The untold herstory of women's health and the origins of misogyny

The untold herstory of women's health and the origins of misogyny

Throughout history, a woman's health, like the woman herself, has been a low priority. Health and especially the kind that affects hormones, behavioural change and the milestones that mark a woman's stages of life have been misunderstood, misdiagnosed and mistaken for insanity or demonic possession. 

At the very best, women's health and women's bodies have been taboo. At the very worst, it incited radical hatred, mistrust, misogyny and mass killings. 

It might be hard at first to understand why there is systemic and persistent misogyny in the medical field- after all don't doctors take a Hippocratic oath to heal and do no harm? What if Hippocrates himself was part of the foundational thinkers that distinguished women and their health apart, and led to a treatment philosophy that persists today?

Well, that would not only be accurate, it would also lend insight into just how difficult it is to change insidious ideas when spouted by the mouths of so-called experts. They can last literally thousands of years unchanged and unchallenged.

Oh, the uterus. For such a powerful organ, that can do so much, it has taken a long time to know anything about it. 

Female health lags in funding, in research papers, in solutions and in proper knowledge and has always been enshrouded in theological agenda and politics. The uterus has been caught up in some pretty dangerous political campaigns over the millennia. The uterus and its purpose has been full of mystery, intrigue and plotting…. It is hardly different today, just that today's issues are more nuanced and better disguised. Sometimes.

The history of hysteria is well documented. The herstory has been forgotten… along with most of herstory. But how hysteria and its medical origins continue to plague us all today is almost too eery to be comical or funny. Some of you may cry, some might laugh, some may feel rage. 

All those emotions and more are probably held within your epigenetics and are all real, are all correct. The history of women's health is linked to hysteria. The history of hysteria is the history of misogyny. It is the story of how women came to be enslaved, how they came to learn to hate their bodies and themselves and how we came to be scared to be ourselves, scared of our power, our voice and our leadership.

It is a fantastical story of the most extremes and it would be a great read if it weren't true and if we weren't still paying for the repercussions of our ancestors' trauma. But reading this story, feeling and releasing that rage, can restore truth, can restore power and can change the future.

So let's go. Let's rewrite the herstory of women's health. 

The first description referring to hysteria is by the ancient Egyptians in 1900 BC (Kahun Papyrus) and identifies the cause of hysterical disorders in spontaneous uterus movement within the female body. The Eber Papyrus (1600 BC) is the oldest medical document containing references to traditional symptoms of hysteria. They hypothesised that the uterus moved up or down inside the body and this caused the woman to act irrationally and wild and in order to relocate the uterus correctly, they would place acrid smelling substances at the nose and sweet smelling substances at the opening of the vagina, if the uterus required lowering and the inverse if it required moving up.

The Greeks also maintained that the uterus wandered and moved around the body, and hence would cause hysteria (deriving from the Greek hyster, meaning womb). Melampus, was a great healer and a physician. He is considered the founder of psychiatry born around 1400 BC. Leading the Greek health campaign for women, Melampus spoke of the women’s madness as derived from their uterus being poisoned by venomous humours, due to a lack of orgasms and “uterine melancholy.” Thus arose the idea of a female madness related to the lack of a normal sexual life. 

Plato, in Timaeus (his mythic account of how the world might have been created), argues that the uterus is sad and unfortunate when it does not join with the male and does not give rise to a new birth. Plato spins a tale that the gods first created men and then punished those “who lived lives of cowardice or injustice” by turning them into women in their next lives. That is, the Timaeus suggests that women are a degraded state of humanity, a kind of punishment that follows from unwise behaviour. Aristotle and Hippocrates were of the same opinion. 


The earliest period for which we have detailed written accounts of women’s bodies is classical Greece during the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Various texts or medical writings, long associated with Hippocrates, were written. Roughly a quarter of these medical writings concern the health and diseases of women. This is the first clear differentiation of female and male bodies and these writings and the thoughts therein were foundational in the Western medical tradition.

Hippocrates (5th century BC) is the first to use the term hysteria. Like the Egyptians, and his fellow Greeks,  he also believes that the cause of this disease lies in the movement of the uterus (“hysteron”). He asserts that a woman’s body is physiologically cold and wet and hence prone to putrefaction of the humours (as opposed to the dry and warm male body not prone to humours). He proposes that women are mutilated men. These arguments rendered men superior to women and justified the need for women to subjugate themselves to their procreative powers and to the wisdom of their superiors. Western sexism and misogyny has its roots here.

