This is a feminist manifesto for the Kavanaugh era. It calls for a reevaluation of the hysterical woman, an old archetype haunting our national conversation on gender relations. Both the right and the liberal establishment are uncomfortable with the hysterical woman, which is to say that they are uncomfortable with the messy ways that pain and anger get expressed and worked through. They use accusations of hysteria, a debunked nervous disorder connected to femininity, to disqualify women from civilized discourse. But for leftists and feminists, “hysteria” can still be of use. The hysterical woman represents a commitment to respecting and staying with the emotional aftereffects of trauma—a commitment to not only believing survivors, but also turning our shared experiences into a force for change.
A STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM—Hysteria is a symptom of a larger trend in Western thought that conflates women’s emotional reactions with a fundamental irrationality. The term has existed since the Greeks as a “dramatic medical metaphor for everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in women,” but was firmly cemented in the Western imaginary during the 19th century, when (male) scientists legitimized it as a disorder inherent to the female psyche. Interestingly, the actual characteristics of this illness were numerous and unclear. Physicians seemed to base their diagnoses on an idea of the hysterical woman as much as on concrete symptoms. Wrote the French doctor Auguste Fabre in 1883, “Hysteria, before being an illness, is a temperament, and what constitutes the temperament of a woman is rudimentary hysteria.”
The hysterical woman, removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual in 1980, lives on in the rabid feminist. According to the right, and even some liberals, feminism is an outpouring of hysteria or anger or tears into debates that were once “rational,” a force that tears into the principles of “free speech” and “logic” grounding our esteemed tradition of civilized discourse. This rhetoric is used to turn critique into unfounded anger, arguments into illogical beliefs. The rabid feminist foams bloody at the mouth—and from other places. Like her predecessor, this is a fact of her biology, or psychology, or evolution. She will never be rational enough.
Hysteria in the 19th century applied only to upper-class white women, but history has also given us figures like the angry queer and the angry black woman, stereotypes that carry with them distinct and deep histories of pathologization. They are all alike in that their messy emotional responses are divorced from the forces that cause them. Consider an encounter with an alt-right troll: we lose our ability to detach ourselves from our emotions as we begin to intuit in their rhetoric covert or overt threats to our lives and loved ones. In this sense, hysteria is reasonable.
We need a position that does justice to the trauma incurred when our rights and dignity, as trans people, as women, as people of color, are constantly threatened. We need to insist that rationality and emotion are not dichotomous, that our anger sharpens rather than muddles our critique. What if we put forth, in the words of Juliet Mitchell, “the demand for the right to be hysterical?” What can our pain, grief, and anger tell us about possibilities for the future?
A POLITICS OF HYSTERIA—In the 1980s, feminists began reexamining the hysterical woman, reading hysteria not as a medical condition but a cultural one. They claimed that the hysterical woman registered within her body, within her experiences and the emotions that came with it, the injustices of the time—not disease, but dis-ease. The narratives of those like Fabre, where women are “naturally” hysterical, hid the emotional logic behind the hysteria, the social conditions that drove women to such outbursts. I picture Fabre’s hysterical woman with her hands perpetually twisting and plucking at her skirt. Is she sick, or does she just hate the way that the doctors in the room are talking about her?
Hysteria is a last proof, a language of the body and of pain that can gesture at the truth of injustice when forces like patriarchy try to naturalize it. When patriarchy’s logic, which proclaims the natural inferiority of women, is seen as rational and scientific, the hysteric’s experiences testify to the opposite. Hysteria, as a way of sticking with discomfort and trauma, constantly reminds us that if oppression is rational, then the prevailing rationality needs to change.
I read in Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony a way to make hysteria an act of resistance, a way to bring about this change. She is the latest in a long history of women who have brought forth in charges of sexual violence against public figures. She knew the score: present anything short of perfectly articulate and professional, and they would call her unhinged, malicious, crazy. Yet her story is also one of remembering trauma, an event that caused no small amount of distress but was also impossible to forget. Dr. Ford, as well as the broader #MeToo movement, tell us that our personal trauma is politically relevant, that our enduring emotional pain gives us a place in the conversation. We can and should interrogate the systems and individuals responsible for our trauma.
Hysterical politics also means avoiding, as much as possible, the accordances liberal institutions give us to “talk out our feelings” and “tell our stories” without ever enacting real change, to forget—none of Senator Collin’s condolences for us. It’s not enough to just believe survivors, and it’s offensive to ask us to be patient or “reasonable” with our demands. Our hysteria reminds us that the entire situation, as well as the process of accommodating ourselves to it, is unreasonable.
It may not surprise you to learn that I too have been a hysterical woman. My brief inability to exist in the world without acting on my immediate emotions, without feeling cored by anxiety and anger in turns, show a loss of “rationality,” or the “normal,” productive, disinterested functioning it’s come to stand in for. But I don’t want a false rationality that replicates the logic of patriarchy, that orders me to feign an emotional detachment from these issues. It is not we who are irrational but the social order. Our hysteria is the critical thinking that will bring rationality back to itself.