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For hundreds of years, women were subjected to several invasive, unethical, and sexist practices, one which was referred to as “female hysteria”. Female hysteria was a medical diagnosis used to identify and treat women who exhibited symptoms of; causing trouble, having erotic thoughts, and irritability. This vintage metal sign was found in the basement of an antique store in a pile of other retro signs. The phrase; “Oh I’m sorry. You must be confusing me with the maid we don’t have. ” would not have been tolerated eighty years ago and would have resulted in severe consequences, for example, institutionalization.
At first glance, it seemed to be an innocent comedic sign, however once analysed, it was evident that there was a much deeper message. The question which came to mind upon further analysis was; “How did this unethical, outrageous social institution convince not only society, but women as well, that it was acceptable for someone to dictate and violate a woman’s mind and body?” For a long time women were conditioned into thinking that institutionalized sexism was normal and that it was standard to grow up believing that they deserved to be treated subordinate to men. Perhaps these diagnoses are not just a reflection of women’s health, but also a reflection of society’s labelling of female characteristics, or the result of institutionalized sexism (William et al, p#382). Furthermore, it has been a trend throughout time to fabricate stories to explain female characteristics. The history of female hysteria can be traced back to 1900 B. C. when women would be diagnosed with “the wandering womb”, which was the belief that a displaced uterus could cause psychological and physical illnesses in women. Fast forward to the 17th century where hysteria was commonly associated with demonic possession. During the 19th century when female hysteria was categorized as a neurological disorder, not physical, the cure for said disease was “pelvic massage”. Women would frequently be diagnosed with hysteria and for treatment, women would be required to visit a doctor, to induce hysterical paroxysm. After male doctors began to complain that they would get fatigued and wrist pain from this form of “necessary” treatment, the medical association brought in a vibration tool to assist in treatment while relieving the doctors from their “misery”. It wasn’t until the 20th century that female hysteria was considered a catchall diagnosis and was no longer recognized as an illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In addition, treatments for hysteria over time got to the point of physically harming women. Doctors would perform ovioratomies, hysterectomies, and clitoridectomies, for the sole purpose of curing a woman’s hysteria. One of the major resolutions to this issue was feminism. The first wave of feminism was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, where women fought for the right to vote, so they no longer had to be submissive to men’s rules. The second wave of feminism, from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, consisted of women fighting for their freedom, control over their lives, and equal opportunity. A central reason as to why the idea of female hysteria was disbanded, was because of the feminist movements that took place throughout the centuries.
In conclusion, women complied and succumbed to the sexist society due to their fear of consequences for speaking out and standing up for a belief that was contrary to a male dominated society. This vintage sign, and signs like it, should not be dismissed as comedic messages. They should remind people of what women went through for hundreds of years and how far we have come as a society.
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