At this time, there is a strong sexual and orgasmic based treatment regimen. The only cure to women's hysteria or wandering womb is to engage in sexual activity. Interestingly, in all the literature reviewed and as far as we can understand, there is no sense of pleasure required by the woman. When the disease is recognised in women, affected women are advised not only to partake in sexual activity (with men only), but also to cure themselves with acrid or fragrant fumigation of the face and genitals, to push the uterus back to its natural place inside the body. Young virgins, as well as older spinsters or widows should immediately marry and be sexually active with their husbands within wedlock to ward off hysteria, which could occur in any woman not regularly engaging in sexual activity. Orgys were encouraged and had a very different meaning to today.

You would be mistaken for thinking this sounded like the absolute best time to be a woman with the emphasis on sexual activity to ward off disease or issue… if only it were being touted in the same vein as the sexual health movement of today, where women are the ones in charge of their sexuality and sense of pleasure. No, alas, the women and their desires, hopes, dreams or feelings were quite irrelevant to the sexual activity that was required.

Moving forward to Roman times, the nuance of the language becomes quite overt and it is clear that the foundation of thought concerning women is less than equal. The Roman physician Galen (129-200 CE) professed that the vagina was an inverted penis and had the same organs as men, only in the wrong places, hypothesising that “women ...are inverted, and hence less perfect, men.’ Galen really solidified a misogynistic basis for medicine and treatment of people in general. 

Hysterical cures are revolutionised by Soranus (a Greek physician from the 1st half of 2nd century AD, practising in Alexandria and Rome), who wrote a treatise on women’s diseases and who is considered the founder of scientific gynaecology and obstetrics. He now heralds that women’s disorders arise from the toils of procreation, their recovery is encouraged by sexual abstinence and perpetual virginity is women’s ideal condition.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Greek-Roman medical culture had its new epicenter in Byzantium, where physicians inherited Galen’s science without making any significant innovations. The texts of Hippocrates and Galen were translated and commented on in Arabic, Hebrew and became widespread and well-known.

The mainstream view of the time is one in which the woman is a physically and theologically inferior being, an idea that has its roots in the Aristotelian concept of male superiority. These views hold true into the 13th century virtually unchanged since 5000 BC. We enter the Middle Ages with a strong belief that women are hysterical, inferior, and should not engage in sexual activity unless married or for procreation. 

Upon these beliefs, Thomas Aquinas, the Doctor of the Church (1225-1275) wrote “woman is defective and misbegotten" … “the woman is a failed man” in his compendium of the main theological teachings of the Catholic Church; Summa Theologica. It is one of the most classic pieces of theology and philosophy in the Western hemisphere upon which most of our thinking and society has been developed. The foundation for medicine is that women are defective, a deep philosophical disparity was established and maintained. 

St. Thomas’ theological descriptions regarding women's inferiority are, perhaps, the start of a misogynistic crusade in the late Middle Ages.

For over 5000 years of history, hysteria was considered from two perspectives: scientific and demonological. Aquinas believed that women were so inferior that they were witches and demons. In question 117, article 3, St. Thomas says that “some old women” are evil-minded; they gaze on children in a poisonous and evil way, and demons, with whom the witches enter into agreements, interacting through their eyes. 

From the thirteenth century onwards, the struggle with heresy assumes a political connotation. “Hysterical” women are subjected to exorcism: the cause of their problem is found in a demonic presence. If in early Christianity, exorcism was considered a cure but not a punishment, in the late Middle Ages it becomes a punishment and hysteria is confused with sorcery. This continues for several centuries. One of the most famous outbreaks of hysteria being in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts.

From the 14th century onwards,if a physician cannot identify the cause of a disease in a woman, the only logical conclusion he can make is that the woman has been procured by the Devil. Never was there a consideration that more research into women's health was required. Mental health concerns that are now well documented as associated with female health issues from perimenopause, pregnancy, menopause, hormonal fluctuations from the menstrual cycle are found to be sinful, and will remain so until the early 20th century. The doctor finds sin in mental illness because, "the devil is a great expert of human nature and may interfere more effectively with a person susceptible to melancholy or hysteria" warns the church's physicians.

Hysteria is considered a woman's disease, and who more than women are prone to melancholy? This disease is the basis of female delirium: the woman feels persecuted and the devil himself is the cause of this “mal de vivre”, which deprives the women of confession and forgiveness, leading them to all forms of sin even to commit suicide.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries a trend of thought that delegated to the woman a social mission started developing. The Enlightenment is a time of growing rebellion against misogyny and sorcery becomes a matter for psychiatrists: in the Encyclopédie we read that sorcery is a ridiculous activity, stupidly attributed to the invocation of demons. And further: mental illness starts to to be framed within the "scientific view" and hysteria is indeed described in the Encyclopédie as one of the most complicated diseases, originally identified by ancient scientists as a problem related to the uterus.

