In the nineteenth century there was an “epidemic” of a condition called hysteria. The patients diagnosed with hysteria were almost exclusively female. In fact, it was largely considered a “female illness”. The symptoms included anxiety, loss of appetite, sexual frigidity or excessive sexual desire, irritability, excessive displays of emotion, and in extreme cases aphasia, the inability to speak. Women who were diagnosed were told that they needed absolute rest and virtual isolation in order to recover. They shouldn’t “bother themselves” with daily life and they shouldn’t be exposed to “too much excitement” lest their condition get worse. Many women diagnosed with hysteria were sent away to summer homes or even institutions in order to recover.
The saddest part about hysteria is that it wasn’t even real. It was a fabricated psychiatric disease that allowed men to dismiss female emotions and voices. Today hysteria is viewed as a mistake of the nineteenth century. We look back and say “the patriarchy had such an awful grip on society back then!” We lament at how awful it is that a disease was fabricated to convince women that their normal human emotions made them crazy.
In the chilling short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman tells the story of a young woman who has been diagnosed with hysteria and sent to a summer home to recuperate. The main character is confined to a room that used to be a nursery with bars on the windows. She is repeatedly told that she must not have company and must sleep most of the day in order to recover. She tries over and over to tell her husband she is feeling better and that she is lonely. She begs him to spend more time with her and to allow her to visit with friends and family but he refuses. Eventually she begins to believe that there are women trapped in the yellow wallpaper of the room to which she is confined. She begins to hallucinate the trapped women trying to escape the walls. In the end she has come to believe that she is in fact one of the women who was trapped in the wallpaper and tears all the wallpaper off the walls in order to escape. Read the story here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1952/1952-h/1952-h.htm. It is a powerful and chilling tale about the ways in which the treatment of women and the dismissal of their feelings can literally drive them insane. I cried when I reread it a few weeks ago.
Though we no longer live in a society where female emotions are given psychiatric diagnoses, we still live in a society that trivializes and demonizes women’s emotions. How many of us have ever been called crazy by the men in our lives? How prominent is the stereotype of the crazy girlfriend or ex girlfriend in the media? The answer to these questions should be proof enough that female emotionality is still despised by the patriarchy. Men are conditioned to dismiss female emotion as “too much”. They are taught that they are allowed to trivialize women’s feelings because women are so mercurial by nature. Men are taught to assume that valid emotions are the result of our menstrual cycles and that offerings of chocolate or pretty jewelry will solve the problem. They are taught to believe that any reaction other than a quiet and measured response is an overreaction. They are taught that women who display emotion are crazy and therefore not to be taken seriously.
Women are actually taught the the same lessons. Girls learn at a young age that only positive emotions are acceptable emotions. They learn that yelling is unattractive. They learn to carefully measure their responses so as to not upset others. They learn that not upsetting others is more important than having their feelings expressed and heard. As these girls grow in to women they carefully watch the reactions of others to their emotions in order to learn if they have reacted properly. When they snap at a boyfriend for bailing on a date they are called crazy. Or worse they are compared to a previous “crazy girlfriend” which carries the insidious undertone of being dumped for their emotionality. When a woman gets so frustrated with being ignored at work that she does the unthinkable and cries she is labeled as unable to handle the “tough situations”.
Women walk through this world hearing that they are crazy so often they start to believe that it’s true. They start to feel guilty about their feelings. Slowly they stop expressing themselves as often. Slowly they may stop expressing themselves at all. Their fear of being labeled crazy forces them in to a metaphorical aphasia.
Today I tell you ladies you are not crazy. Your feelings are notmal and they are real. You deserve to speak and you deserve to be heard. I’m not saying go out in to the world and dump your feelings all over without warning or discretion. We are still responsible for how we use our voices and how our feelings affect others. We must use our voices with kindness and love, but we also must use them to express how we feel without fear of the label crazy. We owe it to ourselves.