“She cried, she roared, she wept”: hysteria and weeping women

By Laura Couttie

When Zara asked me to write something in response to the exhibition she was curating, Great Movements of Feeling, I was immediately drawn to the poetic, sensuous video work, This Creature (2016), by Sriwhana Spong. Through a meandering exploration of the medieval English mystic Margery Kempe, Spong ruminates on the political shaping and labelling of emotion, specifically relating to the pathologisation of female emotion. I started researching the history of hysteria and the connection between gender and emotion, and I fell into an overwhelming, albeit fascinating, black hole of writings and theories. This topic is so huge I could write a thesis on it – and many academics have indeed dedicated careers to studying these issues. Therefore, this piece does not attempt to provide a complete overview of the available literature, nor do I claim to present any new ideas or theories. Rather, I will present a few ideas and examples in relation to Kempe, Spong’s This Creature, and my own thoughts and experiences.

If ‘emotion’ is understood as a state of instinctive or intuitive feeling, then ‘emotionality’ is the measure of how we experience and express emotions. Certain bodily responses, specifically tears, are closely associated with emotionality. Emotionally, I’ve always been what my mother would call ‘labile’. My feelings are displayed on the surface, not easily hidden or disguised, and I cry easily: at weddings and funerals, at happy and sad things in life and in movies and TV shows; even advertisements have brought a tear to my eye. I cry when I’m sad, frustrated, relieved or angry, and I cry when I see other people crying. Various studies have shown that, in adulthood, women cry more than men – and whether this is a biological or sociological difference has been much debated.

Feminist philosopher Sue Campbell notes that as tears 'can be used to express joy, sorrow, frustration, shame, or any range of feelings', the inference is that ‘as women cry a lot, they cannot be readily held to distinguish the important from the trivial' (Campbell, p. 62).

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – c. 1440) is the original weeping woman. The Book of Margery Kempe, the earliest surviving autobiography in English, tells us about the life of a female mystic in medieval times. The text explores the close relationship between the senses and the political shaping and labelling of emotion. Although Kempe was illiterate (as was common for women at the time), she dictated her story to a priest, illuminating her relationship with God, her struggles with marital and familial commitments and her spiritual pilgrimages. Kempe travelled the country to spread God’s word, and was known for her excessive weeping, which is detailed throughout the book: ‘she cried, she roared, she wept, she fell down to the ground, so fervently did the fire of love burn in her heart’ (Kempe, The Book, p. 186).

Women's bodies, in all of their abject glory – menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, menopause – have long been objects of fascination and desire, and on the other hand, revulsion and fear. According to classifications determined by those in power (ie. men), women have traditionally been aligned with the body and senses, while men were seen to have power over the mind and intellect. Historically, a suspicion and unease with displays of emotion is linked to a fear of female bodies in particular. In her book,  Kempe refers to herself as ‘this creature’, a label that reinforces the concept that displays of emotion are abject, animalistic and uncivilised. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed explains that 'Emotions are associated with women, who are represented as "closer" to nature, ruled by appetite, and less able to transcend the body through thought, will and judgement' (Ahmed, p. 2/3). Therefore, emotions are bound up in the structures of social hierarchy, wherein to express emotion is seen as 'lower' and in opposition to reason, which is seen as 'higher'. The devaluing of emotion is therefore linked to the subordination of women's bodies.

It is interesting to note that displays of emotion by female mystics were accepted in medieval times, because expressions of worship to God were considered a virtue. During the fourteenth century, women were not allowed to study, so the task of recording and interpreting religious writings was restricted to men, specifically men of the Church; women were only allowed to channel God through their bodies and senses.

In the introduction to The Book of Margery Kempe, Barry Windeatt explains that ‘It is essential to retrieve some sense of the spiritual value and desirability that was accorded to the gift of such tears in those days’ (introduction, The Book of Margery Kempe, p. 22). Kempe’s manuscript was lost for several centuries, and when it was rediscovered in 1934, and studied by twentieth century historians, her experience of the world was pathologised, and she was diagnosed with hysteria.

