The Hysterical Historical Woman


In her essay, “The Hysterical Woman: Sex roles and Role Conflict in 19th Century America”, in her book Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, author Carroll Smith-Rosenberg takes a look at the disease defined as principally female – hysteria.

Hysteria – a Classic Label

Although hysteria was one of the classic diseases of the nineteenth century, it seems that twenty-first century women face many of the same conflicts that were seen as the root of this illness back then. So, what has happened to the ‘feminine illness’ of hysteria? Or is it still around but called by a different name?

In America, hysteria did not emerge as an endemic disease among Victorian bourgeois women until the mid-nineteenth century. All interpretations of hysteria define the disease as principally female and indicate that having an immature personality is partly to blame. Furthermore, American culture defined hysteria as neurosis or character disorder, since it was thought that women, fearful of their own sexual impulses, channelled their energy into psychosomatic illnesses.

Hysteria had various symptoms: nervousness, depression, tendency to cry, chronic fatigue and disabling pain. In order to gain relief from these ailments, many women subjected themselves to long-term, painful therapy: electric shock treatment, operations, and amputations.

The most characteristic and dramatic symptom of hysteria was the hysterical fit, brought on by sudden shock, fear, death, or marital problems. The sufferer sobbed, cried and laughed violently, complained of palpitations and had hearing and speech problems; a deathlike trance followed, sometimes lasting for days.

Hysteria – Causes

First of all, hysteria was related to the role changes and conflicts bourgeois matrons experienced between the 1840’s and the 1890’s. These women were expected to be “True Women” and ” Ideal Mothers.” The “True Woman” was emotional, dependent, and gentle. The “Ideal Mother” was expected to be a strong, self-reliant home-manager and caretaker of her family; moreover, an economist, cook, physician, dressmaker, and housekeeper.

The nineteenth century woman was expected to face severe bodily pain, disease and death and still support the family emotionally. And it was no wonder that a high incidence of ’hysteria’ occurred among women who felt overwhelmed by the burdens of frequent pregnancies, demands of children, daily exertions of housekeeping and family management.

Hysteria – an Ego Weakness

In order to explain the common occurrence of hysteria, it was proposed that many women in this period reached maturity with major ego weaknesses and narrowly limited compensatory ego strengths, often caused by confusion as to the role they were expected to play. They were faced with the stress of developing themselves as individuals and the contradiction between the roles of the courted woman and being a pain-bearing, self-sacrificing wife and mother.

Hysteria Under a Different Guise

Although there are facts to show that hysteria affected women from unconstructive, fashionable, middle or upper-class lifestyles, we can only assume that the ‘hysterical woman’ was a product of conflicts taking place in an evolving society. Any evidence of the cause of the ‘illness’ of hysteria remains inconclusive and therefore its true cause remains debatable; Nevertheless, it is not difficult to understand how internal and external conflicts challenged women during the nineteenth-century in the same way they concern twenty-first century women. Today, society simply views and labels ‘hysteria’ differently.