A dear friend of mine just brought to my attention a scholarly article called, Hysteria, Witches, and The Wandering Uterus: A Brief History: or, Why I Teach ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ by Terri Kapsalis, a professor at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. Among other things, Kapsalis discusses the Victorian diagnosis of hysteria – or the belief in a “wandering uterus” being the cause for basically any, and all, female physical ailments. If a patient was full of phlegm, or suffering from depression, or had a migraine — no matter what the issue — it was surmised that her wild and wanton womb had been creeping around where it didn’t belong again. Not kidding here.
And what, pray tell, was the reason it wandered? Why, it was hankering for a heaping helping of man juice, of course.
Of course. The God-designed purpose of the uterus. To receive man-seed and bring forth life. The only sure way to cure a “hysterical” woman was to keep her barefoot and pregnant. Jizz a day keeps the doctor away.
Such beliefs and diagnoses invalidated legitimate medical complaints of women from Ancient Egypt all the way up to the modern era. Everything was chalked up to hormones. And while diagnostic medicine has moved away from such ridiculous notions, public opinions about the psychological state of womanhood has not.
When we women get too big for our proverbial britches, when we become too intellectual, too political, too competitive, too driven, when we dare to do something beyond the roles society has deemed appropriate for our “kind” – you know, wives, mothers, maybe teachers or nurses – then we are seen as a threat. We are dangerous. So we are called deranged, out of control, hysterical.
And we are slammed right back into that whole wandering womb pigeon hole again. Obviously, we need to sip some more from that whole cult of domesticity Kool Aid again to get us back to our proper place – back on the path of the straight and narrow.
Look at Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, even Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Palin. They’ve all been called crazy bitches. Hysterical females. Because, as the article so wisely notes, “hysteria is a bipartisan weapon.” A powerful woman is a dangerous woman, no matter the party. I, myself, have been guilty of labeling a couple of these women with the same blasphemous insults that have been used against my favorites. It’s an easy trap to fall into. And every time I trip up, I empower the status quo.
And the status quo is white and male and always eager to see women fail. Sexism is a bullshit topic, according to them. Made up. And feminism is a dirty word.That’s definitely the mentality in certain branches of my family. And in certain corners of my classroom.
Not with AP students, at least not most of them. Most of them love to explore social and political movements. They find counter culture stimulating. They yearn for wider understanding than simply their daddy’s dictums, their pastor’s politics or their Uncle Johns’ world views. They long to balance and counterbalance their minds. To glean understanding from all walks of life. To broaden their understanding and to embrace empathy. They want to absorb, not only with their minds, but with their hearts and souls, too.
But in my general education classrooms, feminism receives eye-rolls. Books with female heroines get groans and barely touched assignments. We don’t want to read a book about a girl, they say. Sexism is imagined, they say. Glass ceilings are made up. Rape statistics are exaggerated. Sexual discrimination is the hashtag of the moment.
And as a teacher, I ask myself how in the world can I change such mindsets? Such opinions? Such blatant denials and refusals? Is it even possible to help someone overcome a prejudice they don’t believe exists? How do you help someone see when they refuse to open their eyes?
Now usually it is the white males in my classroom who refuse to explore the possibilities of inequality — of any kind, but especially sexism. But sometimes it’s the females, too. And that blows my mind even more.
But then, it also gives me hope. Hope that maybe these young women don’t understand that discrimination exists because maybe for them, it hasn’t. Because their fathers and grandfathers and churches haven’t preached weakness in women the way I had it preached to me. They didn’t grow up the way I did. And that gives me so much hope. Hope that the times, they are a changing.
But most of the young women in my classroom, they get it. They know the discrimination. Because they’ve seen it with their own eyes and they’ve felt it in their own skin – not necessarily in terms of business and politics, not yet. They are still young. But when we talk about their bodies, about body shaming and slut shaming and the shame that comes with sexual assault – the floodgates are opened. These girls have seen this. They know this.
And I know without a doubt that every single time I bring up that infamous 1-in-4 statistic, that someone in my class has been there. Odds are more than one someone in my class. These numbers, sadly, don’t lie. And as teenage girls soon to go off to college or careers or military service, my students are squarely in the demographic most at risk. They could become – or already have been – part of that statistic.
I know because I have received private notes from students who were victimized by family members, or by neighbors, or by so-called friends, or even by teachers. I have had students stay after class to say it aloud for the very first time. I have had students bravely tell their stories in class to everyone present. As a teacher, I have read about incidents of sexual abuse. I have heard about incidents of sexual abuse. And I have reported incidents of sexual abuse.
So, yes, even though the topic of feminism gets eye rolls and zeros in the grade book from students who refuse to learn about or acknowledge that sexism exists, I will continue to broach the subject. I will continue to present and discuss literature like “The Yellow Wallpaper” and The Handmaid’s Tale. I will continue to wander off the path of the straight and white and narrow-minded. I do it because of those students who have been touched by sexism. And for those students who deny it exists. I do it for them, too. Call me crazy, but I believe I am helping empower women and eradicate sexism one book, one student, one semester at a time.
So go ahead, call me crazy. But don’t you dare call me a crazy bitch.