Historians have named her ‘neurotic’, ‘abnormal’, suffering from ‘post-partum psychosis’, ‘madness’, ‘hysteria’, ‘paranoia’, ‘manic-depression’, psychosis’, ‘frontal lobe epilepsy’, ‘Tourettes’, ‘menopause’. But she called it a gift.
(Sriwhana Spong, This Creature, 2016)

The label ‘hysteria’ – which is itself a gendered term – was used for centuries as a diagnosis for silencing and dismissing women. Deriving from the Greek word hysterikos, which can be translated loosely as ‘coming from the womb’, hysteria was seen as an essentially female disease, caused by the physiological specificity (and perceived defectiveness) of a woman’s body (Helen King, ‘Once upon a Text: Hysteria from Hippocrates’ (p. 3-65), in Hysteria Beyond Freud, p. 6). Therefore, by its very definition, men were exempt from the diagnosis of hysteria.

During the Victorian era, it was common for women to be diagnosed with hysteria for all manner of symptoms. (Lupton p. 112) The diagnosis was often used when women resisted traditional gender roles, such as Margery Kempe wanting to eschew her wifely and motherly duties to pursue her spirituality, or when women pursued education, argued for the vote or filed for divorce. Feminist historians such as Elaine Showalter have argued convincingly that discourses of hysteria played a central role in women's oppression and worked to maintain misogynistic power structures (Showalter, ‘Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender’, Hysteria Beyond Freud, p. 286-336). By the end of the nineteenth century, the definition of the ‘hysterical female character’ had expanded in medical literature to include character traits rather than physical conditions. As American academic Carroll Smith-Rosenberg explains, ‘Doctors commonly described hysterical women as highly impressionable, suggestible, and narcissistic. They were highly labile, their moods changing suddenly, dramatically, and for seemingly inconsequential reasons’ (Smith-Rosenberg, p. 202). Through the diagnosis of hysteria, those in positions of power found the perfect way to dismiss legitimate concerns and grievances made by a marginalised group. The concept of hysterical neurosis was only removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980.

However, in modern usage, the term hysteria is still used to refer to exaggerated, uncontrollable or irrational displays of emotion. To call someone 'hysterical' is to dismiss their (usually her) emotions as unwarranted. An articulation of patriarchal power, the pathologised label of the ‘hysterical woman’ is still used to diminish and discredit women’s experiences.

A friend, who is one of two women working in a male-dominated environment, told me how they are both careful to not appear ‘emotional’ when expressing an opinion. They call it being ‘yellow walled’ – in reference to The Yellow Wall-Paper, a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and published in 1892. Regarded as an early feminist text, the story illustrates nineteenth century attitudes towards woman’s physical and mental health. The story, which is based on Gilman’s personal experience, presents the journal entries of a woman who is diagnosed with ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’ by her physician husband John (The Yellow Wall-Paper, p. 648). As treatment, he moves them to an old mansion in the country so she can rest and recuperate. Not allowed to work or write, she spends her days confined to the bedroom, which is covered in yellow wallpaper. While disagreeing with her husband’s diagnosis and treatment methods, she is conscious of keeping up appearances: ‘I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself-before him, at least, and that makes me very tired’ (The Yellow Wall-Paper, p. 648). Hence, the concept of being ‘yellow-walled’ refers to the way in which women consciously control their emotional displays in front of men, for fear of being dismissed.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term the ‘doctrine of feelings’ to describe the phenomenon in which ‘the lower our status, the more our manner of seeing and feeling is subject to being discredited, and the less believable it becomes’ (Hochschild, p. 173).

