There comes John, and I must put this away.
April 8, 2017 11:09 AM   Subscribe

Hysteria, Witches, and the Wandering Uterus: A Brief History - Or, Why I Teach "The Yellow Wallpaper." An essay that explores The Yellow Wallpaper, the history of "hysteria," and the 2016 election.
The uterus was believed to wander around the body like an animal, hungry for semen. If it wandered the wrong direction and made its way to the throat there would be choking, coughing or loss of voice, if it got stuck in the the rib cage, there would be chest pain or shortness of breath, and so on. Most any symptom that belonged to a female body could be attributed to that wandering uterus. “Treatments,” including vaginal fumigations, bitter potions, balms, and pessaries made of wool, were used to bring that uterus back to its proper place. “Genital massage,” performed by a skilled physician or midwife, was often mentioned in medical writings. The triad of marriage, intercourse, and pregnancy was the ultimate treatment for the semen-hungry womb. The uterus was a troublemaker and was best sated when pregnant.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
posted by Kutsuwamushi (8 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Great essay. Thanks for sharing.
posted by PMdixon at 12:01 PM on April 8, 2017

I just visited the Hull House museum last week, and in Jane Addams' bedroom the docent paused to talk about how wallpaper was often the only significant decision women could make in designing the architecture of their homes. I thought immediately of "The Yellow Wallpaper." The museum also has a room dedicated to the other activist women who were connected to Hull House, including Ida B. Wells, Alice Hamilton, and Florence Kelly. The museum is an amazing environment to discuss some of the ideas the author discusses.

I've always been ambivalent about the Progressive Era, with its connections to Social Darwinism and eugenics. People like Margaret Sanger did so much for important causes like birth control but were also motivated to stop the "unfit" from breeding. Settlement houses provided necessary social services to needy groups but often with the goal of assimilating immigrants and the poor into white middle-class culture. Protections for women in the workplace were created but through the argument that women were inherently more delicate than men. But I've found myself increasingly drawn to these activists in the wake of the election. I've been thinking a lot about the women in particular, and what they can teach me about living in a dirty, corrupt, hostile world while still trying to improve some part of it. I think it's time I learn more about them. They have their limits, particularly about intersectionalism, but hopefully I can learn something about how not to get overwhelmed in the face of all that needs doing.

This was a great essay, thank you for posting. I want this woman's classroom syllabus. I want to take her class more, but she's already given me a lot to think about.
posted by lilac girl at 12:17 PM on April 8, 2017 [14 favorites]

You can actually read 18th and 19th century medical texts online now-- I have been doing so and just raging... also I found a woman who wrote in a newspaper or journal against the practice and I found in many of the medical journals there were plenty of people aware of what was going on and the abuses involved and recommending against the practices of Thure Brandt massge, genital massage, pelvic massage; there is mention of douching and vaginal injections of water which are mentioned eventually by one woman in the texts I've read to cause orgasm. A lot of people excuse this behavior as "they didn't know what they were doing" but people who don't know the mechanics of sexuality still know how to abuse each other. People know. Animals figure out how to do it without any training. The idea that a class of overwhelmingly male doctors was obsessed with women's wombs and genitals putting things in them and "stimulating the womb" and it had nothing to do with sexual interest, and an abuse of sexual power, to me, is ridiculous.

I wish I could find that woman's words who was standing up for the young girls bring groped up by doctors and her name so hard right now, it reminded me there have always been good people even as long as there have been bad people.
posted by xarnop at 12:36 PM on April 8, 2017 [13 favorites]

Thanks for posting this!

I've been a student in a similar class on (among other things) women's "transgressions" from their expected gender norm in Victorian literature, i.e. female literary figures that were outspoken, assertive, sexual, creative, gay etc. -- basically everything that would deviate from being the chaste but caring "angel of the house". The Yellow Wallpaper was part of this course's syllabus (I loved it and wrote a small essay on the wallpaper itself!) and I also read some literature (old and new) about the medical discourse of the time ...and it's just beyond ridiculous.

Sexual desires? Moral insanity! Pursuing creative endeavors? Rest cure! It is no accident (and I believe the essay above mentions this) that the feminist sparks at that point in time was met with an increased obsession by physicians about the decency of women. However, reading about the (apparently autoerotic?) side-effects of pedal-operated sewing machines and bicycles (!) would be a whole lot more entertaining, if this policing of women and female bodies was truly a thing of the past.
posted by bigendian at 2:09 PM on April 8, 2017 [10 favorites]

Late 1940s - early 50s rural southern USA. My mom wasn't allowed to cut her hair or wear pants and had to lie about sports injuries. She told me about much of this stuff but I think wandering uterus theory would have made her head explode.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:00 PM on April 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Interesting essay - lost me for a bit with the sharp turn, but the first part was really good.
posted by durandal at 5:41 PM on April 8, 2017

I first read The Yellow Wallpaper 15 years ago, and how I felt when I read it really stuck with me. Further reading in this genre:

- Hedda Gabler
- The Awakening, and
- The Edible Woman
posted by aniola at 11:27 PM on April 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I taught this for years.
One time, around 1999 or so, several students argued that the husband was just doing what he thought best, and deserved our sympathy.
Fun discussion followed.
posted by doctornemo at 10:56 AM on April 9, 2017

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