Hysterical, Oversensitive Harpies

To be a woman in our society is to be caught in a constant double bind; for every action you take, there will be someone there to condemn you, and if you take the opposite action, another set of people will be lined up to tell you you’re doing it wrong. Everything you do is a consequence of your gender, as evidently you’re driven by your very femaleness, which becomes an all-consuming identity, not an aspect of who you are. Whenever you perform any deed, it’s evaluated through the lens of ‘female’ and interpreted on the basis of the fact that you’re a woman first, with utter disregard for any other part of yourself.

One place where that’s especially evident is when women stand up for themselves. Women resisting oppression, abuse, marginalisation, and casual sexism aren’t doing so, evidently, because they don’t like being treated like garbage, but because they’re women. They’re just being ‘hysterical’ and once they calm down, they’ll understand that whatever they were complaining about wasn’t a big deal after all, and they shouldn’t have worried their pretty little heads about it.

It’s an attitude so pervasive that even in spaces where people say they’re committed to gender equality and promoting a breakdown of sexism and gendered attitudes, women are marginalised for speaking up, especially so when emotions become part of the equation. Suddenly they’re hysterical or overreacting or too sensitive, simply because they raised their voices or indicated that something troubled them, or said that they needed to stand their ground on something because it didn’t feel right. Whether they’re members of a social organisation or developers on a software team, they’re suddenly isolated on an island of Woman, and everyone views them skeptically, waiting for them to calm down and join the fold.

The roots of ‘hysteria’ as a concept are quite old, and not a little intriguing. The term originally stemmed from a medical diagnosis, the idea that women could be troubled by a ‘wandering womb,’ particularly after ‘disturbances’ such as childbirth. Cis women were evidently quite literally led around by their uteri, incapable of interacting with the world like everyone else (men, in other words) because they were at the mercy of a single reproductive organ. Diagnoses of hysteria were used to push cis women as far to the margins as possible; after all, if someone could be driven mad by a rogue uterus, clearly that person couldn’t safely make complex decisions, run a country, or work.

The idea of hysteria was used to control cis women, and it neatly trapped them. A woman who had any emotions at all was obviously hysterical, while a woman who attempted to make her own way in the world was equally maddened by her uterus, driven crazy by some sort of dangerous pressure from within. Women couldn’t be trusted to perform the same duties men could, and they were best kept at home, safe and secure until they could be married off to husbands who could rule them, and hopefully manage their hysteria as best they could. Any attempt on a woman’s part to step outside social norms was cause for a diagnosis of hysteria and subsequent isolation; want the vote? You’re hysterical. Advocating for children’s welfare in factories? Hysterical.

It’s telling, of course, that while ‘hysteria’ isn’t a formal medical diagnosis any more, there are a lot of highly gendered mental health conditions that have moved in to take its place. Such conditions effectively pathologise human emotion and lived experience, but do so for only one gender; women who express emotions, who have opinions, who believe that there is something wrong with the world around them when that world oppresses people, can find themselves slapped with a variety of diagnoses which at their roots can boil down to ‘too emotional to be borne.’

Women in the workplace are advised not to be emotional ever, because they’ll be discounted on the basis that they’re being overly emotional—’that time of the month,’ perhaps. Meanwhile, women who are efficient and focused and driven are ‘ice queens’ and they’re viewed with suspicion as well; some people suggest they aren’t ‘real women.’ If you’re a working woman, you can’t have emotions, can’t object to being mistreated, can’t report harassment and abuse because you’re overreacting, but you also can’t be clinical and focused on getting the job done without being emotionally expressive. Where, exactly, are women supposed to fit in to this rubric? There is no way to win, and the system is structured that way deliberately.

Women’s feelings can be quickly dismissed when they object to something like harassment from a coworker or superior, on the grounds that they’re ’emotional’ or ‘overreacting.’ Everyone was just having some harmless fun until the bitter harpie came along and ruined it all. A whiff of anger about the destruction of the old boy’s club that the workplace used to represent, and also a dig at the role of women in society, as lesser creatures ruled by the whims of their uteri and accompanying uncontrollable emotions.

Troubling to see these attitudes sometimes replicated in spaces where theoretically women are supposed to be equals; it is women who are often tasked with doing emotional work, yet women who are punished for expressing frustration with emotional burdens, or discomfort with how things are structured. Women activists who speak up about problems within their movements are being divisive, while men are leaders. Is this really where we want to be, as a society? Where even in equality movements, ‘hysteria’ can be slapped on a woman’s forehead and used to push her to the side?