Hysteria and Female Writers
How dumb old-timey doctors made females do nothing all day because they made books instead of babies.
For me to tell you what a struggle it was for early female writers, especially female horror writers, I have to give you a very brief overview of what hysteria was. Hysteria was the first mental disorder attributed to women. It was a catch-all-dumpster-fire of a diagnosis for women who didn’t behave like men thought they should. Didn’t want to have sex? HYSTERIA. You wanted to have “too much sex?” HYSTERIA. Didn’t obey your husband’s every command? HYSTERIA. Sometimes you felt sad? HYSTERIA. Were you “too happy?” HYSTERIA. You get the gist. Hysteria was a BS disorder doctors used to explain away almost anything that was a little odd.
But what, exactly, did we think hysteria was? Well, obviously it was where your uterus just got a little tired of being in the same place in your body and decided to just get a little change of scenery. YEA, MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS THOUGHT YOUR UTERUS WAS MOVING ABOUT UP INSIDE YOUR BODY. Ridiculous, right?
Those same medical professionals came up with treatments that were just as ridiculous. They thought your uterus could be brought to the correct place using smell, because your uterus was attracted to good smells. Usually “lady” smells like flowers. So we made tinctures and salves that smelled great and just put them where they thought your uterus should go. Women were also given “pelvic massages” which were exactly what they sound like. There were these medical devices called vibrators that your doctor could use to treat you. (As of 2009 in the state of Alabama, you STILL had to sign a medical waiver when you bought a vibrator stating that it was solely for medical use.) We also thought you could just direct a steady flow of water “down there.” There was also the rest treatment where you just sat in a bed all day for months. No books. No talking. Not even feeding yourself.
Oh hey, I forgot to mention that sometimes, after a hysteria diagnosis, YOU COULD BE EXORCISED. Yea, because of the demon making your uterus go all crazy. Hysteria was nuts, yall.
It’s really easy to just consider Hysteria a pseudo-science. We can laugh it off and say that the past is in the past. But the term Hysteria wasn’t dropped until 1952 and it wasn’t taken out of the DSM until the 1980’s. It’s been a struggle for women, to say the least.
BUT KALLIE, WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH BOOKS? I’m so glad you asked, random person I’m creating while I type this. Remember that if you were any bit out of the ordinary, you could be diagnosed with hysteria. And what was weird for women back in the day? Learning to read? Or what if you had THE AUDACITY to want to learn to write? Let alone, write a whole book? You were probably called crazy. You may have been diagnosed with some BS disorder and had someone to try to get your uterus, and you, back in its place.
This was well documented with Charlotte Perkins Gilman who famously wrote THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, the semi autobiographical story about a woman given the rest treatment. Gilman was married in 1885 and was pregnant later that year. After the baby was born, Gilman was diagnosed with hysteria by a doctor Silas Weir Mitchell, who was one of the leading experts on hysteria. Today we would probably say that Gilman, who had a history of depression, had postpartum depression. But I think we can all agree that we weren’t exactly the best with medical practices back in the day. Mitchell prescribed the rest treatment that we talked about earlier for Gilman and SHOCKER, it didn’t work. In fact, her mental health became worse. Luckily, she recognized her own mental health was not getting better with this treatment and refused further care from her doctor.
If you haven’t, you should read THE YELLOW WALLPAPER. It’s a great gothic horror story. It is based on her time with “hysteria” and her following rest treatment. Now that you know a little of her history though, you may appreciate the story even more.
Another female writer diagnosed with hysteria and prescribed the rest treatment was Edith Wharton. She wrote some amazing spooky stories that you should check out (Tales of Men and Ghosts-1910, Xingu-1916, Here and Beyond-1926, Ghosts-published posthumously in 1937). Wharton has been called a catalyst in the diagnosis of male hysteria. Yes, that was a thing. It was really rare and it came after we realized the wombs don’t float around in your body like Pennywise’s red balloon. Like I said, we were big old dumb dumbs with medical practices.
Virginia Woolf was another female writer that was diagnosed with hysteria at one point and was given some CUH-RAZY medical treatments. One doctor thought that all mental disorders may have had a home in the teeth. SO HE PULLED THREE OF HER TEETH. You read that right. THREE TEETH. Just in case you were wondering, that was a bust. Woolf was so upset with her treatments for what today may be called depression, she ended up commiting suicide. The day before her suicide she was seen by a doctor at her husbands request. She refused medical treatment from the doctor, specifically citing the rest treatment. She returned home and drowned herself the next day.
So let’s pretend for a second that I am a woman in the 18th or 19th centuries who loves learning and writing. I’m a rebel, maybe with a leather jacket and cool sunglasses. Just picture me with a cool outfit, okay? So here I am, a smart woman with a super dope outfit that wants to publish this gothic horror I’ve written. I’m smart enough to know that I’m already stirring the pot by reading books. I know that if I publish this absolutely brilliant novel, it will not only be passed over because of the author's female name, but I will likely come under personal scrutiny for knowing how to read and spending my time writing rather than keeping a home and making babies. I know that if that happens, I could be taken to a doctor by any male family member or my husband (I can’t even vote at this time, my brother can force me to see a doctor if he wants to) and I could be diagnosed with hysteria. That could mean the rest treatment, teeth pulling, some rando doc just doing his job and abiding the hippocratic oath by manually massaging my pelvis (ew) and a number of other terrible no good treatments. So what is a super cool, hella smart, leather jacket wearing lass to do? USE A MALE PEN NAME. So many female authors used male pen names for so many reasons, but I’m just going to list a few so you’ll get the gist of it.
To start, all three of the Bronte Sisters had male pen names. You might know Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. They’ve got WUTHERING HEIGHTS and JANE EYRE under their belts to name a few. Mary Ann Evans went by George Elliot to publish MIDDLEMARCH. Karen Blixen used Isak Dinesen for her 1934 book SEVEN GOTHIC TALES. Vernon Lee, or Violet Paget, wrote HAUNTINGS: FANTASTIC STORIES in 1890. Alice Bradley Sheldon, or James Triptee Jr. said in an interview once that “a male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” Tiptree/Sheldon wrote the novella THE GIRL WHO WAS PLUGGED IN.
See, society has always needed women to be quiet. Seen and not heard. When a female does something out of the ordinary, she is often called “crazy” or maybe you’ve heard that “it must be her time of the month.” (Honestly, this whole PMS thing that mostly men use, is a whole other thing that I could write a million words on. I won’t go on the tangent here.) When females are made out to be mentally unstable for wanting to create and invent, or learn and grow, it drives some females away from that same growth. Those women authors that were diagnosed with hysteria and given ridiculous treatments for it, suffered for their art and growth. Many female writers used male pen names to avoid this suffering and still be able to create. All of these women paved the way for modern female writers. Women authors still struggle, especially in male dominated fields like horror fiction, but hey, at least no one is pulling their teeth out now, right? Who knows what treasures some women may have written if it weren’t for hysteria and our seriously awful and messed up medical history.
This article barely scratches the surface of how women writers have been treated and it doesn’t even begin to touch on mental health. It’s a broad overview and history of a topic that I don’t think a lot of readers think about when they read works from female authors.
So next time you pick up a book from a female author, take a second to think about that author and all the other female authors who paved the way for her, all so you could hold that piece of literature in your hands and not scoff because a woman dared to use her mind.