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Women have always been ‘hysterical’ Their pain has never been taken seriously

Hysterical? Medicine has long been dominated by masculine ideas. Credit: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty

Hysterical? Medicine has long been dominated by masculine ideas. Credit: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty


July 5, 2021   6 mins

A doctor first came up with the idea of pushing a T-shaped contraption into a woman’s vagina over a century ago. Many would argue that the painful procedure to insert an IUD hasn’t advanced much in the intervening years. “I had to lean over the side of the ‘chair’ to throw up”; “I begged them to stop”; “worse than childbirth”; “My male consultant told me beforehand not to worry it’s just like a period pain”. After Lucy Cohen started a petition to insist women were given pain relief before the procedure, and Caitlin Moran wrote about her own painful experience, a tremendous chorus of women found their voices.

Naga Munchetty, admitted: “I screamed so loud my husband tried to find out what room I was in to make it stop
 and fainted twice.” And yet the experts insist: “having a coil fitted should not hurt.” It’s hard to not to imagine how men would respond to a similar procedure. As Moran pointed out, compellingly, “If men had paper clips shoved up their willies, they’d be given morphine”.

This all shouldn’t really come as a surprise, though, when you consider the long history of women’s health in a man’s world. Despite her ability to give life, a woman’s body and aliments have long been constrained, objectified and often simply dismissed. As Elinor Cleghorn points out in her fascinating book Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World, “If you are a woman, you will encounter the kinds of gender biases that have been ingrained in medical culture and practice for centuries.” This includes misdiagnosis of serious illness, disbelief, dismissal and undiagnosed physical agony. Cleghorn herself experienced this after painfully suffering from Lupus for seven years before it was correctly diagnosed. She was dismissed by her physician as “hormonal”, among other things.

It was ever thus. Since records began — well, back in ancient Egypt, c1550BC — women’s health has been linked to the functioning of her uterus, and the equilibrium of her mind. One of the most common and disturbing historical theories concerning the womb and female illness is the phenomenon of the “wandering womb”: the belief that a woman’s womb literally moved around the body, suffocating her essential organs and destabilising her body and her mind, leading to hysteria (from the Greek “hysterikos,” meaning “of the womb”).

Symptoms attributed to ‘hysteria’ are noted in the Ebers Papyrus — one of the oldest and most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt. It describes seizures and panic attacks in women; the author determined that the uterus had shifted: dislodged from its natural place in the body causing a physical and emotional reaction from its host. In order to tempt it back into position, pleasant aromas were released at the opening of a woman’s vagina to coax the uterus back down the body. It is depressing to note Gwyneth Paltrow still advises women to do similar on her website Goop, asserting that they should “steam their vagina” for optimal vaginal wellness.

But vagina-steaming seems relatively innocuous when you consider some of the other cures for the “wandering womb”.

Back in Cos, a girl was found wandering the streets incoherent and distressed, sick with fever and hallucinating. Her panicked father whisked her to the nearest physician, desperate to cure her melancholy and pain. He was reassured that her illness was quite common: the girl had reached puberty and begun to menstruate. According to the physician, she was drowning in her own blood. As it flowed untempered throughout her body, it seeped into her senses, poisoning her body and her mind. His prescription? Marriage. Intercourse was the cure, for pregnancy would appease her wandering womb: a fulfilled womb was a content, compliant womb.

Ancient Greece is considered to have laid the foundations of modern medicine. But its advances didn’t always extend to a proper understanding of women’s biology. Aristotle, for example, stipulated that the female body was simply the inverse of the male: a woman’s genitalia was a man’s turned outside in, inferior and weaker than the male’s. The myth of Pandora offers futher insight into prevailing attitudes: created from clay by the Gods, the “first woman” in Greek Mythology — akin to Christianity’s Eve —  was given a pithos (a jar) and told not to open it. Tempted by the secrets inside the jar, Pandora opened the lid and released evil into the world. In a society obsessed by fecundity, Pandora was alluring and pure, but deceptive, for inside her shell, her box, her female organs were evil — and had to be controlled.

Society believed a woman’s sole purpose was to bear children. If her body, or her womb, were not occupied, therefore, it was deemed to be “deceptive”.

