Today’s word: hysterical. There are a lot of different contemporary definitions of the word (Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, Encarta), but the theme among all of them is emotions that are extreme and unmanageable. A movie described as hysterically funny is likely funnier than most and may cause you to laugh uncontrollably and snort soda out your nose. Someone at a funeral who is crying loudly and who cannot seem to stop crying would likely be described as crying hysterically. But while your mental picture of the movie-goer laughing hysterically could have been either a man or a woman, the person hysterical with grief or worry is much more likely to be a woman than a man. That’s no accident – the history of this term is very gendered.
The word itself is derived from the Latin word hystericus, meaning “of the womb,” and from the Greek word hysterikos, meaning “of the womb, suffering in the womb,” from the Greek word hystera, meaning “womb.” And they understood the uterus to be the direct cause of hysteria. As Hannah S. Decker writes, “Various ancient Greek philosophers and physicians, including Plato, had argued that the uterus is an independent entity within a woman’s body… these thinkers concluded that the uterus had an ardent desire to create children. If the womb remained empty for long after the owner’s puberty, it became unhappy and angry and began to travel through the body. In its wanderings it pressed against various bodily organs, creating “hysterical” — that is, uterus-related — symptoms.”
So when someone on a blog tells me to chill out because it sounds like I’m hysterical about an issue, the etymological meaning is that my failure to put a baby in my uterus (which has independent will and agency inside my body) has caused it to become angry, loose itself from its mooring, and start floating around inside of my body until it bangs into my brain and starts making me unreasonably upset.
There’s also a strong historical tradition of labeling women as “hysterical” in order to silence, marginalize, or even kill them. During the Roman Catholic inquisitions, thousands of European women were tortured and burnt as witches because they were thought to show signs of hysteria. But it was during the Nineteenth Century that things really got going. Some doctors considered the force of the uterus so powerful that it might overcome the brain and cause a woman to have pathological sexual feelings, “requiring” the physicians to “medically manipulate” the genitals in order to release the woman from control of her uterus. Yes, you read that right, the doctors were obligated to fondle their patients sexually for their own medical good. Conveniently, both mental or emotional distress and any physical symptom could be an indication of a woman’s hysteria, so doctors could diagnose literally any woman as hysterical.
Once hysterical women were no longer burned at the stake, the most common treatment was to send them to bed or to an asylum to prevent any activity or thought that would inflame their hysteria. This was an extremely effective way to marginalize or silence women, as any protest that she was not hysterical would be seen as conclusive proof that the diagnosis of hysteria had been correct. This meant, practically, that any woman categorized as hysterical was forever silenced and lost all credibility.
That’s a whole big mess of etymology and history, so let’s unpack that a bit. When I am told I am hysterical, there is both 1) the implication that I am excessively or unreasonably emotional AND 2) the implication that my condition is unique to my femaleness. It’s also 3) implied that hysterical statements (or even statements from hysterical people) should be discounted and hysterical people need to change in order to participate in the discussion, or should be removed from it entirely. Now let’s look at each one of those individually.
The first is a criticism of and dismissal of my personal emotions based on the observer’s judgment on whether they conform to what “normal” or “reasonable” emotions would be for that situation. The idea of “extremeness” is built into every definition of the word, implying that there is an assumed agreed-upon “normal” range for emotions. In the past, that likely meant “emotions acceptable to white men with money.” Currently, though, the idea is strikingly parallel to current definitions of mental disabilities and mental health diagnoses in the DSM-IV, which require that a specific set of symptoms “must cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning” in order for a person to meet diagnostic criteria. This means that thee idea of emotions that are outside the “normal” range of experience to the degree that they affect a person’s function is the very definition of mental illness. So the accusation of “hysteria,” with the implication that the hysterical person has abnormally extreme emotions, is very clearly an accusation of mental illness. And remember part 3 — the conclusion that a hysterical person (or a person with a mental disability, by equivalency) should be discounted in discussions because of their hysteria/disability. THAT IS ABLEIST.
But that’s not all. The other implication of the term is that this over-emotional condition is a uniquely female condition and is caused directly by female reproductive organs being sad about not having a baby. While that’s not literally how it’s meant today, it still feels like a slightly nicer way of saying “you’re just upset because it’s that time of the month,” another way to marginalize and dismiss females based explicitly on their femaleness. It’s a way to say “that sounds like something a woman would say when she’s being super woman-y and influenced by being a woman.” And again, this is assumed to be a reason to discount the information or perspective offered and to exclude that person from the conversation. THAT IS SEXIST.
And here’s where the intersectionality comes in. Hysterical is a handy dandy insta-dismissal that slams two marginalized groups at the same time – and it only works because to be related to either group is considered to make you lesser. It also means that this word, with its invocation of both ableism and sexism, is particularly sharp when aimed at women with disabilities. That’s why arguments like “It’s sexist because it makes all women sound like crazies! Who’d want to be a crazy!” are extremely problematic – not only does the word rely on both sexism and ableism, it relies on the interaction between those two axes of oppression to be a super strong word.
If we thought of people with mental disabilities as full equals, with valid feelings, thoughts and perspectives that deserved respect, then the message “you are talking like a person with a mental disability because you are a woman” would be a compliment. The message would be “you are presenting a perspective or idea that deserves respectful consideration.”
If we thought of women as full equals, with valid feelings, thoughts, and perspectives that deserved respect, then the message “you are responding with extreme emotion because you are a woman” would imply that the emotion was valid and important and deserved respectful consideration. It would likely mean that whatever idea or perspective presented with that emotion would be given more credit and consideration, not less.
It only works as an insult, as a way to dismiss and marginalize, because both groups are considered lesser. And this is a great example of why intersectionality is so important – the kyriarchy uses other marginalized groups to attack us. As we support each other and all grow stronger, the kyriarchy will be less able to use these groups against us.
Note: I use the word hysterical in some contexts (‘I was hoping Zombieland would be as hysterical as Shaun of the Dead but it totally wasn’t.’) — I think these concerns are primarily relevant when using the word to characterize an individual’s argument, ideas, emotions, or perspective. I’d be interested in learning if others find it problematic in those contexts.