Choice and the Myth of the Hysterical Woman

You may or may not know, dear readers, that the term hysterectomy literally means “to remove hysteria” — it was thought, way back, during the beginning of the development of modern medicine, that girl parts (the uterus, in particular) made women hysterical and by removing them men would be saved from the bane of female insanity.

What, you ask, does this have to do with the NJ woman who, against the advice of her physician, refused to have a c-section and, as a result, lost custody of her child (who, incidentally, was born healthy, despite her insistence on a natural birth)?

The notion behind surgically removing hysteria from women has EVERYTHING to do with the NJ case. The decision to remove VM’s child from her care was made based on her refusal to undergo a c-section and on her “erratic” behavior during the labor process. It also has everything to do with abortion and reproductive choice. I’ll get to that part shortly, I promise.

Excuse me? I’ve experienced…pleasure of childbirth and I can tell you that erratic behavior is, well, normal. At one point, I sat straight up in the bed and ripped all of my clothes off, while also attempting to rip out my IV tube. And I was the rational one. My (now ex) husband was the hysterical one of us that night. I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that he didn’t keep his head together very well during the whole thing.

Anyone who has experienced the effects of childbirth, either as an observer or as a participant will tell you that rational behavior during the event is not always easy to accomplish, regardless of the gender of the person involved.

But we live in a culture that views men as rational and women as irrational. As recently as the 2008 elections, people questioned whether or not Hillary Clinton could handle being president. I am sure everyone heard, in the guise of humor, of course, speculation as to what would happen if she had PMS and had to decide whether or not to go to war.

You see, all of these things are related. There is a perception in our culture that women are not rational. And at times we aren’t. But men aren’t always the most rational beings either. The irrational behavior of women is just more visible. When men do irrational things, it is considered a fluke rather than the norm. When women behave irrationally, it is just our nature.

The court’s decision to remove VM’s child from her care, in part, because she acted irrationally during the childbirth process, was not accidental or coincidental. The reality is that courts are made up of people–people who are susceptible to the same biases that everyday folks experience, and to a large degree, buy into.

What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with choice? Put simply: Anytime the notion that women are hysterical by nature goes unchallenged, those that oppose women’s rights, reproductive or otherwise, are given a leg up in the fight.

Think, for a moment, about the types of laws some states have passed to restrict abortion access. Three varieties come immediately to mind:

So-called “Informed Consent” laws. You know, the ones that are supposedly passed so that women seeking abortions can fully understand what they are doing. “Informed Consent” statutes require abortion clinics to show women ultrasound images of their “baby” before they are allowed to have an abortion.

Waiting Periods–legislation that requires women seeking abortion services to show up at the clinic, register, then wait 24 or more hours before actually having the abortion (usually after seeing the ultrasound images also forced upon her).

Parental Consent–legislation that requires one (or worse, both) parents of a pregnant minor to consent to their daughter’s abortion.

Each of these restrictions is based on a central premise: A pregnant woman (or teen) could not possibly know enough at the moment she walks into an abortion clinic to make this decision for herself. The State (or Mommy & Daddy) must protect her from making choices on her own behalf. Oh, and since she is pregnant, her hormones must be raging which means she is totally off her rocker, plus women are, by virtue of their girl parts, totally hysterical anyway, well, it’s our duty to save them from themselves and make sure that they really, really, really do want to do this thing.

Despite the long term psychological and emotional effects giving a child up for adoption has on many of the women who do it, we don’t make women who chose to give their babies up for adoption subject to a mandatory waiting period nor do we force them to look at their babies–actual born, living breathing human beings–before we let them hand them to strangers. Obviously, adoption is the sane option so we don’t need to protect women who want that from themselves (nor from a predatory industry that allows wealthy people to purchase the children of the poor).

Abortion may not be the right option for all women. Neither is adoption right for all women. Nor, obviously, might keeping an unwanted child be the best option for all women. But we allow the State to regulate each of these decisions in different ways, and to a lesser or greater extent than we do others. That, ladies and gents, means that the State gets to decide what is and is not rational or is or is not in women’s best interests in all cases. In no case, however, do women get to decide for themselves. Irrational, hysterical, hormonal creatures that we are.


  1. freewomyn says:

    Three cheers, Mrs. Mastro. A well argued rant. I’m not crazy just because I have a giant, gaping hole between my legs.

  2. Annaleigh says:

    Another interesting side fact about hysteria, they had to step away from it as a medical diagnosis when soldiers returning from war exhibited the same symptoms, which they ultimately called PTSD.

  3. Mrs. Mastro says:

    Freewomyn–I am known for (quite sarcastically) pointing out that my vagina doesn’t make me do things (or not do them). It is a really silly cultural construct, but it persists like, well, a hysterical vagina.

    Annaleigh–That is fascinating! It doesn’t surprise me in the least, though.

    Something I have noticed since I moved here (I live just outside one of the largest Marine bases in the world) is related: because returning Marines, Sailors & Soldiers are, for any number of reasons, unlikely to seek professional help for PTSD and other mental health issues related to the stress of war, the MO of the local medical establishment is to treat the spouses (generally wives) for depression and other conditions. In other words, since the guys can’t, or won’t, get help for PTSD, let’s give the wives anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds so that they can be numb enough to deal with everything that gets dropped in their lap when the guys come home.

    Don’t get me wrong–I am pretty much down with any help/support that military spouses can get. And I think that most people could benefit from counseling and possibly medication for mental health issues. But it seems silly to me to treat the wives so that they can “handle’ the husbands’ problems. Wouldn’t it just make more sense to treat the husbands in the first place?

    Instead, we live in a culture that makes believe that women are the emotional ones–we need the anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds because the men, well, they are men. They will just suck it up and get over it–as long as their women don’t overreact and ruin everything.

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