“Hysteria”—it’s hard to think of a word in the English language with roots more sexist than this ancient Greek word for “uterus.” Not surprisingly, the first person to describe female hysteria was a man. The Greek physician Hippocrates, often called the Father of Medicine, believed that the uterus was a “free-floating, wandering animal” that moved through the female body, causing a host of problems when it bumped into other organs.
Medically, the term “hysteria” is defined gender-neutrally, as a “general state of extreme fear and panic.” But the word remains inextricably linked to women. (Just try to think of the last time you heard a man described as “hysterical.”)
Feminist author Mona Eltahawy compares “hysteria” to other words which shame the victim instead of the abuser.
“Words like ‘riot’ and ‘chaos’ are like ‘hysterical’ when the latter is used to describe a woman’s justified frustration and rage against sexism and misogyny,” Eltahawy said. “Those words shift judgement away from the oppressor to the oppressed.”
Even though the pseudoscience behind this made-up condition has been largely debunked, the concept of hysteria characterizes women’s medical diagnoses to this day. Doctors still don’t always believe women when they describe their pain, or they dismiss women’s symptoms as being psychosomatic. All in all, healthcare in America carries some serious sexist baggage.
And it has serious consequences. The list of examples of how misogyny in medical practice profoundly impacts women’s health is endless. Heart disease is the leading killer of American women, but because it’s still thought of as a “male disease,” women are less likely to be diagnosed accurately when they have a heart attack.
Women make up the majority of those suffering from chronic-pain disorders, but doctors are more likely to refer them to a therapist than prescribe adequate pain medication. America’s maternal mortality numbers are the highest in the industrialized world—partly because doctors simply don’t believe women when they say they’re in pain.
And if you’re a woman of color, things are even worse. Heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death for all American women, but the majority of people dying are Black women, with more than 60 percent living with some form of heart complication.
The image of motherhood in America is often that of a white woman, but it’s women of color who are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes.