August 21, 2009

The etymology of the word “hysteria” can tell you quite a bit.

Originally a term used by the Greeks, hysteria (from the root “hyster,” meaning “womb”) was thought to be a condition especially likely to affect women who were independent of male control, like nuns and widows—though it could potentially strike any woman. According to the Greeks, Hysteria was caused when a woman’s uterus wandered through her body, pushing on her other organs and causing irrational behavior. The cure was pregnancy, which would weigh the uterus down and keep it in its place.


The term resurfaced as a diagnosis in Victorian times, again as an affliction affecting only women. In this case, its cause was considered to be sexual deprivation.

Freud other early psychoanalytic theorists later reclassified hysteria as neurosis, again impacting women, again often having a lot to do with their sexual behavior.


These days, it’s not uncommon to hear the word hysteria used to describe someone who is being irrational and unreasonable. You may have noticed that it is more commonly used to describe a woman or women.

In particular, it is often used to describe people, usually women people, who are concerned about sexual violence.


It is very common for anti-feminist people to call feminists hysterical. Other favored terms include: “irrational,” “unreasonable,” and “oversensitive.”

Would you like to know why I think this is the case?

Here’s why: there is a longstanding cultural tradition of separating  “reason” from “emotion,” and contending that they are vastly different and entirely separable.  The tradition goes on to value reason over emotion.  This tradition contends that emotion makes one unable to consider issues “rationally,” but that some very special individuals are capable of considering issues “objectively” and without emotion.  These individuals are “rational.” Other individuals, who are influenced by their emotions, do not have thoughts worthy of consideration.  They are “emotional,” and not as good.  One cannot be “emotional” and “rational” at the same time, you see.

What’s kind of interesting about this whole fallacy wherein an objective viewpoint supposedly exists and individuals cannot be emotional and rational at the same time is that there are also some long-standing cultural stereotypes about which types of people are most able to be rational.  As it turns out, straight white men are very rational types.  Men of color aren’t as rational, because they tend to be very angry for no good reason.  Queer men aren’t as rational, because they’re kind of like ladies.  Women are the least rational of all, because their uteri are floating around making them crazy.  Science!

So you see, people who really buy into this tend to think that they themselves are rational.  They also tend to think that bad people who disagree with them are emotional and not rational.  And that ladypeople are inevitably emotional and therefore irrational.  So ladypeople who disagree with these upstanding rational individuals are the most emotional of all, so emotional, in fact, that they have crossed over into hysteria.

It’s a very rational argument, if you can think about it objectively.


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