The University of Iowa

Women, Hysteria and Medicine the Topic of January 27 WorldCanvass

January 4th, 2012
Joan Kjaer

The rich and problematic history of hysteria is the subject of our next WorldCanvass. While hysteria is no longer considered a valid medical term, it was once thought to be a disease of women with a wide array of symptoms including headaches, nervousness, excessive expressiveness and malaise. By the late 19th Century, hysteria had come to refer to some level of sexual dysfunction. Our program will take a multi-disciplinary look at the history of hysteria, investigating its social, cultural and medical context.

We’ll discuss the prevailing societal and familial expectations for women in late 19th Century Europe and America; the medical community’s understanding, then and now, of the relationship between sexuality and psychological or physical health; the ways in which ‘hysterics’ or ‘madwomen’ have been portrayed in various artistic genres and popular culture; and the twentieth century’s redefinition of everything from appropriate gender roles within and outside of the family to acceptable sexual expression.

A particular focus of the evening will be Sarah Ruhl’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play),” coming to the UI’s E.C. Mabie Theatre in February. American Studies and Theatre professor Kimberly Marra and dramaturg Jennifer Page-White will introduce the play’s themes and its setting in the parlor and examination room of a doctor who provides cutting edge treatments for patients diagnosed with hysteria.

Evolutionary biologist John Logsdon and psychiatrist Scott Stuart will join professors Bluford Adams and Teresa Mangum (English), Katherine Eberle (Music), Elizabeth Heineman (History and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies), Marra and Page-White for this intriguing topic: women, hysteria and medicine. Please join us as a member of the audience at 5:00 on Friday, January 27, in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol Museum.