The hysterical womb: pathologising abused mothers

The hysterical womb: pathologising abused mothers

Since the dawn of time, women have been punished for ‘hysteria’ and nowadays its contemporary derivatives.

May 16, 2022

Since the dawn of time, women have been punished for ‘hysteria’ and nowadays its contemporary derivatives. The concept of female hysteria has existed in the minds of men for 4000 years. It was described in an Egyptian papyrus, our first gynaecological text, as women’s visceral reactions to male violence, arising from her ‘unfruitful womb’.

Hysteria was rationalised in many ways throughout history. The 2000-year old Hippocratic definition of hysteria described it as the symptoms of a spontaneously ‘wandering or wicked womb’ that floated around the body attacking various organs. This had changed to ‘demonic possession’ by 400 AD, linked to ‘sorcery’ and blamed on women’s close relationship with the devil.

By 1650 it was known as a brain disease until Freud’s sexuality-related psychoanalysis arrived; its treatment for hysteria required doctors to stimulate patients to orgasm. To say that hysteria has a chequered, misogynistic history is an understatement. It was only debunked and finally removed from doctors’ diagnostic manuals as late as 1980.

Supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history, hysteria has, however,  not disappeared. As a concept describing a behaviour pattern considered almost exclusively as a female affliction, the discredited theory is very much alive. Its  rebranded modern descendant is the controversial histrionic personality disorder. This is contentiously grouped with  ‘cluster B’ type personality disorders such as narcissism, despite not sharing any similar dangerous behaviour patterns.  Its scientific basis is  widely disputed.

Nowadays, many abusive fathers hire expert witnesses to legally erase their child’s mother from their life via private family court proceedings. It is no secret that the patriarchal family court system dislikes a mother bringing paternal abuse allegations. Modern abusive fathers frequently rely on weaponised pseudoscience arguments such as parental alienation to rebut evidence of their own harmful conduct. Should a mother insist that her current or ex-partner has abused her or her child(ren), she runs the risk of ‘pathologisation’ under the banner of ‘histrionic behaviour’. This is arguably nothing less than state-sanctioned structural violence to dispose of so-called ‘difficult’ women who desperately vocalise their mistreatment.

There are historical echoes back to the age when abusive men cited hysteria to  consign their wives to institutions. Her only crime was often being ‘difficult to govern’ as a man’s subordinate or ‘causing trouble for others’. The punishment (sold as ‘treatment’) included societal exclusion, enforced sterilisation, female genital mutilation and incarceration.

We look back on that history with horror. But when today’s bankrolled ‘experts’ use bad science to create the ‘histrionic’ identity and this is judicially accepted, the outcome for mother and child is the same. Almost exclusively aimed at mothers, the pseudoscience narratives of hysteria and unfit mothers in court are five times more likely after they disclose abuse.

The culmination of this courtroom strategy is often the enforced removal of children from their loving mother, with whom there were no safeguarding concerns. The child then faces a traumatic move to a parent (usually a father) who may be a known domestic abuser, whether they want to move or not.

The sick irony in family courts is that they not only sever the bond between mother and child through enforced removal, but go on to pathologise the understandably traumatised mother with a  ‘histrionic’ label (because she reacts emotionally to her child being taken away). Abused mothers are then coerced into undertaking re-education ’therapy’ to accept  and forgive the man she or her child reported as abusive.  Mounting legal costs and often the permanent and total loss of the child may then ensue. Mothers reporting abuse will lose custody of their children 26% of the time. Because the court requires a substantive reason to do this, the easiest justification is to pathologise the mother.

So-called ‘alienating behaviours’ are not reliably and objectively verifiable, and neither is a courtroom diagnosis of ‘histrionic behaviour’. Like most pseudoscience, it is highly subjective. One person’s protective emotional distress could be another’s perceived pathological strategy. It depends entirely on who is judging.

Fathers seeking to enact revenge by separating mother and child are rarely confirmed as abusive or ‘histrionic’ in court rooms. Thus, the label of ‘histrionic behaviour’ is attached firmly to females, as is the inclination to diagnose a disordered mind or personality. For mothers in family court, the person making these assessments  is highly likely to be a well-remunerated rogue ‘expert’.

Some family court judiciaries are, at last, trying to restrict this manipulation.  The reforms include lifting the veil of secrecy to allow  journalists to report ‘all they see and hear’. However, change trickles down slowly and the tragedy is that business as usual will continue causing devastating effects for some time.

The travesty is that ordinary women and mothers with everyday lives and regular jobs who get exposed to domestic abuse will end up in court, only to emerge childless, penniless and demonised with a new psychiatric label.  

Many mothers lose their babies in this way all around the world. It is the cruel modern equivalent of the societal hysteria that once burnt so-called witches at the stake. That too was legally sanctioned by the judiciary of that time.

- Natalie Page, Elizabeth Dalgarno, Mukesh Kapila

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