By Stephanie Carroll
“Women are crazy!” It’s a common phrase.
People say it idly. Cartoon characters say it. Entire television shows revolve around the idea. Children, teens, adults—they all say it. Even women say it, but mostly … men say it.
How many women have had a man shout at them, “You’re acting crazy!” Or what about, “You have lost it!” Even better, “I guess men are just tougher than women.”
Most times the suggestion that women have some kind of mental flaw occurs when they are expressing intense emotion, usually that which involves tears and more commonly that which could be called “hysterical.”
But does that really mean you are crazy? Every woman has this experience. We all cry, we scream, occasionally we slam things, so can such emotions really be a symptom of psychological defect? Yet, women accept that expressing their emotions is something to apologize for, and most women are ashamed of their tears, especially when shed in public, in front of men and worst, at work.
It doesn’t matter who the woman is either: a business woman, a college student, a stay at home mom, a single working mom, a soldier. It doesn’t matter how much strength you exude. It’s assumed that if you are a woman, you are probably on the edge of an inevitable breakdown.
And, we accept it. Not just women but our entire society. Why? Where did this come from?
Believe it or not, it stems from over a century ago, from the Victorian Age of America, 1837-1901. This was a time period when women and men had become strictly structured into two separate spheres. Historians call the women’s sphere the “Cult of Domesticity,” which had four core values: piety, purity (or virginity), domesticity and submission. This was believed to be a woman’s natural place and where she fit best because of her sensitive and dependent nature.
Women who did not embrace these values were considered defective, and often times this unnatural behavior was blamed on the popular disease for women called “hysteria.” An umbrella diagnosis for a variety of “nervous complaints,” hysteria cases ranged from actual mental illness to unacceptable behavior including promiscuity, homosexuality and rebellion.
Treatments included opium tinctures, the water cure, bed rest and sensory deprivation, genital massage, electro-therapy, admission into an insane asylum and surgical removal of the defective organ, a procedure termed a “hysterectomy.”
It was easy to diagnose a woman as mentally ill for any number of reasons because psychologists had determined that women were more susceptible to emotional distress than men. Their reasons for this conclusion included women having smaller brains, wandering uteruses, and a failure to have fully evolved. The Victorian medical world insisted women should remain within the home environment where they could be safe from the stresses and harsh realities of the world.
Despite how far we have come as a society and how far we have come as women, many of these ideas still linger in the background of our societal belief structures. They are the type of ideas that are deeply imbedded within values passed down from generation to generation without anyone really noticing.
The idea that women are more susceptible to mental stress even continues today in the medical world with depression and anxiety cases. Modern statistics back these conclusions, but what numbers don’t show is how many men feel ashamed of seeking therapy or help with the same problems because it seems weak.
So the next time you are having a “crying day,” and are about to tell yourself how pathetic you are for feeling the way you do, stop and remind yourself—if every woman experiences this, then it’s not crazy. It’s normal. It’s natural. What is crazy is submitting to a 100-year-old belief that comes from the idea that your uterus wanders your body aimlessly until it attacks your brain.
If you still feel crazy, keep in mind that in spite of all the insistence of mental frailty and pseudo-punishment through hysterical diagnosis, women pushed through those barriers over and over again so that we could be the women we are today. If they could do that, then we can be proud to embrace the natural emotions that so many women have had deemed insane.
So cry, cry in their honor, because while people may idly refer to you as crazy, at least you know you won’t be committed.
About the Author
Stephanie Carroll is author of A White Room, a story of a woman who is diagnosed with hysteria in 1901 Missouri. She also writes the The Unhinged Historian and the Unhinged & Empowered Navy Wives blogs. Visit her at www.stephaniecarroll.net. A White Room debuts this Summer.