The fear of the ‘Pandora’ woman was perpetuated throughout Ancient Greek society, leaking further into mythology. The virgins of Argo, for example, refused to honour the phallus and fled to the mountains. Their behaviour was considered “madness” and in order to “cure” them, the Argonaut Melampus concocted a potion from hellebore (a poisonous buttercup) and urged the women to have sex with the young men of Argo. Once their virginities were lost, their madness subsided. Melampus concluded that these women suffered from poisoned humours caused by the inactive womb: the cure for their suffering was sex.

This notion of madness as an internal “poison” that slowly punishes the female reproductive organs for their barrenness was perpetuated by the father of medicine, Hippocrates. He did — correctly — reason that women’s bodies were to be treated differently, for their organs were clearly different to men: women’s bodies were considered “wetter” due to menstrual blood. But he also raised concern around “womb suffocation”: when the womb is not weighed down by a foetus, it smothers other organs in the body as it moves around. Emotional distress, in women, originated from the womb. He grouped physical ailments into one hegemonic term, “hysterikos” — and so became the father of hysteria, as well as of modern medicine.

One of the most common illnesses that Cleghorn describes as “an object lesson in male-dominated medicine’s historic failures” is the incurable, excruciatingly painful disease endometriosis. Affecting a vast one in ten women, endometriosis (endo) is the incurable growth of endometrial tissue onto other organs within the body. The tissue sticks together and causes heavy bleeding, back and pelvic pain, nausea, infertility and mental health issues. It takes on average eight years to diagnose and just one cell can regenerate anywhere in the body: in some people it spreads as far as the brain.

The author Hilary Mantel has spoken candidly about her personal experience of endometriosis in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, as she ponders on the spirits of unborn children: a family that might have been, had she not become infertile. As a student at Sheffield, she was stuffed with anti-depressants that blurred her vision until she could not read and lulled her into inertia. “Minor tranquillisers” resulted in her imagining inflicting harm on others: arson and murder. “When I saw a carving knife I looked at it with a new interest.” When she was given Fentazine, she developed akathisia — a side effect of anti-psychotic medication; “the patient paces, she is unable to stay still. She wears a look of agitation and terror. She wrings her hands; she says she is in hell.” She describes pleading for help from her doctor: “you whisper that you are dying, you are damned, you are already being dipped into hell and you can feel the flames on your face.”

Though endometriosis was identified in the 1920s, it was not until the 1970s that black women were finally diagnosed with it, despite frequently suffering more severe bouts than their white counterparts. Racist bias was piled on top of gender bias and black women until this point were mostly misdiagnosed with pelvic inflammatory disease, a sexually transmitted bacterial infection, implying promiscuity. Cleghorn points out that the typical case study endometriosis patient is a “white, middle class, over-educated, socially and economically privileged young woman who resisted the biological imperative of having children.”. This was an image perpetuated by medics in the Forties blaming women for their “inactive womb”. Women are still, in the 21st century told that pregnancy is a cure for endometriosis, albeit a temporary one.

The suggestion that the womb should be occupied in order to stop endometriosis is a thumping echo of the myth of the “wandering womb” that tormented women in early history. As Cleghorn points out, the man-made medical world was not listening to women in the fourth century BC and it is still not listening to women. “No unwell woman should be reduced to a file of notes, a set of clinical observations, a case study lurking in an archive.”

But it does feel like something is shifting. Partly it’s the advent of social media, where women can openly share their biological fears and complaints, it’s also the fact that the shame women have harboured about their bodies, and their reproductive capability, is receding.

Woman is still her biology, as Cleghorn puts it, but as she gains confidence to challenge those long held medical ideas about pain and symptoms and the inadequacy of her body, she will no longer have to be at the mercy of it.


Helen Carr is a historian, writer, TV producer and author.


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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

Women are still, in the 21st century told that pregnancy is a cure for endometriosis, albeit a temporary one.

