Female hysteria was a common medical diagnosis assigned specifically to women to describe a set of symptoms including lightheadedness, nervousness, insomnia, loss of appetite, and a wide range of others. The diagnosis was common and commonly discussed in the 19th century, though it was accepted as a real and serious malady for hundreds of years before that. Female hysteria is no longer accepted by the medical community as a correct or reasonable diagnosis. "Hysteria" was often used as a catch-all diagnosis that reflected the lack of knowledge of the diversity and complexity of psychological conditions, and increased knowledge has since led to more precise diagnoses.
No single, precise list of symptoms existed by which medical professionals could classify cases of female hysteria. In many cases, any combination of poorly-defined symptoms or even patterns of behavior that differed from societal expectations could be labeled as female hysteria. In some cases, the "afflicted" women were prompted to seek treatment for aberrant behavior by the men in their lives, such as fathers, husbands or others, whether or not the women experienced any discomfort or believed themselves to be somehow ill. The nature of the diagnosis of the condition generally reflected the nature of gender relationships at least as much as it reflected the inadequacy of knowledge in the area of psychological diagnostics.
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The common treatments for female hysteria also reflect the gender relationships of the times when the "condition" was prevalent. Doctors would administer "pelvic massage," or manual stimulation of the female genitals, until the "afflicted" individual reached a state of "hysterical paroxysm," now understood as an orgasm. It was not generally considered possible to cure hysteria, so an "afflicted" woman would need to seek this form of treatment on a regular basis. A variety of devices were invented to make this treatment process more efficient and more comfortable for both the patient and the individual administering treatment.
Cases of this disorder dropped substantially during the early 20th century. Increased knowledge and acceptance of psychology led to a slightly better understanding of the nature of the disorder. Physicians and psychologists came to understand a broader range of more specific psychological disorders that took the place of a broad diagnosis of hysteria. Freudian psychoanalysis provided another approach to treatment and sought to demonstrate that many cases of female hysteria were actually neuroses based on some form of anxiety or on a traumatic past event in the afflicted individual's life.