Those darned humanities professors, teaching about literature and words and history and all that fuzzy stuff.
The course is titled “The Wandering Uterus: Journeys through Gender, Race, and Medicine” and gets its name from one of the ancient “causes” of hysteria. The uterus was believed to wander around the body like an animal, hungry for semen. If it wandered the wrong direction and made its way to the throat there would be choking, coughing or loss of voice, if it got stuck in the the rib cage, there would be chest pain or shortness of breath, and so on. Most any symptom that belonged to a female body could be attributed to that wandering uterus. “Treatments,” including vaginal fumigations, bitter potions, balms, and pessaries made of wool, were used to bring that uterus back to its proper place. “Genital massage,” performed by a skilled physician or midwife, was often mentioned in medical writings. The triad of marriage, intercourse, and pregnancy was the ultimate treatment for the semen-hungry womb. The uterus was a troublemaker and was best sated when pregnant.
But that’s ancient history! No one could believe that after the Middle Ages!
It just got transmogrified in the 19th century.
It was believed that hysteria, also known as neurasthenia, could be set off by a plethora of bad habits including reading novels (which caused erotic fantasies), masturbation, and homosexual or bisexual tendencies resulting in any number of symptoms such as seductive behaviors, contractures, functional paralysis, irrationality, and general troublemaking of various kinds. There are pages and pages of medical writings outing hysterics as great liars who willingly deceive. The same old “treatments” were enlisted—genital massage by an approved provider, marriage and intercourse—but some new ones included ovariectomies and cauterization of the clitoris.
Oh, those Victorians! No one believes that kind of crap now.
This wasn’t just any fall semester. There couldn’t have been a more appropriate time to consider the history of hysteria than September 2016, the week following Hillary Clinton’s collapse from pneumonia at the 9/11 ceremonies, an event that tipped #HillarysHealth into a national obsession. Rudolph Giuliani said that she looked sick and encouraged people to google “Hillary Clinton illness.” Trump focused on her coughing or “hacking” as if the uterus were still making its perambulations up to the throat.
For many months, Hillary had been pathologized as the shrill shrew who was too loud and outspoken, on the one hand, and the weak sick one who didn’t have the strength or stamina to be president on the other. We discussed journalist Gail Collins’ assessment of the various levels of sexism afoot in the campaign. On the topic of Hillary’s health, Collins wrote, “this is nuts, but not necessarily sexist.” We, in the Wandering Uterus, wholeheartedly disagreed. But, back in September, we did not understand how deeply entrenched these sinister mythologies had already become.
But that was 2016! We know so much more now, in 2017!