By Rachel Jacoby Zoldan. Photos: Courtesy of CNP Montrose.
There are a lot of reasons you might want to have a female doctor. For one, it makes many women feel more comfortable during exams. For another, according to research, female doctors tend to have patients who live longer than their male counterparts. Still, women remain unequal in the medical workforce, with men occupying more prestigious roles and leadership slots. But while we need more female doctors now, there was an era where a lack of women in medicine meant a totally sexist—not to mention imaginary—"condition" was running rampant.
That would be female hysteria, the first mental health condition attributable to women. It served as a catch-all for a variety of issues including (but definitely not limited to) fainting, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness and "a tendency to cause trouble for others," according to author Rachel Maine in The Technology of the Orgasm. (Also on the list? Excessive vaginal lubrication and erotic fantasizing. Because neither of those are normal.) While the formal definition of female hysteria has had different manifestations throughout the years, it's since been discarded because of its breadth.
Doctors spent years diagnosing women with this made-up condition—and offered all different kinds of treatment, some a bit wackier than others. So in light of a #DayWithoutaWoman, check out the crazy ways women's hysteria was misunderstood by doctors (as well as treated) long before there was a complete knowledge of what women's health really looked like.
1. The cause of hysteria (and its word origins, in fact) were originally attributed to "wandering wombs."
The term hysteria actually comes from the Greek word for uterus, hysterika, which Hippocrates first used describe illness that laid within the movement of the Uterus. According to Hippocrates and his crew, a woman's body is physiologically cold, and in order to warm up, needs, well, sex. Thus, the term "hysteria" was often used to diagnose women with inactive or incomplete sex lives.
2. At one point, hysteria was considered to be one of the most prevalent medical issues around.
An influential physician named Thomas Sydenham, who lived from the mid- to late-1600s, thought that hysterical ladies were everywhere. Apparently, Sydenham once declared that female hysteria — which he attributed to “irregular motions of the animal spirits,” was the second most common malady of the time— behind another nebulous term, fevers—according to research in Mother Jones.
3. Because of its wide-reaching nature, hysteria became a go-to diagnosis when docs didn't know what else was going on.
With so many possible symptoms, hysteria was always a natural diagnosis when the ailment could not be identified. For instance, before the introduction of the electroencephalography (EEG) test, epilepsy was frequently confused with hysteria. Honestly, I don't think the two could be more medically different.
3. When it came to treating hysteria, especially those who exhibited the "sexual symptoms" of the disorder, manual clitoral stimulation was used as a healing remedy.
Listen, I love a little masturbation as much as the next woman does, but I'm not about to call it the next penicillin. While it does have its health benefits, any kind of masturbation isn't going to help alleviate a serious illness. However, I would argue it's great if you're in need of a quick, uh, feel-good moment. Also, you shouldn't need a doctor to tell you it's time to enjoy a little self-love!
4. But doctors weren't actually touching the women themselves, so they enlisted the help of husbands.
In 1653, the physician Alemarianus Petrus Forestus published a medical compendium titled "Observationem et Curationem Medicinalium ac Chirurgicarum Opera Omnia," in which Forestus devotes a full chapter to the diseases of women. Specifically, he noted that with regard to treatment of hysteria, many male doctors "sought every opportunity to substitute other devices for their fingers, such as the attentions of a husband, the hands of a midwife, or the business end of some tireless and impersonal mechanism." Sexy, right?
5. Hysteria led to the invention of the modern day vibrator.
Yes, the vibrator was originally conceived as a medical prescription used for treating hysteria. In the 1880's, Dr. J. Mortimer Granville officially invited the vibrator, when his electromechanical invention was patented. While there was no "one-size-fits-all" contraption, there were an increasing amount of women who wanted to take the in-office-only device home for some treatment on their own time. (Are you really surprised?)
6. You were deemed "cured" of hysteria if you reached "hysterical paroxysm” (in other words, you had an orgasm)
I really just can't imagine going in for a check up and leaving with a post-orgasm flush. The doctor's office is so not the place for that. Even if your doctor is McDreamy.
7. Most shocking of all, though, is that hysteria wasn't declassified as a mental health disorder by the American Psychiatric Assocation until the 1950s.
The thought that something as medically alarming as epilepsy could be confused with something as simple as wanting to get laid is nothing short of scary to us today. And without the advances made in modern medicine—especially the advent and rise of female doctors and women's health—who knows if we'd still be relying on our Rabbit to treat a slew of conditions. I, for one, am glad they're just for fun.
This story originally appeared on Glamour.
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