Newspapers stories, thought not visual like photographs, provide a glimpse into the minds of citizens during the fin-de-siècle. An analysis of the papers provides insight into the media’s coverage of hysterical women. In addition to the visual photographs from the Salpêtrière, the language used in the articles and the characterization of women that the articles published ultimately aided the creation of hysteria as a “spectacle”. This page covers articles during the outbreak of hysteria and at the beginning of the women’s rights movements for an in-depth analysis of how newspaper coverage may have helped shape the outbreak and the development of women’s rights.
An 1878 article published in the New York Times describes the views of hysteria, and reflects on the uncertainty of what the “disease” actually was. According to the article, “two married ladies were rendered helpless on the street yesterday form hysteria, and had to be taken care of for the time being by the police” (NY Times HYSTERIA). Here we see a blatant example of the stereotyping and undermining nature of hysteria diagnoses. The women were “helpless” and could not ultimately take care of themselves. Supposedly they randomly had convulsions on the street corner, in very public domains, and had to be taken care of by others. One of the women passed out on a park bench, and authorities had to take her to the hospital. In order to revive her, the doctor simply dumped a container of water on her, which “shocked even those who witnessed the treatment” (HYSTERIA). From this simple news report, we see a blatant example of how not much was known about hysteria, and how the treatments were rudimentary and somewhat archaic. In addition to dumping the water, he tries to cut her hair, something she is very proud of. The woman comes to her senses and is all of the sudden cured; the threat to her physical femininity apparently cured her, according to the news report (HYSTERIA). This article proves the view of the time that women suffering from hysteria were simply weak and helpless; to have the “disease” was to be dependent on others.
The 1878 article depicts how much uncertainty surrounded hysteria in the late 19th century. Treatments were uncertain and often random, and the women seemingly had no control over their actions, according to the news. However, the media takes a different approach to hysteria nearly 30 years later, in the midst of women’s rights movements.
The 1907 article entitled “A Case of Hysteria”, details a young girl who suffers from 10 different personalities, as observed by her peers. The tone of the article is much different from the 1878 article, demonizing the girl instead of portraying her as a victim of hysteria. The article admits that the girl suffers from hysteria. However, it diminishes the woman’s suffering of this disease by claiming that she is a willful creator of her symptoms. “She has the willful obstinacy and the power of self-deception often associated with hysteria” (A Case of Hysteria). The remainder of the article focuses on the connection between multiple personalities and hysteria, noting the growing connection between psychiatrists and the diagnoses of women. However, this simple statement about hysteria exhibits an important element in the evolution of the disease. Nearly 30 years after the media representation of hysterical women as innocent victims, this article clearly portrays her as a willing participant of her own “case”. She is able to “self-decieve”, to convince herself of her personalities and hysterical symptoms. Because of her nature, then, perhaps her disease isn’t real, but is instead a method of control by the patient, who is a woman. Her gender then becomes important. This article was published in the midst of movements for women’s suffrage in France. The movements sparked fear in the public, fear that women were breaking free of their gender roles and into positions of authority.
Emmeline Pankhurst, a prominent women’s rights activist in London, is also featured in a 1913 article in the Times. In the article, Pankhurst is described as a “fanatic”, after she admits her role in a violent crime associated with the women’s rights movement. The article asserts that Emmilene and her companions are all “afflicted with a form of hysteria”, for their violence acts are not characteristic of their gender (The Pankhurst Hysteria). Interestingly enough, hysteria now has a direct cure, that is sure to work. “Prison and forced labor with plain food” will cure all but the worst cases of this hysteria, claims the article (Pankhurst). Pankhurst and her violent contemporaries who crusaded for women’s rights could not possibly be sane; women knew that this was not their role. If women in London could defy gender stereotypes like this, could women in Paris not do the same thing?
In these three articles, we see a general progression of the understanding and characterization of hysteria in the media. Though these three articles do not encompass the entire media coverage of the time, they are snapshots of primary source reporting during the epidemic The earliest article portrays the women as victim, as unwillingly participants in a disease that struck at any moment. However, with the evolution of women’s rights and the realization that women were aiming for more power came the media portrayals of hysterical women as deviant, as “self-deceptive” and therefore creators of their own hysteria. So here we see a link with photography. In Charcot’s photographs, the women were active participants, willing actors who created their hysterical types on camera, which allowed for their deviance. In the newspaper articles, their deviance was means for their hysteria. Deviant women were not understood, and therefore must be sick. Their deviance could be cured, surely, by hard labor and a regimented schedule, which would shake their radical tendencies, and make them revert back to their subservient roles. Therefore, the mass media may be seen as an echo of what the photographs from the Salpêtrière portrayed. Seemingly innocent victims of a harsh disease, the women were actually active participants who gained influence through their images, creating a spectacle of themselves. The publication of their photographs created the spectacle of hysteria, which was ultimately a conduit for these “deviant” hysterical women to gain power, and advance women’s rights in the coming years.