Jennifer Smith

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In the nineteenth century there was an explosion of medical discourses on the illness of hysteria, particularly in relation to women. While there were many theories on the origin and nature of the disease that were circulating throughout Spain in the nineteenth century, the prevailing theory was that the cause of hysteria was the female sexual reproductive organs and that only women suffered from the disease (Jagoe, “Sexo” 341- 43). In fact, some Spanish doctors, such as Baltasar de Viguera, considered by many to be Spain’s first gynecologist, continued to subscribe to ancient Greek conceptions of the disease as an illness that resulted from an “unsatisfied” womb that began to wander throughout the female body (Viguera 65-68; Jagoe, “Sexo” 340). Such theories held that women first became predisposed to the disease at puberty since the female body’s new natural urges to procreate could still not be legitimately satisfied until marriage (Viguera 82-83). Natural biological functions, such as menstruation, pregnancy and lactation, in addition to so-called sexual perversions, were said to bring on hysteria as well (Pulido Fernández 335). These understandings of hysteria were reaffirmed during a formal session on hysteria held by Sociedad Ginecológica Española in 1876.1 Four of the five doctors who spoke argued that hysteria attacked women who were sexually deprived, or who, on the contrary, engaged in sexually “deviant” behavior. These doctors also asserted that pubescent and sterile women were especially prone to the disease (Pulido Fernández, Anales 52-54; 74-79; 104-11; 265-67; 321-29). Thus, arguing that all the biological functions related to reproduction in women, whether they were “normal” or “anomalous,” were disease-producing essentially rendered all women “hysterics in potentia, the victims of overly evolved and hypersensitive nervous and reproductive systems who by natural endowment could at any moment slide into sickness” (Micale 69). Many feminist historians have argued that this pathologization of the female body in the nineteenth century ultimately served to suppress the increasing awareness that women should be entitled to equal rights under the newly arising constitutional governments. Thomas Laqueur, for example, demonstrates in Making Sex: The Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, the way in which the “scientific” polarization of the sexes was used to justify the concept of separate spheres and to argue against giving women the same political rights as men. In regards to the hysteria diagnosis in particular, Elaine Showalter has argued that it worked against women’s claims for equality by labeling women who did such “radical” things as advocate for equal education and the right to the vote “hysterical” (145).