“The Wandering Womb”
by Alex O’Rourke
The word “hysteria” originates from the Greek word hystera, meaning "womb," hence was thought only to be found in women. This patriarchal, misogynistic ideal began in the Victorian era. Jean-Martin Charcot was a neurologist who thought hypnosis would treat women with hysteria. This gave birth to the early stages of psychoanalysis, as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) studied with Charcot and drew upon his work. Freud then conceptualized “hysteria” as the result of “bad” nurturing rather than nature. By “bad nurturing” (Gray 1) Freud meant child sexual abuse and he felt that repressed unconsious memory of this caused hysterical behavior. He later abandoned this theory and concluded that hysteria was the result of repressed sexual desire, and simply talking through past traumas helped the hysterical patient astoundingly, giving birth to psychoanalytic therapy.
Physiologically, (pertaining to the way in which an organism or body part functions) to be hysterical was to stray from what was expected of an organism or body part. To be hysteric was to be a wandering womb…(i.e woman) refusing to follow course and reproduce. In terms of the womb itself, Freud theorized that gender only entered the picture on a psychological level rather than a physiological one, meaning he thought that hysteria impacted women but was not the result of the physical womb. Sara Ahmed mentions the “wandering womb” in her book Willful Subjects, “Think of how hysteria was understood as a “wandering womb,” a womb that does not stay in place, that does not reproduce, that in leaving its place allows the woman to lose her place (Ahmed 118). The original thought behind hysteria being linked to a womb is directly correlated to the danger of wandering from femininity. To not reproduce was to go against what was believed to grant a woman joy and fulfillment. Essentially, hysterical symptoms could be referred to as a counter-will. Nonreproductivity is treated, therefore, as a willful object which left unattended to would cause hysteria. A womb that was willing was one that didn’t wander and instead lived “in expectation of becoming fruitful” (Ahmed 119). A woman who is willful however, makes the choice independently of authority, normalcy, or expectation. The term “wandering womb” was inherently condescending and judgemental of women as it signaled a warning as to what would happen if a woman didn’t do what was expected of them, thus insinuating fear and stripping them of their autonomy.
Ahmed, Sara. Willful Subjects. Duke University Press, 2014.
Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis; Authorized Translation with a Preface. Boni and Liveright, 1920.
Cherry, Kendra. “Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalytic Theories of Women.” Verywell Mind, 21 Apr. 2020, www.verywellmind.com/how-sigmund-freud-viewed-women-2795859. Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.
Cherry, Kendra. “Understanding Hysteria in the Past and Present.” Verywell Mind, 16 Mar. 2020, www.verywellmind.com/what-is-hysteria-2795232. Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.
Gray, R. Freud, "Aetiology of Hysteria", courses.washington.edu/freudlit/Hysteria.Notes.html. Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.
“The Wandering Womb: Library: Royal College of Nursing.” The Royal College of Nursing, www.rcn.org.uk/library-exhibitions/womens-health-wandering-womb. Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.