2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 10

The misogynistic history of mental health

By Tierney Rhodes

The understanding and impact that mental health can have on people and society has become increasingly important. With more people in prominent positions using their voice and platforms to voice their own experiences with mental health, it has become something that is commonly referenced in day to day life, and rightfully so. However, the history of mental health is long and complicated, spanning from Ancient Egypt to modern day. The history of mental health is so complex as it intersects with a number of other factors, including sexuality and race. However, the history of mental health in terms of gender is rich, and the understanding of women’s mental health is explicitly misogynistic from the get-go. 

Hysteria is undeniably connected to ideas of femininity, which is understandable, considering the word hysteria originates from hystera, the Greek word for uterus. As a mental illness that helped form the foundation of psychiatry there is no doubt that psychiatry was set up to be against women from its formation. Hysteria was said to stem from the traditional idea of mental illnesses, where the cause was physical, but the symptoms were expected to mainly be mental, with the more notable ones being anxiety, irritability and nervousness. The cause of hysteria was said to be through the movement of the uterus, explicitly cutting men off from the narrative of this mental illness and allowing the history of mental health to exacerbate the idea that women were the cause of their illnesses. 

Hysteria, as a concept, was to shift in meaning in the years to follow, until eventually it reached the understanding that we now have of it. If a person was to Google the definition of hysteria, they would likely find a description something along he lines of ‘an uncontrollable outburst of emotion or fear, often characterised by irrationality’. This idea of irrationality and hysteria in women explicitly played a role in the witchcraft trials of the early modern period. Hysteria and mass hysteria are terms commonly used when discussing the infamous Salem Witch Trials. For thousands of women, not only in Salem, who suffered with mental illnesses, the accusations of witchcraft that were held against them appeared to undermine their illnesses, and in a way trivialise them. However, mass hysteria played an increasingly important role in the witchcraft trial period, and this is notably seen in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, when the young girls in the village are deemed to be ‘afflicted’ and one of them even falls unconscious after taking part in a ritual that was deemed to be linked to witchcraft.  Although an act of fiction, The Crucible and its depiction of how mass hysteria played a role in the witchcraft trials, clearly shows how ideas of hysteria were intrinsically linked with femininity and women. 

Jumping ahead to the twentieth-century, we begin to see the commercialisation of mental health and its treatments. Drug advertisements became increasingly more common in the mid-to-late twentieth century and stereotypical ideas of gender formed the basis of these ads. Not only were women presented in these ads as functioning primarily in the home, most commonly the kitchen, but they were also increasingly over-represented, when compared to their male counterparts. Drugs advertised for depression and anxiety were more likely to be aimed at women, and they pathologized every day emotions, meaning that ideas that mental illnesses came from motherhood were common. The advertisements didn’t only sell the drugs, but also allowed for these idealistic gendered notions to be sold as well, playing an all too crucial role in the perpetuation of the idea that women were the causes of their own mental health issues. 

Ideas of hysteria began to be less commonly used in terms of a woman’s mental health, as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders finally removed these theories from their works in 1980. Although the term was removed from official pieces of text, it took centuries for this to occur, meaning that it is going to take more than just the removal of a word to rid the world of the misogynistic understandings and stigmas attached to women’s mental health. It is clear that the history of mental health is misogynistic, even up to what is extremely modern history, however, that doesn’t mean the future of mental health has to maintain these sexist norms. The stigma attached to women with mental illnesses should be removed, allowing for a future in which everyone feels comfortable enough that they are able to share their stories and experiences with those around them, ensuring that history does not repeat itself. 

References (in order referenced in the above)



A. Strickler, ‘How Women’s Mental Health was Treated Throughout History’, Elite Daily (May 15th 2017), https://www.elitedaily.com/wellness/history-treating-women-mental-illness/1895025

C. Tasca, M. Rapetti, M. Giovannie Carta, and B. Fadda, ‘Women and hysteria in the history of mental health’, Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health (2012)

Anon, ‘Hysteria’ Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/hysteria

A. Miller, The Crucible (London, 2000)

J. Kalathil, ‘Ideological Reproduction of Gender and Normality in Psychiatric Drug Advertisements’, in B. V. Davar and T. K. Sundari Ravindran (eds) Gendering Mental Health: Knowledges, Identities, and Institutions (Oxford, 2015)