Challenging convention

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Running through the descriptions of hysteria among both women and men in Victorian and Edwardian England is the disdain felt towards women as signifiers of weakness, frailty and emotionality.

In the treatment of hysteria among women, a breakthrough came when psychiatrists began listening to women, instead of simply observing, judging and categorising them from their perspective of healthy ideals of both femininity and masculinity.

In The Female Malady Elaine Showalter shows how in the treatment of male hysteria among soldiers during the First World War, behaviour codes demanding bravery, stoicism and repression of emotion among men not only manifested in concerns that men were displaying “feminine” behaviour, but also in increased hostility towards women.

Not surprisingly, hostility towards “beastly” women who were allowed to scream or cry, and whose hysteria had been an accepted form of feminine expression before the war, became the theme of much war literature. Men’s quarrels with the feminine element in their own own psyches became externalised as quarrels with women, and hysteria expressed itself in part as fear or anger towards the neurotic woman…

Showalter’s analysis of how expectations of masculine and feminine behaviour shape us has brought to mind times when I was younger when I felt completely at the mercy of my emotions while the university I went to compounded a sense of voicelessness and near invisibility in me.

Working in a tough newspaper environment taught me a kind of rigour in which emotions, how I felt didn’t dictate everything and there were times that I had to leave how I felt out of things to attend to the task, the deadline that was ahead. But it was also exhausting not only because of the demands of being, at times, the only woman in an all-male office, but also the effort it took shut off so much of myself.

Although I still appreciate the discipline of focus it has given me, the brutalised feeling, the sense that I was doing some violence to myself became stronger the longer I stayed in journalism, and began to express itself in a craving for a freer life, more poetic with a bit of a flourish.

Meeting Mark met that need and helped me steer a path out of full time journalism towards a life that was more artful in its approach. Now, at a time when I see that the world of instinct and intuition, far from being weak, is essential to my being, I wonder to what degree the denial of that self was necessary.

There was a lot of pain associated with operating in what often seemed such a superficial and brittle way. Often it seemed like play-acting a powerful figure capable of decisiveness and command. But the back story was so very different that my acting sometimes seemed jerky and false.

It struck me reading about Mary Wollstonecraft’s plea for women to be allowed education, that women will thereby be schooled into the world of men. In the feminism that emerged from the 80s and 90s that was often about equality of work and consumption, women learnt the games of the workplace. But along with a number of women I know, there is a sense that doing this is at great cost to the sense of self, to the vast hinterland that exists that isn’t given space or voice.

While some of the traditional values around masculinity and femininity no longer hold such great sway, it seems the refusal to allow women’s voices and perspectives to be heard do.

But I know I am still in the process of change resulting from the realisation that none of the knowledge that I had previously been so in awe of and sought to emulate could have got me through Mark’s death. Along with many other women I don’t see my emotional capacity or my insight as weakness but a source of strength.

Showalter argues that hysteria in men was a form of resistance against war and the social expectations of the masculine role, just as among women it was a revolt against the constraints imposed on them on account of such a narrowly defined femininity.

It is not to be wondered at that the war should have inspired an identification with the female role in men who had to endure them… with regard to lack of autonomy and powerlessness the soldier is in an analogous position to women. That most masculine of enterprises, The Great War, “the apocalypse of masculinism,” feminised its conscripts by taking away their sense of control. The constriction of the trenches…was analogous to the tight domestic, vocational and sexual spaces allowed to nineteenth century women.