You made that up. That’s not what they’re told.
They’re in fact told that endometriosis causes cysts to form on the uterus. When the uterus sheds its lining during a period, this causes intense pain. Pregnancy relieves the symptoms by stopping periods, but once it resumes, so do the symptoms. Nobody tells women pregnancy is a cure. They are accurately told that pregnancy will reduce the symptoms for a while. As the cysts leave scar tissue into which a fertilised egg cannot implant, endometriosis causes diminished, and eventual loss of, fertility.
With all misandrist propaganda, what is always missing, as here, is any comparative analysis of men’s supposedly preferable situation in the same period. The claim that women’s pain was historically ignored would resonate more were it not for the fact that, for example, men injured in any limb in battle up until about 150 years ago simply had it amputated without anaesthetic. If they survived the operation, and the repeated bleedings that were thought to assist recovery, they were then discharged as unfit for further service. For the most part, these men weren’t volunteers. So in what way were they better off for being men?
As soon as pain relief did become available, it was immediately offered not just to men under the knife, but to women in childbirth.
Over the last 70 or 80 years doctors have been able to dispense four types of pill not known hitherto that remain the most frequently prescribed. These four are contraceptives, anti-depressants, pain killers and antibiotics. Take a wild guess, Helen, at who benefits the most from the existence of these; who takes most of them? Clue: it isn’t men.
You’re in the wrong place if you want to arouse hatred against men in general today for failing to meet your latter-day expectations of them in the past. You might get a reverent hearing in some places, but here, you should expect to be confronted with the facts you haven’t properly considered. If you want a choir to preach to, this isn’t the Guardian.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Aren’t the odious statins right up there as one of the most widely prescribed medications for both men and women? And the beauty for big pharmaceuticals is that you are not supposed to ever stop taking them – you are in it for life. Unless of course you discover that they reduce cholesterol but not mortality and that in reality, mainstream cholesterol tests are pure fiction.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

It’s a good point, Lesley, although as statins have (I think) been around only since the 1980s it’s maybe too soon to tell if they’ll remain in the arsenal given the issues that you point out.
I’m personally bewildered why people take statins rather than eating more porridge and avocadoes. I’m guessing that usage will tail off as hipsters age 🙂

Peter LR
Peter LR
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Jon, maybe because the body is not functioning as well due to age even though one’s diet is good – porridge is my favourite. I’ve been on them for 15 years (minimum dose) and no seeming problems. I am informed they do help clean the arteries out.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Clean the arteries out? Of what?Something critical to functioning called cholesterol
 or Co-Q10? Interestingly Merck must have known for decades that statins reduced Co-Q10 levels, because they patented a statin with Co-Q10 but no-one wisened up to the problem so it was unnecessary to pursue. Heart disease and risk is picked up by inter alia calcium scans, insulin resistance, rate of HDL to triglycerides and a particular dense subtype of LDL. The average doctor and cardiologist just gives you the bog standard test and gives you some statins.
Have the proper screening, drop the porridge, follow a paleo type diet, take magnesium, vitamin D and omega 3, do some exercise etc.

Peter LR
Peter LR
3 years ago

I understand it is not natural: “ Fatty material (or atheroma) starts accumulating in the lining of the artery wall from when we are quite young. The material is ‘foreign’ to our bodies, so causes inflammation.” Having read a bit more the statins don’t clear them but prevent the build up.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

I really think you should swat up on the new thinking on the cholesterol myth and then find a doctor who will do the tests that I mentioned. As I said previously, the smoking gun is that statins reduce cholesterol but do not reduce mortality.

Allie McBeth
Allie McBeth
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

If I were a man, having a paperclip “shoved up” my much narrower channel, I would expect morphine at the very least!

Last edited 2 years ago by Allie McBeth
Jamie Farrell
Jamie Farrell
3 years ago

Im afraid this is one of the poorest pieces I’ve ever read on this site. The lack of actual evidence is staggering, the one eyed nature of the “argument” is monumental, and the utterly deluded “conclusions” drawn (such as that when the Greeks in effect began to study medicine, the fact that they didn’t immediately understand perfectly all aspects of human biology from year zero, was quite obviously because they were sexist) are actually just frightening.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Jamie Farrell

Seems from the article that men, in the medical field, have devoted very great efforts at solving the medical issues. The writer is angry that previous generations of medical and scientific people were not today’s fully equipped, modern tech laden, and woke. How dare they be old fashioned in the past. I await a CRT article next, showing how the modern is so horrible because the past was utterly wicked.

