotomized due to suspected hysteria. Lobotomy was most popular in 1949-1952. By the 1930s, doctors had recognized that hysteria was "a confusion of conditions that resemble but are not identical with one another" and by 1952 the term "hysteria" was abandoned by the American Psychological Association entirely.

The dismantling of hysteria as a term and concept was 4000 years in the making, and women are still dealing with the repercussions of it today! We are assumed to be less fit leaders based on the notion that our periods make us emotional and irrational— let me rephrase that in pre-1952 language: this woman is hysterical because her uterus is not functioning as it should. It's the same logic, just with different language. We have a lot of work to do before we fully deconstruct this notion of the "wandering womb."

Sterilization and Eugenics

We have a more detailed timeline of the sterilization movement of the 20th-21st century U.S. in our Instagram post, but I also wanted to share some important resources and references here:

Sterilizations by state:

A graph from our home state, California.

Project prevention, a modern day incentivized sterilization program:

Barbara Harris, founder of Project Prevention, and family

Timeline of legalized, forced sterilization in the U.S.

Eugenics as a global movement





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