The Hysterical Victorian Female: Angela Moraitis

The first journal article that I read was “The Female Animal:  Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth Century American”. (1973)  The authors, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Charles Rosenberg write “Since at least the time of Hippocrates and Aristotle, the  roles assigned women have attracted an elaborate body of medical and biological justification.  The Victorian woman’s ideal social characteristics of nurturance, morality, domesticity, passivity and affection were believed to be rooted in a biological basis.”  Physically, women of the nineteenth century were different from their male partners.  Women’s skulls were smaller, muscles  more delicate and their nervous systems more irritable and prone to exhaustion.  Particularly in the Victorian Era, this belief led doctors to discourage physical activity by women.  Doctors argued that physical exertion in women might cause their reproductive organs to become dislodged and wander around the body.  The belief of the “wandering womb” was part of the teachings of Hippocrates.

Another interesting website I discovered in my research stated “Victorian society emphasized female purity, and  supported  the ideal of the “true woman” as wife, mother and keeper of the home.  The home was the basis of morality.  As the guardian of the home, women were believed to be more dependent, emotional and gentle by nature.  This perception of femininity led to the belief that women were more susceptible to disease and illness.  This conclusion was the basis for the diagnosis of insanity in many female patients during the 19th century.

Most women during the Victorian Era carried a bottle of smelling salts in their handbag.  They were inclined to swoon when their emotions were aroused and it is believed, as claimed by Hippocrates, that the “wandering womb” disliked the pungent odor and would return to its place, ultimately allowing the woman to recover her consciousness.  This theory remained a point of reference for centuries.

As stated in the article, “The Race of Hysteria: “Overcivilization”  and the “Savage” Woman in Late Nineteenth Century Obstetrics and Gynecology” written by Laura Briggs, “hysteria we learned from the feminist historical scholarship in the 1970s was never just a disease.  It was the way the Victorian culture, as well as European culture, made sense of women’s changing roles.  These cultural changes were accompanied by an epidemic of ‘nervous weakness’ which forced the question whether the diagnostic category of hysteria was simply a method of keeping women in the home.  The primary symptoms of this hysteria in women were gynecological and reproductive, including prolapsed uterus, diseased ovaries, and long and difficult childbirth.  Physicians saw women as a prisoner of her reproductive system.  Her body and behavior were controlled from puberty through menopause by her uterus and ovaries.”

According to “Hysteria, the Wondering Uterus, and Vaginal Massage”, by Gwen Sharp (2010), women not participating in physical activity combined with heavy clothing and corsets, actually did experience  physical symptoms.  Corsets made breathing difficult, as well as causing backaches and headaches.  Doctors connected not only headaches to uterine disease but ailments in every part of the body.   The following ad appeared in “Modern Mechanix” magazine in their November 1934 Physical Culture issue. See


picture from hysteria blog

After realizing the nineteenth century female experience, my first response is one of gratefulness that I am a woman of the twenty-first century.  If the diagnosis of hysteria was indeed made as a result of  the social and economic changes woman faced, then females would continue to be told this by the medical community.  Thankfully, hysteria is no longer diagnosed and was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder ( DSM). As we continue to explore texts from “Embodied Selves” in the coming weeks, I will end with a comment from the book regarding hysteria.  It was believed that one of the dominant causes was repressed sexual energy.  This led to the business of physicians and midwives  providing vaginal massage which would result in an orgasm and sudden relief from hysteria.  Ultimately, the invention of the vibrator, provided the same service in the privacy of the home.


This ad appeared in 1918 in the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog.


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3 thoughts on “The Hysterical Victorian Female: Angela Moraitis

  1. davidginsberg

    The readings we went over in class yesterday from ‘Embodied Selves’ were incredibly misogynistic and flat-out insulting towards women. It’s hard to believe that just a couple hundred years ago (a blink of an eye in the existence of civilization), these seemingly neanderthal beliefs were actually backed up by scientists and psychologists. The double standard between men and women was utterly ridiculous. Thankfully, things have changed.

  2. Jason Tougaw

    It’s interesting to think about the fact that Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë lived in a world where people debated their roles as women with such fervor–and with such elaborate theories, many of which appear bizarre from a contemporary point of view. How do you think this might have influenced them as writers? In what ways do their novels participate in these debates? What do they contribute?

    Interestingly, the current DSM includes a version of hysteria, renamed “conversion disorder”–any illness with physical symptoms that seem to be caused by mental experiences rather than physiological problems. Classic symptoms involve coughing or aching or shaking, but they can take many, many forms. One big difference is that “conversion disorder” is not associated more with women than men. In the nineteenth century, a man might be diagnosed with hysteria, but he’d more likely be called a hypochondriac.

    Recently, novelist Siri Hustvedt published a memoir (The Shaking Woman) that deals with inexplicable symptoms–convulsions she experiences when she speaks in public. She spends quite a bit of the book trying to figure out if she might be experiencing “conversion disorder” or some relative of nineteenth-century hysteria. In the process, she writes fascinatingly about the history of the phenomenon.

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