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  • Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender Revisited:The Case of the Second Wave
  • Cecily Devereux (bio)

“Où sont-elles passées les hystériques de jadis,” asked Jacques Lacan in 1977, “ces femmes merveilleuses, les Anna O., les Emmy von N.?... Qu’est-ce qui remplace aujourd’hui les symptômes hystériques d’autrefois?” [“Where have they gone, the hysterics of yesteryear … those amazing women, the Anna O.s, the Emmy von N.s? What is there now to take the place of the hysterical symptoms of long ago?”] We might answer that the despised hysterics of yesteryear have been replaced by the feminist radicals of today.

Elaine Showalter
“Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender”

When the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s (apa) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (dsm III) appeared in February 1980, hysteria,1 while it appeared in the index, had apparently lost the status it had held through the first and second editions as an identifiable and specific clinical disorder.2 Like some other historically familiar and, crucially, saliently “female” conditions, hysteria had shifted to another category of reference. Thus, in 1980, for nymphomania [End Page 19] readers were asked to “See Psychosexual disorder not elsewhere classified 282–283” (489), for frigidity to “See Inhibited sexual excitement 279” (487), and for hysteria to “See Conversion disorder 244 (247), Dissociative disorders 253–260, [and] Factitious disorders 285–90” (488).3 As a term used not only in relatively recent medical and psychiatric discourse but for centuries “as a dramatic medical metaphor for everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable” in women (Micale, “Hysteria and its Historiography” 320) and as “evidence” of both the instability of the female mind and the social function of women defined in relation to their reproductive capacity (their “wandering” wombs), hysteria’s implicit demotion to a broader, less specific category of disorder might have been met with a generally good-riddance kind of relief at this point in the twentieth century, well into the Second Wave of feminism that had taken shape in the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s. Indeed, given what Charles Bernheimer suggests is the persistence for centuries of recommending a “cure [through marriage and pregnancy and thus] by submission to the yoke of patriarchy” (3),4 the disappearance from the North American diagnostic manual of the etymologically gendered term hysteria might have been anticipated to generate some small celebration, at least among those interested in the status and the rights of women.

In fact, however, at more or less the same moment hysteria was removed from the dsm, it was emerging at the centre of a new discourse of academic literary feminism that had taken shape as a critical and political practice, as Jane Gallop suggests, “around 1981.”5 In the 1970s and 1980s, in what Elaine Showalter described in 1993 as “a new twist in the history of the disorder,” hysteria was being “reclaim[ed]” “in the name of feminism” (286), figuring prominently in the foundational texts of what Showalter had earlier characterized in 1985 as the “new feminist criticism” and what in many contexts would be called feminist theory (The New Feminist Criticism). Historically linked with femininity for hundreds of years, hysteria’s involuntary, uncontrollable, somatic symptoms were coming to be understood in the emerging critical feminist discourse not as a medical condition but a cultural one, an embodied index of forms of oppression [End Page 20] that Showalter described as “a specifically feminine protolanguage, communicating through the body messages that cannot be verbalized” (“Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender” 286). This “feminine protolanguage” could be functionalized as a space for marking feminist reaction and resistance to the patriarchal oppression it indexed: as such, it could be seen to operate not only as what Juliet Mitchell represented at the time as a “pre-political manifestation of feminism” (cited in Showalter, “Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender” 333)6 but as a new manifestation of feminism at that moment.

At one level, the “reclaiming” of hysteria in feminist theory and criticism is the logical obverse of its removal at the same moment from the medical discourse of the dsm. Both gestures suggest that what is called hysteria is not...