According to this logic, a man's expression of emotion or passion is typically deemed reasonable and rational, indicating not a weakness but a warranted show of conviction. In women, similar displays are interpreted as 'emotional' and irrational, and their response is often deemed out of context or proportion to the cause: women's emotional responses are often seen as a sign of personal instability and weakness.

As Horschild explains, the ‘catch-22’ position that women find themselves in is that the more they try to argue against the ‘doctrine of feelings’, the more they play into the stereotype of the emotional woman: ‘Their efforts are discounted as one more example of emotionalism’ (Hochschild p. 174).

If weeping women are not being labelled hysterical or dismissed due to their displays of emotion, they are being accused of using crying as a manipulation tactic. The phrase 'crocodile tears' is used to suggest an insincere or fake display of emotion, to make the accusation that the person is crying out for attention or sympathy. Shakespeare used the reference in Othello when the character Othello convinces himself that his wife is cheating on him, proclaiming, 'If that the earth could teem with woman's tears / Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile' (Shakespeare, Othello, Act 4, Scene 1). Although Othello is the irrational character in this scene, guided by his emotions, the female character is the one accused of being duplicitous. The saying is supposedly traced to a myth that a crocodile sheds tears after eating its prey; hence, the irony of a false display of remorse. (In fact, crocodiles produce tears in order to keep their eyes lubricated when they are on dry land – often staying still to digest after eating – but this is a physiological rather than emotional response.)

In This Creature the voice over states that ‘An emotional state that can’t be controlled is a threat to organised structures.’ Crying and other displays of emotion are feared; therefore, they must be controlled. As cultural historian George Sebastian Rousseau states, ‘The history of hysteria is as much the “his-story” of male fear’ (Rousseau ‘"A Strange Pathology": Hysteria in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800’ (p. 91-186) in Hysteria Beyond Freud, p. 93). Women have been taught to suppress, hide or apologise for their emotions, for fear of being labelled hysterical, dismissed or punished. It is important to acknowledge, before concluding, that gender is not the only determining category that is used to dismiss people based on emotionality; other minority groups have also been targets of this discrimination (Campbell, p. 50). Last week I was in a car on the way home from the airport and the radio was tuned to a commercial station. The presenters were discussing their teenage children through the predictable binary lens of ‘the difference between boys and girls’, and I was interested to hear them describe teenage girls as being so emotional. It is problematic that this label, with its negative connotations, has become so ingrained in our language that people do not even realise the effects of using it. Emotionality is not a sign of weakness or illness; it is a sign of strength and connection, and the world would no doubt be a more caring place if we all took a leaf out of Margery Kempe’s book.  

Laura Couttie is an independent writer, curator and arts administrator based in Melbourne. 


Ahmed: Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, second edition, Edinburgh University Press, 2004, 2014.

Campbell: Sue Campbell, ‘Being Dismissed: The Politics of Emotional Expression’, Hypatia, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer, 1994), pp. 46-65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810188 Accessed: 29-04-2018.

Gilman, King, Porter, Rousseau, Showalter: Sander L. Gilman, Helen King, Roy Porter, G. S. Rousseau, and Elaine Showalter, Hysteria Beyond Freud. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Hochschild: Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1983.

Kempe: Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by B. A. Windeatt, Penguin Books, 1985.

Lupton: Deborah Lupton, The Emotional Self: A Sociocultural Exploration, London: SAGE Publications, 1998.

Perkins Stetson: Charlotte Perkins Stetson (Gilman), ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’, The New England Magazine, 11 (5), January 1892, p. 647-656.

Shakespeare: William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice, Tucker Brooke and Lawrence Mason (eds.), New Haven: Yale UP, 1947. Print.

Shields: Stephanie A. Shields, ‘Gender and Emotion: What We Think We Know, What We Need to Know, and Why It Matters’, Psychology of Women Quarterly 37(4) p. 423-435.

Smith-Rosenberg: Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, New York: A.A. Knopf, 1985.

Spong: Sriwhana Spong, This Creature, 2016.