Tonight is Halloween so it’s time for a scary tale. But this one isn’t about ghosts and goblins. It’s a tale far more horrible. It’s about a feminine myth that has kept women from reaching their full potential. We start with Hysteria, the Greek word for muse. Literally, it means uterus and, over time, it became a clinical diagnosis for women who were considered to be unpredictable and untrustworthy.
In “Cassandra Among the Creeps,” Rebecca Solnit explains how the myth that equates women with excessive emotions became medical cannon. (Harper’s Magazine, October 2014, pgs. 4-9) We have Sigmund Freud to thank for much of it. In the late 19th century a young Freud treated many women for what he believed were childhood sexual abuses. Appalled by the number of victims he confronted, in 1896 he wrote, “I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more cases of premature sexual experiences.” (Ibid pg. 4)
His female clientele grew, and so, too, did the number of horror stories of sexual abuse. Eventually, the social implications of his thesis became so abhorrent that Freud had only one of two choices. Either he must challenge the entire patriarchal structure of his society or ignore the evidence set before him. Being a man who enjoyed his position of privilege, he decided on the latter and repudiated his earlier hypothesis. He built a new one, devastating to women, but which fed into the male fantasy. The source of hysteria, he concluded, was rooted in women’s longing to be raped. (Ibid pg. 4.)
Sadly, this myth that women are “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” (Ibid pg. 8) persists today. We see it not only in the NFL’s attitude toward female battering, but also on college campuses where administrations for too long have turned a blind eye on rape complaints. A similar opinion permeates religious thinking and for many years was condoned by laws which gave a husband the right to discipline his wife. Can there be any wonder that women have been left with self doubt and a sense of shame so profound that when they become abuse victims, they imagine they are the perpetrators?
This, gentle reader, is my horror tale for Halloween.