Female Hysteria: Gender Inequality as a Medical Condition

Women have been controlled socially and medically to maintain the power of authorities. Thankfully, some women have successfully taken that power back.

In the 19th century, female hysteria was diagnosed frequently; especially, in housewives. Doctors believed that it was caused by an overactive uterus that floats around the body. Symptoms focused around a general lack of satisfaction with life.


  • Fainting
  • Rage
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Sexual thoughts

Treatment had many forms. To do this, stimulation of the vagina was performed. The desired outcome was to reposition the uterus where it should be. At the time, doctors were taught that females are incapable of achieving orgasm or experiencing any sexual pleasure; therefore, when the doctor gave the patient an orgasm, it was interpreted as a re-alignment of the uterus to its proper place.


  • Manual massaging by the doctor was the first technique.
  • Vibration was also used which inspired the personal vibrator in the late 19th century.
  • High water-pressure was also used.

Surgical Cures

Unfortunately, when a woman was diagnosed with a severe case, she was sent to an asylum for a hysterectomy. This is a surgical procedure to remove the uterus. It wasn’t until 1952 that the American Psychiatric Association ended the diagnosis of hysteria.

Today’s Truth

Even though this absurd and long-term diagnosis in history has been explored enough to completely discredit its claims, women are still accused of being hysterical. Women are not supposed to speak out against being harmed; they are to honor those in authoritative positions, especially men. Wanting a husband and kids is viewed as normal and healthy; otherwise, they are seen as psychologically damaged or not taken seriously.

Photo by author.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist writer who suffered from psychosis. Her best known work was The Yellow Wallpaper. It is written in the first person in journal form. The narrator is Jane. She has recently given birth to another child, but her husband John believes that she suffers from a nervous disorder called hysteria.

Synopsis: John is a physician at a time when hysteria is rampant; therefore, he agrees that the best treatment for his wife Jane is to be confined to an isolated room with nothing to do. He has been instructed that this is the best way to help someone with this condition. Jane keeps a hidden journal from her family because she is forbidden from writing. Women were not permitted to write because doctors believed that it would worsen the illness.

Through Jane’s journal entries, we are shown that John’s behavior is controlling and demeaning. His role as a doctor causes him to treat her like a child; however, at the same time, one can argue that John is a victim of the leaders who created hysteria to be a common medical condition; however, he has nothing more to rely on than his studies. Meanwhile, with nothing to do, Jane focuses on the yellow wallpaper in the room, which eventually drives her insane:

“It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper

In 2011, the film Hysteria was released. It tells the story Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) who went from controversial and questionable doctor to a respected innovator. His reputation as a young doctor was quickly tarnished due to his enthusiasm for “germ theory,” which was perceived as crazy by most. Eventually, he ends the diagnosis of hysteria through the creation of the vibrator with the help of his electrician friend, Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett).

Grandville goes to work for Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes in women’s medicine. Housewives come to receive Dr. Dalrymple’s expert treatment, manual masturbation, with the understanding that they are correcting the uterus’ placement. The doctor’s less respectable daughter, Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is outspoken, passionate, educated and very loving; however, she is perceived as another woman who suffers from hysteria. She is never personally treated for hysteria like the housewives, but she is the only character who tells Dr. Granville that his work is actually in sexually pleasuring his patients.

Christine Collins

In the late 1920s, Christine Collins reported her son Walter Collins as missing. The LAPD claimed that they found him and brought Christine to the train station. There, Christine met a traveling boy who was later identified as Arthur Hutchins. Feeling compassion for the boy’s circumstance, she went along with the LAPD’s desires for her to give them credit for reuniting her with her son for a good story in the papers. Later, she confronted the LAPD about their mistake, but they refused to re-open the case. When she went to the press to persuade the police to continue searching for her son, the police sent her to a psychiatric hospital under “code 12” to prevent further shame.

In the hospital, Christine learned the extent of authority’s power over those exposing the truth. She met a woman, Carol Dexter, who informed her that all of the fellow women patients were being punished for causing issues with the reputation of the LAPD and were admitted under “code 12.” Shortly after, a story was reported about a man who kidnapped and murdered several children. Many reporters believed that Walter Collins may have been among them. This lead to Christine’s release. In 1930, she took the LAPD to court and won her case.

The film Changeling was released in 2008. It tells what happens to Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) between 1928 when Walter goes missing to 1930 when Gordon Stewart Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) is executed. The movie switches between Christine Collins’ life and the capture of Northcott’s nephew, Sanford Clark. Since Clark was in America illegally, police wanted to find him to send him back to Canada. Before going back home, he insisted on telling the police about how his uncle successfully murdered several kids at the ranch where he was found.

Learning from History

It is my hope that society will be more aware of corrupt power. Anyone can become a victim of abuse of power. This is why it’s important for individuals to do their own research and come to their own conclusions. Following anything blindly can lead to dangerous ends.

Editor’s Note: This was originally posted by this author in 2014 on HubPages. It has since been revised and republished here.

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