Women and Hysteria
A response to Caitlin Flanagan
In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Caitlin Flanagan predictably traces the psychosomatic phenomenon of “hysteria” to the adolescent female condition.
The impetus for the discussion—titled “Hysteria and the Teenage Mind”—is an incident in Buffalo where a group of teenagers all started showing the psychosomatic symptoms made famous by Cassandra. And Elizabeth Proctor. Flanagan, astutely recognizing a pattern, wonders “why it is the cheerleaders and not the linebackers who come down with tics and stuttering.”
Her answer: “female adolescence is—universally—an emotionally and psychologically intense period.” Girls of this age are acutely aware of their future roles as women. “Much on their minds is their new potential for childbearing, an event that for most of human history has been fraught with physical peril,” she explains.
As Eesha Pandit points out on Feministing, medical professionals do acknowledge a connection between psychological distress and otherwise inexplicable physical symptoms. Although Flanagan is correct in pointing to emotional distress as the cause of this apparent hysteria, her solution is not to undo the gender roles that foster such emotional chaos. Rather, she suggests that parents should be especially protective of their teenage daughters. They should recognize that the social pressures of the female gender role place undo emotional strain on the mothers and wives-to-be.
In just the latest installment of her career-long advocacy for the preservation of traditional gender roles, she paints women as victims of society’s clearly immovable expectations. At the same time, her protective stance takes these gender norms as a foregone conclusion.
This line of thought does conform to the traditional ideal of femininity, which conflates womanhood with weakness. She’s also not the first to pathologize socially constructed gender norms. Flanagan’s conclusion about the damaging effects of female gender roles is reminiscent of centuries of medical discourse about the—apparently inherent—state of womanhood.
Ever since Hippocrates complained of women’s perpetual illness, western medicine has conspired to support conceptions of female weakness, both intellectual and physical. Through the 19th century, nervous disorders—naturally considered the purview of women—were attributed to problems with the physical reproductive system. Essentially, what society deemed an inherent psychological and moral condition was collapsed into female sexuality (and its attendant organs). In Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English explain how the medical profession has long reinforced society’s urge to protect women. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, doctors really only had a compunction to protect upper class women. While the working-class women putting in long hours in unsanitary factories were actually subject to disease, doctors concluded that the source of female illness was the leisurely, civilized life that society prescribed for upper class women.
Similarly, Flanagan attributes female hysteria to the gender roles that society created. Also in keeping with historical medical thought, she encourages women to more drastically conform to the notion of congenital female weakness: she prescribes a sheltered lifestyle to neutralize the stresses of an impending future in homemaking. As evidenced by her consistent advocacy for the traditional female sphere—namely, the kitchen—she does not see these gender roles as problematic. From her perspective, they are inevitable. Where these social constructions prove detrimental to women’s mental or physical health, the solution is not to undo them. On the contrary, she tailors her solution to the idea of female weakness, which has historically served as justification for gender roles themselves.
Her ultimate goal is that parental protection will foster a “strong and confident young woman.” Unfortunately, her strategy tends to perpetuate the idea that women as a class are weak—that they are inherently predisposed to need protecting in the first place.