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I wonder what percentage of female pain throughout history has been cured by male-invented technologies

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Callum Innes

Not enough.

Judy Simpson
Judy Simpson
3 years ago

Firstly, I will admit, I didn’t finish this article; the title alone was enough to turn me off. As part of my PhD thesis, I am researching ancient women’s reproductive health. As I search through the Hippocratic Corpus and the works of Celsus, Soranus, and Galen, among others, I am finding none of the so-called misogyny the author claims existed. Instead, I find men invested in women’s health and concerned for their reproductive outcomes. I dare anyone to read Hippocrates’ descriptions of young women dying from post-partum infections and not be moved by their poignancy. These men recognised that the reproducing years were the most dangerous in a women’s life. So much so that Soranus admitted that women who remained virgins all their life usually enjoyed better health.

Last edited 3 years ago by Judy Simpson
Christopher Gelber
Christopher Gelber
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Simpson

And of course men were, and are, invested in women’s health. We have mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives, daughters and female friends. We love and cherish them. Jesus wept. The entire foundation of 3rd/4th wave feminism seems to be a deeply disturbed view of men.

Last edited 3 years ago by Christopher Gelber
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 years ago

Not all men.
They seem pretty happy with men from cultures that are genuinely hostile to women or have genuine misogynistic elements.

Try criticising islamic or African American cultures in front of a feminist and you will see

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago

The main question for me is 
 When will this tedious and divisive “misogyny mining” end ?
Answers on a postcard 
.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Orwell, in Down and out in Paris and London, the song some male scoundrels sing to entertain the tramps of a woman destroyed by a wicked, lieing, deceiver:
“As into the grave they laid her low, The men said, ‘Alas, but life is so,’ But the women chanted, sweet and low, ‘It’s all the men, the dirty bastards!'”

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

oops – forgot the use of the * as was ‘Awaiting for Approval, so re-posting with the vital redacting,
Orwell, in Down and out in Paris and London, the song some male scoundrels sing to entertain the tramps of a woman destroyed by a wicked, lieing, deceiver:
“As into the grave they laid her low, The men said, ‘Alas, but life is so,’ But the women chanted, sweet and low, ‘It’s all the men, the dirty bast* rds!'”

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

In my experience, the reason why women seem to suffer more in relation to medical treatment is that they tell everyone about it whereas men don’t often discuss such things.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

You’re not wrong. If two mothers overseeing their toddlers in the park find themselves sharing a park bench and happen to fall into conversation, they will often disclose their complete obstetric history to one another on five minutes’ acquaintance, including how many miscarriages they’ve had. It’s extraordinary really. I can’t think of anything comparable that men overshare with other men.

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

This is even seen in the way parents react to their kids’ pain in the playground. Dads will laugh and toughen them up if they fall or get in a normal play fight. Mums will be terrified, particularly by the latrer

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Boats?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 years ago

Thankfully this article wasn’t hysterical at all.

The more I read feminists complain about how miserable their life is, all because of misogyny and patriarchy, I realise why men were pretty much responsible for almost everything that was invented, built or discovered:
Men didn’t have the option of doing nothing to improve their lot but complain endlessly. Nobody cares if a man is being hysterical, dies horribly or suffers pain.

Bit worried about my daughter to be honest, that she might grow up in this environment to be narcissistic, and entitled, ends up with a studies degree + government job, all the while complaining about how nothing is her responsibility and everything is men’s fault.

Last edited 3 years ago by Samir Iker
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

* White Men’s Fault.

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

*White man’s burden. It is an honour; once you see through their vitriol & jealousy.

Last edited 3 years ago by Callum Innes
Gordon Black
Gordon Black
3 years ago

Wow … how wrong was I? My hunch has always been that ‘medical’ was a female ‘thing’. That hunch came from 70 years of sporadic contact with GP surgeries, pharmacies and hospitals where the staff, patients, prescriptions, goods and customers were, to my eyes, overwhelmingly female oriented … and all the time it was run by bad men.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 years ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

It’s a bit like HR, full of women while at the same time run by patriarchal men conspiring to systematically pay women 30% less

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Petition to defund all HR departments? What do they actually do?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 years ago
Reply to  Callum Innes

Make lives miserable for those actually trying to work?
It is a noble pursuit.

