This Article was written by Shiza Ronald, year 13
Flippant attitudes and careless procedures have been the general attitude towards women’s mental health for many decades. Lobotomies, sedatives and most common of all - the damning label of hysteria.
In 1746, French physician Joseph Raulin described hysteria as an illness that spread through air pollution in large urban areas - and claimed that women were more predisposed to the ailment because of their “lazy and irritable” nature.
What is hysteria though?
Hysteria was described as an illness that brought about “emotional instability” with symptoms of “cold extremities, tears and laughter and delirium”- but interestingly enough, the word hysteria comes from the Greek word ‘hystera’ which literally means ‘womb’ and the word ‘hysterikos’ meaning ‘of the womb’. This is ironic, considering that all humans - whether man or woman, are technically ‘of the womb’. There were many assumptions about this ‘ailment’ in the past, most of which can now be written off simply as undisguised misogyny
In the mid 19th century, Silas Weir Mitchell stated that hysteria was caused by 'overstimulation of the mind,' which women could not tolerate because ‘they did not have the capacity’ - and so he created the ‘rest cure’. In this ‘cure’ a woman would simply be confined to bed, force fed fatty foods and, in some extreme cases, electro-shocked. In retrospect, we can use critical thinking to come to the conclusion that this ‘illness’ was a poorly concealed ruse with the sole purpose of controlling women’s behaviours and bodies, and taming women that did not properly fall under the patriarchy and it’s image of the ideal ‘docile and obedient’ woman.
This brings us to the modern age, and the remains of this sentiment that have trickled down and hidden themselves and become internalised over the years. The concept of the “over emotional woman” has in no way disappeared - only has become more subtle. In order to have their words be taken seriously and be given credit, women must maintain a robotic sense of rationale and be as emotionless as possible. At the first sight of emotion, whether it be in the form of raising of the voice, or tears - women are labelled as ‘over emotional and unreliable”. Academic research has suggested that women are under more pressure to maintain a ‘cool exterior’ - in academic, workplace and even casual settings - in order to be taken seriously, while men are ‘rewarded for raising their voices and expressing big emotions’. Not only this, but research has shown that men who get angry at work are perceived as strong and decisive, while women are more likely to be regarded as - you guessed it; hysterical. It is a somewhat double edged sword - women who express stereotypically ‘masculine’ emotions (anger) are penalised because they threaten the patriarchal society’s aversion to ‘dominant women’, while women who express ‘feminine’ emotions (sadness) are labelled as lacking emotional control; undermining their competence. So there is no ‘correct’ stance to take - rather it is simply preferred if women have no strong, outward emotions at all; women that are “seen and not heard” are treasured in society.
However, this barrier has not been created only for women - while women struggle more to convey “masculine” emotions without being discredited, similarly men are barred and discouraged from showing (and even feeling) typically “feminine” emotions. The phrase “boys don't cry” has been one used flippantly for many years - although recently the younger generations have identified and begun criticising the bigotry behind the phrase. In this way, the patriarchy ended up being harmful even for men - looking down on women for being emotional resulted in a stigma of men ‘feeling’ and being sensitive - as it was considered feminine.
Over the years, we have simply come to accept these unfair standards with the belief that that is simply “the way women and men are”- going to show how the beliefs of the past have become internalised in all of us. These same beliefs also make us hold being “emotionless and cold” in a higher regard; whether it is a man or woman.
However, this is an unacceptable standard to hold. Women have important opinions and ideas that must be heard by the world, and men have valid, tender emotions that deserve to be expressed. Sometimes it is necessary to make society uncomfortable by our words and actions in order to bring about change. To show emotion is to be human. To be ‘of the womb’, is to have feelings.