In the 18th century, hysteria started being gradually associated with the brain rather than the uterus, a trend which opened the way to neurological aetiology: if it is connected to the brain, then perhaps hysteria is not a female disease and can affect both sexes. But this is not such a simple shift as it may seem.

During the Victorian Age (1837-1901) most women carried a bottle of smelling salts in their handbag: they were inclined to swoon when their emotions were aroused. We see evidence that even in the early 20th century it was still believed, that, as postulated by Hipocrates, the wandering womb disliked the pungent odour and would return to its place, allowing the woman to recover her consciousness. Proving that dangerous ideas have incredible staying power. 

Fast forward to the modern age, the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1865-1939) provides a contribution that leads to the psychological theory of hysteria and the assertion of a “male hysteria” whereby he diagnoses himself with hysteria and melancholy. Until Freud it was believed that hysteria was the consequence of the lack of conception and motherhood. Freud reverses the paradigm: hysteria is a disorder caused by a lack of libidinal evolution (setting the stage of the Oedipal conflict) and the failure of conception is the result not the cause of the disease.

Much work was done during and after the second world war. And the last 50 years more work has been done than the previous centuries in developing our thinking around female health and hysteria. We know that the concept of hysterical neurosis was deleted with the 1980 DSM-III: hysterical symptoms are in fact now considered as manifestations of dissociative disorders.

These theories of Hippocrates remain unchallenged for millennia. Millions of women all over the world lost their lives to witchcraft, sorcery, childbirth, misdiagnosis and failure to be treated or to search treatment from fear of hysteria diagnosis. Women have literally spent millennia silenced about their bodies, the changes we go through and have been deeply programmed not to speak about our changes, our wombs, our bleeding or our difficult mental states. Thus mental disorder, especially in women, is so often misunderstood and misinterpreted, generates scientific and / or moral bias, defined as a pseudo-scientific prejudice. That fear has been programmed deeply over thousands of generations, it is written in our epigenetics and it is our generation's task to fully realise freedom from these outdated, incorrect and bigoted beliefs.  

The history of women's health is the history of misogyny and patriarchy.  It continues to pervade our society today where a group of American men have the power to make decisions about women's bodies, women's health, women's businesses and women's lives with the flick of a pen on any given Tuesday. Why? Because in 5000 BC (7,000 years ago) Hippoacrates suggested that women are inferior and this thought has continued until 2023.  Having the courage and the fire to challenge this rhetoric and to disprove that dialogue is incredibly important. It is our mission and our guiding cause. 

We are in really good company. We  follow behind the free-thinking, strong women accused of witchcraft, we follow behind the 1920s Flappers, their message dismissed because of accusations they were scantily dressed and silly, we follow behind with the women of the 1940s who assumed all the roles the men at war could't with bravery, strength, gusto and courage, who upon the mens' return were sent straight back to their kitchens without thanks, we follow behind with the ERA feminists of the 1960s and 1970s their message dismissed because of accusations of hating men and destroying family values. Today we stand together with the female scientists and doctors determine to equalise female health and wellness. Today, we stand with women all over the world who are finding their own freedom - financially, socially, emotionally and professionally. Today, we are part of a new wave of feminism determined to rewrite the herstory of female health called Femtech. These entrepreneurs, like their sisters before them, are determined to change the status quo when it comes to women's rights, health and bodies. We are not on the streets marching with banners, but we are holding up digital signs to petition change for our XX compatriots. We are leading unicorn startups that provide cutting edge technology and science for women's health. We are building empires and funding research to change how we diagnose, treat and heal women-specific afflictions.

Many of us are also doing this while raising kind and decent humans. We understand a new way of healing women is healing the world. A way that allows us to seed our loving presence in communities big and small all over the world and see real change, this time from creating a completely new system that listens to and believes women.

We salute women owned businesses providing solutions for women's health without discrimination, taboos or fear. This is a radical act of justice reform. It is a radical movement of undoing the damage that has been done for women's health over 7000 years of "modern science." The world is ready, women are ready. Change is here.

Phenxx is on a mission to establish a female health initiative that is equal, unbiased and thorough. One that is being led by female scientists and doctors globally. One that listens to and believes female patients. We are committed to funding research into female health and reestablishing the truth and equality in health, across genders. 

Every single product we sell funds world class research into uterine health via our leading research partners because changing female health and rewriting herstory, is changing the world for all women. Everywhere. 

We invite you to join us and change the world for our daughters and our granddaughters.


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