Saul D
Saul D
3 years ago

How can modern medicine be compared to the ancients in any serious science-based discussion? There is simply zero connection from modern to ancients except for some faux literarium.
Childbirth was one of the earliest applications of anaesthetic from at least 1848 when pain relief was ether/chloroform. Laudanum/opium was used for labour pains from at least 1813 (so two centuries ago). This one is from on “Hysteralia or Irritable Uteris” is from 1833: https://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJM183310230091101 . Obviously in the 1830s genuinely life taking diseases were bigger issues in medical affairs, but it’s a myth to believe medicine ignored women.

David NebeskĂœ
David NebeskĂœ
3 years ago

Half an hour ago I read “What’s killing New Orleans?” and I felt it was the worst and least honest article I’ve read on Unherd so far. And then I read this one….

Christopher Gelber
Christopher Gelber
3 years ago

Same for me. I was shaking my head at paragraph after paragraph in Birrell’s deeply biased NO piece (rhetorically, where to begin?), and then I read this one. We men have mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives, daughters and female friends. We love and cherish them. Jesus wept. The entire foundation of 3rd/4th wave feminism seems to be a deeply disturbed view of men.

Last edited 3 years ago by Christopher Gelber
Peter LR
Peter LR
3 years ago

My wife didn’t scream with the iud insertion! She thinks it depends on who is doing the procedures and inserting the speculum. Some practitioners, like my daughter, are very caring and very careful – no wonder she is personally requested.
Agree with all above: why these misandrist articles; can’t we learn from one another rather than denouncing?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
3 years ago

Well, now that 45% of doctors in the UK are women, are they going to just talk about it, or invent and develop better technology and practices?

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago

Talk talk talk

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
3 years ago

The title this morning was about ‘misogyny‘ and is now changed to be something about ‘hysteria’? … been reading the comments?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

The article’s author doesn’t usually suggest the headline, so probably the articulate criticism of how nonsensical it is has led to a bit of a sub-editorial rethink…

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Nice observation – I spotted that, but thought I was losing the plot 🙂

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago

Stopped reading at the words Naga Munchetty, though I did notice she doesn’t appear to know what an adverb is.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

Ditto – I wonder how many of these pieces are just attempts at moving up the BBC/Guardian job queue.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
Tim Smith
Tim Smith
3 years ago

Perhaps the author should read up on Ignaz Semmelweis and his research into puerperal fever.

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago

‘Women’s pain has never been taken seriously’ Is this a joke?

So why are women protected with greater laws, traditionally viewed as more emotional, and in nearly every society are they not called to fight?

Every person born in society knows women feel pain more and values them more than men. Pull the other.

Last edited 3 years ago by Callum Innes
MJ Reid
MJ Reid
3 years ago

1976 :As a young woman with very painful periods I was told that it all would go away if I kept myself pregnant. I was 15 at the time and my mother was horrified that my male GP thought that appropriate. I was finally given meds which caused bleeding stomach ulcers and didn’t take the pain away.

When I was 22, again my GP told me pregnancy was the answer. I had to tell him, no it wasn’t as I had been pregnant, miscarried and still had pain. Was tlod by male GP, if I carried to term it would make a difference!!!!! Same at 27 and 32 years of age.

So yes, women are told to get pregnant to get rid of uterine pain. Over and over again, even when they know this makes no difference.

At 44, went to GP (male) about back pain and was told it was period pain. Nope. Post menopausal so mot that. Must be from your uterus. Maybe a hysterectomy will help! After 3 years of argument and the gym consultant telling my GP it was not my uterus, x rays found my coccyx has disappeared abd has caused nerve damage. I was just a hysterical patient!!

So, Jon Redman, yes, women are treated as though they are “hysterical” and not listened to. The author is correct…

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
2 years ago

Yes. Sorry. I didn’t finish the first paragraph. You feminists need to stop whining and actually fix all these problems. Seriously, feminism is like a huge female complaining non stop, endlessly badgering all men to fix her problems. After a while you stop listening. There are far better things to do with ones life.