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All These Hysterical Women
On abortion rights, wandering wombs, and hysteria
Leonardo DaVinci’s drawing of the uterus depicts it with the fallopian tubes circling out like demonic horns. The devil lies inside a woman, early medical writings argued. In his medical textbook On Monsters and Marvels, Ambroise Paré, the chief surgeon to both Charles IX and Henri III, argued that a woman’s womb was the site of unholy unions between nature, imagination, and the forces of heaven. For Paré, the womb was a fragile and unsteady liminal space, buffeted by curses of God, the monsters of nature, and the monsters of a woman’s own mind. According to Pare, a woman’s active imagination could turn her child into a monster; a woman crossing her legs too much during pregnancy could warp the baby’s body. So a pregnant woman’s every thought, every action should be pure and holy.
That the womb was a fickle place capable of great evil is a well-documented medical belief. The medical diagnosis of the “wandering womb” held that a woman’s uterus would go in search of sperm, and if unable to find it and bear a child, it would rove through her body, choking her if it found her throat, giving her a heart attack if it found her chest, pains if it found her limbs. The only way a uterus and a woman could be contained and controlled was through pregnancy. It would tie the womb down into one place and the woman as well. It’s harder for a pregnant woman to leave, harder for her to escape, harder for her to wander.
The word “hysterical” comes from the Greek word for uterus, suggesting a connection between a woman’s errant reproductive organs and the stability of her mind. A hysterical woman is a woman with a womb that is not under control.
These ideas didn’t end with the Enlightenment and advancements in medical thought. A month ago, I sat in a doctor’s office listening to him explain why I shouldn’t get a hysterectomy — while a hysterectomy would cure the medical issues I’m experiencing and I don’t want to have any more children, the doctor told me I needed to consider the hopes and wishes of a future partner. I was to this man, in the year 2023, a vessel, nothing more, a sacred container for a hypothetical future man, and that hypothetical man was worthy of more consideration than I was.
Women are dying; men are joking and telling me to calm down.
Last night, the Iowa legislature passed a law restricting abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, well before most women discover they are pregnant. Other states have passed similar laws, so I am not speaking in hypotheticals when I say these laws are killing people. In her newsletter, “Abortion, Every Day”meticulously details the disastrous results anti-abortion laws are having on women. She writes, “Since Roe was overturned, horror story after horror story has come out of states with ‘exceptions’ to their bans. A woman in Texas going septic, a Missouri woman with a doomed and deadly pregnancy, a 10 year-old rape victim in Ohio.”
When I tweeted about the abortion ban this week, I was accused of being overwrought. One person replied calling me “Lyzsterical” — a portmanteau of my name and hysterical. Others replied with jokes and quips about the governor. Women are dying; men are joking and telling me to calm down.
In 2020, when I worked at the local newspaper, I told a colleague — a senior political reporter — that Iowa would ban abortions as soon as it could. “Aren’t you overreacting?,” he replied.
Hysterical, he should have just said. You are being hysterical.
A woman out of place. A woman not tied down. A person whose womb has made them a danger.
Listening to the debate during the Iowa legislative session, I was struck how everyone in favor of the bill told a story where someone had made a choice to abort or not abort and now felt that no one should ever have that choice. The wombs needed to be under control.
S. Weir Mitchell, a prominent Philadelphia physician, made a name for himself as a hysteria doctor in the late 19th century. Women deemed excitable were put on a rest cure, where they were to lie absolutely still and told not to think, not to do any creative work. For nourishment, they were allowed two ounces of milk every two hours. British suffragists were diagnosed as hysterical when they were arrested and sent to prison.
Women were treated as hysterical when Trump was elected. I was treated as hysterical when I warned about this outcome. The dire warnings were dismissed as a problem with my womb. Any time a woman speaks up in her defense, it’s hysteria.
The repetition of the charge, and its pervasive use, renders the word nearly meaningless. But it remains a diagnosis women are constantly trying to cure themselves of — pinning down those wandering wombs so they don’t find our throats and come out as a shriek.
But I think we should shriek and shake and lose our minds. I think the hysterical women of the Victorian era were sentenced to rest in rooms with yellow wallpaper and told not to think because they saw what we see, what we still see — a system collapsing around us.
These are our lives on the line. We should be hysterical; we should become unruly, unmanageable, we should fill the halls with rage, and the streets with screams. We should become unhinged, unfettered, and overwrought. We need to be hysterical. Our lives are worth it.
No one is meticulously charting the effects of anti-abortion laws better thanin her newsletter.
And here is Charlotte Shane with an essay published last year on how people simply should have the right not to be pregnant. “From now on, we who fight for reproductive freedom must announce our cause in the clearest terms: every impregnatable person has the right to not be pregnant.”