That’s Hysterical

Attacks on a “hysterical” Hillary Clinton have a long literary pedigree.

Hillary Clinton

I wonder whether the SAT still includes those questions about which object does not fit into the larger group. Here’s mine:

1. Lucia di Lammermoor
2. Lady Macbeth
3. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton
4. Fraulein Bertha Pappenheim (“Anna O.”)

Lucia, the heroine of Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor and, more recently, of Gaetano Donizetti’s eponymous opera, is forced to marry her brother’s ally rather than her true love, loses her mind, stabs the groom to death on their wedding night, and—after some impressive vocal pyrotechnics in her bloodstained wedding dress (the opera’s mad scene)—dies. Lady Macbeth, of Shakespeare’s play and, more recently, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, is married to an aristocratic, but not royal, husband; eggs him on to kill the king and various other superdelegates; loses her mind; and—after some impressive vocal pyrotechnics (the opera’s sleepwalking scene)—dies. Bertha Pappenheim, the “Anna O.” of Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer’s studies on hysteria, developed paralysis, lapses of consciousness, and hallucinations, but, after a so-called talking cure with Breuer, recovered sufficiently to die (operatically in form, if not in fact) of tuberculosis.

Then there is Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s antics probably would have driven Mother Theresa to homicidal ideation and who has been repudiated on an almost daily basis by people she has personally and politically supported for years. She travels from rally to rally, delivering boring, but worthy, addresses to the assembled multitudes and finds herself—against all odds, since the first recorded contest—approaching, if not securing, the nomination to run for the highest office in the United States.

The May 7, 2008, cover of the New Republic

And yet the media keep trying to paint her as a hysteric. Here’s the cover of this fortnight’s New Republic. Category mistake? From all those brilliant young Harvard guys at the New Republic?

Clearly, something else is afoot.

By playing the “hysteric” card, Clinton’s attackers are following a very old script—a script that taints women with madness every time they, you know, say anything at all that might distinguish them from a doormat. The word hysterical does not mean any old homicidal lunacy. It means—and has meant since the birth of Western medicine—symptoms caused by the uterus (in Greek, hystera): a disease, as Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, called it, of women:

When the uterus has reached the liver and the hypochondrium and causes suffocation, the whites of the eyes roll up, the woman becomes cold, and even sometimes livid. She grinds her teeth; saliva drips from her mouth, and she appears to be having an epileptic fit.

So that’s where the New Republic got its cover art …

Ancient doctors speculated that uteri drove women crazy because the thirsty organs didn’t get watered enough by having sex with men. Although ordinary anatomy eventually dispensed with that theory, the notion that there was some medical basis for female hysteria just would not stay dead. Famed scholar and literary critic Elaine Showalter wrote in her book Hystories that “for over a century the political context of hysteria has been feminism. Hysteria became a hot topic in medical circles in the 1880s and 1890s when feminism, the New Woman, and a crisis in gender were also hot topics.  … [D]octors viewed hysterical women as closet feminists who had to be reprogrammed into traditional roles.”

Ever since, you could be certain that whenever the old hysteria talk surfaces, the writer is relying, usually quite consciously, on the old association between uppity women and insanity. Culture critic and Slate contributor Stanley Crouch, who recently invoked the H-word when describing Clinton’s television persona in his Daily News column (“Clinton seems by turns icy, contrived, hysterical, sentimental, bitter, manipulative and self-righteous [italics mine]”), certainly knows what he is doing. As Salon described him in its series Brilliant Careers, the volatile and charismatic Crouch is “[a]rmed with an elephant’s memory and a passionate knowledge of and engagement with art and history.” Nor, probably, would anyone contend that Slate’s own Christopher Hitchens didn’t know the queen’s English when he described Clinton’s story about Bosnia as “flagrant, hysterical, repetitive, pathological lying.” Flagrant, yes; repetitive, yes; and maybe pathological. But “hysterical”?

This charge of insanity—fits, pathology—against any woman who aspires to transcend prior female achievements is the go-to weapon for people who would keep women down. And this move goes way beyond the candidacy of any particular individual. In a recent Nation column, Tom Hayden (the ‘60s guy, now in his 60s) deployed a full arsenal of insults, comparing Clinton to Lady Macbeth and then going on to liken her appearance to a “screech” on the blackboard.

Hayden, apparently fearing some criticism, hid behind the voice of his never-before-heard third wife, Barbara, a “meditative practitioner of everything peaceful and organic,” never previously given to offering hostile political pronouncements. But Clinton’s appearance on TV apparently makes Tom’s wife “scream.” Poor Tom Hayden, still looking for a sufficiently submissive female. Everyone remembers Jane Fonda, Hayden’s second wife. But probably few Nation readers remember the first Mrs. Hayden, one Casey Hayden. In 1965, right around the time she divorced Tom, Casey Hayden wrote the screed that helped launch the women’s liberation movement, “Sex and Caste.” Her ex-husband’s most recent unleashing of the hysteria rocket shows how little distance we have covered since Casey Hayden picked up her pen.

Can Tom Hayden be suggesting that hysteria is contagious—that even peaceful Barbara becomes somehow unhinged when exposed to the hysterical female presidential candidate? Or maybe it’s Tom himself who is the real constant here, seeing women as hysterical wherever they appear.