In 2012, in Le Roy, New York, four cheerleaders developed Tourette’s-like symptoms, which eventually spread to 13 others. In 2011, nearly 2,000 female factory workers fainted on the job in factories throughout Cambodia. In 1962, laughing fits took over half the population of an all-girls school in a village in East Africa. In 1560 in a convent in Xante, Spain, a group of nuns fell to the ground, tore off their veils and began to bleat like sheep.
In each of these episodes, no organic or toxic cause for the strange behavior could be found (both the 2012 and 1962 incidents prompted extensive medical and environmental tests).1 And they all involved women.
Hysteria is one of the first recorded neuroses, and it was associated with women right from the start. An ancient Egyptian papyrus from 1900 B.C. suggests that a woman suffering from hysteria should stop her uterus (from the Greek hystera, meaning uterus) from wandering. Hippocrates, the Greek physician who gave us the Hippocratic Oath, described the uterus as an autonomous creature prone to straying from its proper spot, low in the female abdomen. Otherwise it might bump into organs. It could even migrate so high that it pushed against the throat, causing hyperventilation. Plato didn’t let hysteria escape his theoretical grasp either, writing that it was the result of a barren womb. Most Greeks acknowledged one solution: marriage.
In the middle ages, hysterical women were taken to be possessed. In the 17th and 18th centuries, doctors blamed a weak female brain that made women susceptible to hysterical breakdowns. Nineteenth-century doctors concluded that the most stubborn cases required removal of the ovaries.2
While the ancients clearly got this wrong, modern science has confirmed that most sufferers of mass hysteria are female. Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist in New Zealand who has collected data on 800 outbreaks dating back to 1566, says that in 99 percent of mass hysteria events, the majority of its sufferers are female.
If hysteria is a kind of language, then it could be that women are simply conditioned to speak it differently.
But does that mean that there is something particular to the female physiology that predisposes them to hysteria? Not necessarily. Bartholomew has also found that, for example, many of the nuns who succumbed to mass hysteria were young girls whose families forced them to join convents against their will. Isolated from the life they once knew, these girls entered a world of extreme discipline that often included vows of chastity, small living quarters, near-starvation diets, repetitive prayer, and strict discipline involving corporeal punishment. Similarly, the women involved in the factory hysteria worked long hours in dangerous conditions, made very little money, were malnourished, and were forced to work overtime and during holidays.
In other words, these women were under extreme stress. Stress has long been understood to manifest itself through physiological symptoms, but it can also come out through behavior—and language. Robert Woolsey, a medical historian, considers hysteria to be a “protolanguage” whose symptoms are “a code used by a patient to communicate a message which, for various reasons, cannot be verbalized.” After all, the women in these convents or factories couldn’t very well ask to be let go. “The way … to get out of [their situation] is to show symptoms of disease and to be allowed not to have to endure the situation any longer,” says Christian Hempelmann, an assistant professor of computational linguistics at Texas A&M University-Commerce, and an expert on the laughing epidemic.
If hysteria is an example of a kind of language, then it could be that women are simply conditioned to speak it differently. The medical historian John Waller likens it to actors reading a script, except in this case, the actor is sick and the script is not a written document, but an “internalized script” of behaviors the victim subconsciously learned from society.
Women may be reading from a different script than men because they are socially conditioned to be less confrontational and aggressive. Rather than pushing back when they feel oppressed, they opt for a more passive (and accepted) form of resistance: getting sick. Plus, they suffer from a different kind of oppression. “The oppression of females is just much more systemic than for other ‘minorities,’ ” Hempelmann says. “Being systemic, the oppression is more invisible or accepted by many as a ‘fact of nature’ that is not in need of being changed. So women are in stronger need of a non-confrontational, medical way out.” Elaine Showalter, a medical historian at Princeton University, agrees, arguing that these physical symptoms are a kind of protest of patriarchal oppression.3
Anxiety and depression are also more likely to affect women, potentially for similar reasons. Joan Busfield, a sociologist, clinical psychologist and author of Men, Women, and Madness: Understanding Gender and Mental Disorder, says about anxiety and depression that: “This patterning is usually seen more as a matter of socialization and social roles than biology with men now argued to be as emotional as women but to express it differently (men externalizing feelings and women internalizing them).”
But if stress and oppression are the causes of mass hysteria, then why don’t both genders suffer from it? In fact, men do. Take, for example, the group of Asian men in Singapore who lived in fear that their penises were shrinking into their bodies, a phenomenon psychologists refer to as “koro.” (In fact, they are not.) As Showalter puts it, “hysteria is a universal, human phenomenon.”
Regan Penaluna is a Nautilus editorial intern.
1. Rankin, A.M. & Philip, P.J. An epidemic of laughing in the Bukoba district of Tanganyika. Central African Journal of Medicine 9, 167-170 (1963).
2. Micale, M.S. Approaching Hysteria: Disease and Its Interpretations Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ (1995).
3. Showalter, E. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture Virago Press, London, United Kingdom (1987).