From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Female hysteria or furor uterinus was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women, which is no longer recognized by modern medical authorities. It was a popular diagnosis in Western nations, during the Victorian era, for women who exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and a "tendency to cause trouble".
Since ancient times women considered to be suffering from hysteria would sometimes undergo "pelvic massage" — manual stimulation of the genitals by the doctor until the patient experienced "hysterical paroxysm" (orgasm).
Furor uterinus (Latin for "agitation of the uterus") was ascribed to the womb in ancient medicine.
The history of the notion of hysteria can be traced to ancient times; in ancient Greece it was described in the gynecological treatises of the Hippocratic corpus, which date from the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Plato's dialogue Timaeus compares a woman's uterus to a living creature that wanders throughout a woman’s body, "blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease." The concept of a pathological, wandering womb was later viewed as the source of the term hysteria, which stems from the Greek cognate of uterus, ὑστέρα (hystera).
Galen, a prominent physician from the 2nd century, wrote that hysteria was a disease caused by sexual deprivation in particularly passionate women: hysteria was noted quite often in virgins, nuns, widows and, occasionally, married women. The prescription in medieval and renaissance medicine was intercourse if married, marriage if single, or vaginal massage (pelvic massage) by a midwife as a last recourse.
The history of hysteria can be traced to ancient times; in ancient Greece it was described in the gynecological treatises of the Hippocratic corpus, which date from the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. "Nubat illa et morbus effugiet" ('let her marry and the sickness will then disappear') was the Hippocratic school's stance on female hysteria.
Plato's dialogue Timaeus tells of the uterus wandering throughout a woman’s body, strangling the victim as it reaches the chest and causing disease. This theory is the source of the name, which stems from the Greek word for uterus, hystera (ὑστέρα).
- "Thus our original design of discoursing about the universe down to the creation of man is nearly completed. A brief mention may be made of the generation of other animals, so far as the subject admits of brevity; in this manner our argument will best attain a due proportion. On the subject of animals, then, the following remarks may be offered. Of the men who came into the world, those who were cowards or led unrighteous lives may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation. And this was the reason why at that time the gods created in us the desire of sexual intercourse, contriving in man one animated substance, and in woman another, which they formed respectively in the following manner. The outlet for drink by which liquids pass through the lung under the kidneys and into the bladder, which receives then by the pressure of the air emits them, was so fashioned by them as to penetrate also into the body of the marrow, which passes from the head along the neck and through the back, and which in the preceding discourse we have named the seed. And the seed having life, and becoming endowed with respiration, produces in that part in which it respires a lively desire of emission, and thus creates in us the love of procreation. Wherefore also in men the organ of generation becoming rebellious and masterful, like an animal disobedient to reason, and maddened with the sting of lust, seeks to gain absolute sway; and the same is the case with the so-called womb or matrix of women; the animal within them is desirous of procreating children, and when remaining unfruitful long beyond its proper time, gets discontented and angry, and wandering in every direction through the body, closes up the passages of the breath, and, by obstructing respiration, drives them to extremity, causing all varieties of disease, until at length the desire and love of the man and the woman, bringing them together and as it were plucking the fruit from the tree, sow in the womb, as in a field, animals unseen by reason of their smallness and without form; these again are separated and matured within; they are then finally brought out into the light, and thus the generation of animals is completed." --Timaeus (Plato)
Galen, a prominent physician from the second century, wrote that hysteria was a disease caused by sexual deprivation in particularly passionate women: hysteria was noted quite often in virgins, nuns, widows and, occasionally, married women. The prescription in medieval and renaissance medicine was intercourse if married, marriage if single, or vaginal massage (pelvic massage) by a midwife as a last recourse.
A physician in 1859 claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. One physician cataloged 75 pages of possible symptoms of hysteria and called the list incomplete; almost any ailment could fit the diagnosis. Physicians thought that the stresses associated with modern life caused civilized women to be both more susceptible to nervous disorders and to develop faulty reproductive tracts. In the United States, such disorders in women reaffirmed that the U.S. was on par with Europe; one American physician expressed pleasure that the country was ”catching up” to Europe in the prevalence of hysteria.
Rachel P. Maines has observed that such cases were quite profitable for physicians, since the patients were at no risk of death, but needed constant treatment. The only problem was that physicians did not enjoy the tedious task of vaginal massage (generally referred to as 'pelvic massage'): The technique was difficult for a physician to master and could take hours to achieve "hysterical paroxysm." Referral to midwives, which had been common practice, meant a loss of business for the physician. The Chaise longue and Fainting couch became popular home furniture to make women more comfortable during home treatment. Fainting rooms were also used for more privacy during home treatment.
A solution was the invention of massage devices, which shortened treatment from hours to minutes, removing the need for midwives and increasing a physician’s treatment capacity. Already at the beginning of the 19th century, hydrotherapy devices were available at Bath, and by the mid-19th century, they were popular at many high-profile bathing resorts across Europe, the United States and other American countries. By 1870, a clockwork-driven vibrator was available for physicians. In 1873, the first electromechanical vibrator was used at an asylum in France for the treatment of hysteria.
While physicians of the period acknowledged that the disorder stemmed from sexual dissatisfaction, they seemed unaware of or unwilling to admit the sexual purposes of the devices used to treat it. In fact, the introduction of the speculum was far more controversial than that of the vibrator.
By the 20th century, the spread of home electricity brought the vibrator to the consumer market. The appeal of cheaper treatment in the privacy of one’s own home understandably made the vibrator a popular early home appliance. In fact, the electric home vibrator was on the market before many other home appliance ’essentials’: nine years before the electric vacuum cleaner and 10 years before the electric iron. A page from a Sears catalog of home electrical appliances from 1918 includes a portable vibrator with attachments, billed as ”Very useful and satisfactory for home service.”
Other cures for female hysteria included bed rest, bland food, seclusion, refraining from mentally taxing tasks (for example, reading) and sensory deprivation.
During early 20th century, the number of women diagnosed with female hysteria declined sharply. Many reasons have been attributed to this decline. Many medical authors claim that the decline was due to laypeople gaining a greater understanding of the psychology behind conversion disorders such as hysteria.
With so many possible symptoms, hysteria was always considered a catchall diagnosis where any unidentifiable ailment could be assigned. As diagnostic techniques improved, the number of cases were pared down until nothing was left. For instance, before the introduction of electroencephalography, epilepsy was frequently confused with hysteria. Many cases that had previously been labeled hysteria were reclassified by Sigmund Freud as anxiety neuroses.
- Female disease
- Fureurs utérines de Marie-Antoinette
- Histrionic personality disorder
- Human female sexuality
- Hysteria (2011 film)
- Nymphomania, or a Dissertation Concerning the Furor Uterinus, one of the first studies to link furor uterinus and nymphomania
- Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 1 by Havelock Ellis has a large chapter on this subject.
- Le cinquantenaire de l'hystérie (1878-1928)