This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.
A recent in-depth study by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the “traditional gender roles further increase susceptibility [to mental illness] by stressing passivity, submission and dependence.” Reassuringly, the WHO concluded that “the pervasive violation of women’s rights” contributes to the growing burden of their mental disability.
However, the problem with this mass diagnosis of female ‘madness’ is that it relies on social, economic and cultural constructs. Therefore much of our understanding of mental illness and women has to lie in the controversial term, hysteria. Once described as a “mimetic disorder”, as it tended to mimic culturally acceptable expressions of distress, the term has appeared in our lexicon under many guises, from the ‘wandering womb’ to ‘unmanageable emotional excesses.’
Today its root can be found in a extensive list of disorders including anxiety, depression, psychosis, body dysmorphic disorder, borderline personality disorder, sexual dysfunction, amnesia, bipolar disorder and many more.
The term hysteria, from the Greek meaning ‘womb’, was first used to describe “the restless, migratory uterus that caused mental disorders”. This idea of the “restless and migratory” female can be seen in the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder and, in a metaphorical sense, in the continual waves of the feminist movement and the numbers of those within the movement suffering from mental illness.
Shulamith Firestone, author of the radical feminist text The Dialectic of Sex, blames Freud’s failure to “question society itself” for the “massive confusion in the disciplines that grew up around his theory”, since the Freudian talking cure for the hysterical Dora, and his theories of the sub and unconscious, were ruled by the potent theory of the Oedipus Complex – or ‘penis envy’.
Freud’s “poetic genius” and failure to question the constraints of women has followed on into the 21st century; current psychiatrists and doctors still fail to consider alternative factors in diagnosis, whilst reeling off an elegiac list of symptoms. Looking back to borderline personality disorder, an often misdiagnosed illness, we can see the irresponsible reliance on outdated diagnostic rubric. Its emphasis on “impulsivity” and “instability in sense of self” mirrors traits pinned on to the wanton, unfeminine woman. Used when psychiatrists could not decide if a woman was being “psychotic” or “neurotic”, this catch-all diagnosis for women has led to many sane women walking around thinking they are mentally ill. Cue once again mass hysteria – the proverbial wandering womb.
Firestone accounts that psychological moulding by the “patriarchal nuclear family”, where women and children are the dependents, led to the greater risk of psychological problems. Similarly, gender inequality from childhood experiences have conditioned children into believing in what equates to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which is reinforced and constructed through the sensationalism and male dominance of the media.
According to journalist and author Kira Cochrane, the fourth wave of feminism is all about ‘the rebel woman’: the women who will not sit down and shut up; the women who will speak up against patriarchal media. However, I have a problem with the word ‘rebel’, which suggests a mob, a frenzy, and consequently leads back to that controversial word ‘hysteria’.
Despite Cochrane’s best efforts to allude to empowerment, she has managed to reinforce second wave feminist Phyllis Chesler’s idea that psychoanalysis regards madness as a normative characteristic of femininity. The 21st century rebel woman is equivalent to the 19th century hysterical woman.
Recent campaigns such as Slutwalk and No More Page 3 challenge terms and images that were once used to oppressed women, transforming them into punchy media slogans and sealing their negativity in the public consciousness. The female mind interprets the eradication of these illiberal ideas as a means to liberate ourselves, and yet the oppression continues, anxiety rises, and women are still searching for their own lexicon to establish mental liberation.
As Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex argues, in the context of Freudianism and feminism, like all Freud’s theories about women, he “analyses the female only as negative male.” While Freudianism gave women the ‘talking cure’ – the means to express their oppressed unconscious to cure hysteria – it developed a feminine stream of consciousness, littered with inverse male words; a modern repetition of penis envy.
This relentless quest, or to quote Hippocrates, this “restless and migratory” quest, has left a generation exhausted, depressed and anxious. Female rebellion has been going strong for decades, when so many women in the 1960s and 70s thought that everything would be alright in the end. Unfortunately, as we get deeper into the 21st century and our perspectives broaden to become more global, women’s lives are actually getting worse.
If, as the WHO study suggests, mental health has much to do with freedom we need to scrutinise the high points of women’s liberation: getting the vote; sexual liberation thanks to the contraceptive pill; and the rising prevalence of successful career women. Fast-forward to today, and women face corrupt politicians, frequent threats to reproductive rights, and vast unemployment, as well as bearing the brunt of government austerity measures. Women’s rights have indeed once again been violated; this time against many of the victories once crusaded for.
As Deborah Orr points out in the Guardian, the very thing many “leftwing feminists” don’t like to hear is that “combining motherhood with a demanding career is hard”, but there has to be a better solution than the lines of our sisters queuing up for sedative doses of “mothers’ little helpers”.
Women’s mental health will always be a sensitive subject, as it plagues so many lives, and 21st century feminism is indeed suffering from its own form of hysteria. Its unmanageable, emotional excesses towards reform are likely to have triggered a psychosomatic response within women. As the number of women turning to feminism is rising with the hope of change, the internal conflict of its stagnancy is troubling for many. It’s an uncomfortable question, but what if the very thing that has shifted women’s liberation to its height is also what has mentally exhausted us?
Nikki Hall is a writer and critic. Her work has featured in The Independent, The F-Word, For Book’s Sake and Litro. Follow her @nikkihall101
Photo: Hey Paul Studios
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