The Wandering Womb and Female Hysteria

Inducing hysterical paroxysm in a patient
Inducing hysterical paroxysm in a patient


We have 19th-century physicians to thank for the introduction of the vibrator, which was first heralded as a cure for a widespread female “disease” known as hysteria.

Hysteria was believed to cause a number of illnesses, including anxiety, irritability, sexual desire, insomnia, fainting spells, and bloating, which is why almost all women displayed some symptoms.

The condition has its roots in ancient medical theories about “wandering wombs,” where a displaced (and disgruntled) uterus caused women’s health problems.

White Cross Electric Vibrator Advertisement. 1913
White Cross Electric Vibrator Advertisement. 1913

The treatment? A “pelvic massage” that would induce a “hysterical paroxysm”, commonly known as an orgasm. This job was in the hands of Victorian doctors who manually massaged the women.

The Wondering Womb

The wandering womb belief was the belief that the uterus can move during pregnancy, either up and down or side to side. This belief was first recorded in an ancient Egyptian medical text known as the Kahun Papyri and was used to explain the occurrence of miscarriage.

The wandering womb belief was also used to explain the symptoms of labour, including contractions that did not have a consistent direction or were too strong or too weak, as well as the occurrence of postpartum haemorrhage. The theory was that the uterus was moving around because of the release of the afterbirth.

A pressurized pelvic shower, one of many remedies for hysteria.
A pressurized pelvic shower, one of many remedies for hysteria. (c. 1860)

In the Ebers Papyrus (1600 BC), there are also indications of “therapeutic measures to be taken depending on the position of the uterus, which must be forced to return to its natural position. If the uterus had moved upwards, this could be done by placing malodorous and acrid substances near the woman’s mouth and nostrils, while scented ones were placed near her vagina; on the contrary, if the uterus had lowered, the document recommends placing the acrid substances near her vagina and the perfumed ones near her mouth and nostrils.” – Source: Women and Hysteria in The History of Mental Health

Female Hysteria

It is no coincidence that hysterectomy, or removal of the uterus, resembles the word “hysteria.” Both terms come from the Greek hystéra, uterus, and this relationship dates back to classical antiquity that produced great works of thought and the arts, but whose scientific knowledge was sometimes not only very lost but was based on explanations that today would make people blush.

An example was the belief that the uterus was a kind of wandering animal capable of wandering aimlessly inside the woman’s body, and whose walks among the viscera were the cause of diseases such as “hysterical suffocation” (Hysterike Pnix) that it could not be arranged in any other way than, in the words of Plato (Timaeus), “when man and woman, united by desire and love, cause a fruit to be born”.

Series of three photos showing a so-called 'hysterical' woman yawning
Series of three photos showing a so-called ‘hysterical’ woman yawning

Plato is today a revered figure in the West as one of the fathers of Western thought, from philosophy to politics. On the other hand, he is not so well known for having also defined what we know today as ‘thinking with the penis’, when in his dialogue Timaeus wrote:

The genital parts, naturally deaf to persuasion, enemies of all yokes and restraints, resemble in man an animal rebellious to reason, and which, driven by furious appetites, strives to subdue everything and command everywhere.

Dialogues, Plato

But the philosopher’s reflection did not end there, but went on to define the female uterus as “an animal eager to procreate.” “If it remains without producing fruit for a long time,” added the philosopher, “it becomes irritated and angry; it wanders throughout the body, closes the passage to the air, prevents breathing, puts the body in extreme danger, and engenders a thousand diseases.”

Although some experts doubt that the philosopher really believed in it, in reality, Plato was just following a widespread idea of his time.

The father of medicine himself, Hippocrates, a contemporary of Plato, referred in his treatise on women’s diseases to hysterical suffocation, a condition that appeared when the uterus migrated to the upper part of the abdomen in search of fluid.

Female Hysteria
Female Hysteria

This caused women symptoms such as shortness of breath, heart pain, dizziness, loss of voice and excess saliva. This supposed movement of the uterus caused suffocation and a “ball in the throat” (globus hystericus) sensation.

To force the uterus back into place, Hippocrates recommended manual massage, but also soaking a piece of wool in perfume and wrapping it around the barrel of a bird feather, then inserting it into the vagina. At the same time, some foul-smelling substance, such as vinegar, was placed in the nose or horn powder was burned for the patient to inhale.

In this way, the uterus returns attracted by the aroma of the perfume in the vagina and fleeing from the annoying smell or smoke in the nose. However, the definitive and sure cure was “marriage or pregnancy”.

Handheld electric vibrator, 1909.
Handheld electric vibrator, 1909.

The curious thing is that this idea of ​​the uterus as some kind of animal with its own will lasted for centuries, even after it was known that it was anchored in place by ligaments.

500 years after Plato and Hippocrates, the Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia wrote that the uterus “closely resembles an animal” in that it “moves by itself here and there on the flanks and also upwards” toward the liver, the spleen or the heart. “In short, the uterus is like an animal within an animal,” he said.

There are descriptions of medieval exorcism to order the uterus to abandon other organs, listed in the formula from head to toe, and to remain “quiet in the place that God has assigned you.”

“I conjure you, womb, by our Lord Jesus Christ, so that you do not harm this maiden servant of God,” the ritual said. Documents like this suggest that hysterical suffocation was associated with witchcraft and demonic possession at the time. Medieval writings referred to hysterical asphyxia as “Globus hystericus”.

Hysterical Paroxysm

While the theory of the wandering uterus ended up falling, not so that of hysterical suffocation, which would later come to be known simply as hysteria. By then it was no longer considered exclusively restricted to women, but it was still maintained that they were the most affected, reflecting the misunderstanding of menstrual cycles, menopause and its physiological and psychological effects.

Hysterical Paroxysm
Hysterical Paroxysm

Some authors assumed an influence of the putrefaction of the semen retained in the uterus, while others attributed the disease precisely to the lack of penetration that deprived women of the presumed benefits of male emission.

One solution to the problem was the manipulation of the female genitalia until reaching the “hysterical paroxysm”, orgasm. But since female masturbation was considered taboo, doctors did not recommend it. Some specialists resorted to this cure, sometimes through a midwife who was in charge of massaging the patient.

Early Vibrators

The first vibrator was a hand-held device that was used to treat female hysteria. It was invented in 1869 by American physician George Taylor and dubbed “the manipulator”.

It was a steam-powered device designed to stimulate the pelvic area by vibrating in order to relax the pelvic muscles. It was believed that this would help to alleviate some of the symptoms of hysteria, such as anxiety, irritability, and insomnia. As it was a quite new technology, many people were apprehensive about using it and it took some time for it to become accepted by the medical community.

A 19th century steam-powered vibrator.
A 19th-century steam-powered vibrator.

“Doctors didn’t like it because you couldn’t move it and take it with you on a house call, and they also didn’t enjoy shovelling coal into it.” Source: Daily Beast

In the 19th century, with electricity and industrialization, the first electromechanical vibrators appeared. In 1883, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville created an “electromechanical medical instrument colloquially known as “Granville’s hammer”, that allowed women to massage themselves at home, allowing them to cure their “wandering wombs.”

The vibrator was held against the lower abdomen and the vibration was used to massage the womb and reduce the symptoms of hysteria.

An antique Hamilton Beach vibrator. Ancient Point
An antique Hamilton Beach vibrator. Ancient Point

This device was much more powerful than the earlier hand-held device and it was much easier to use. It was a more efficient way of treating female hysteria without laborious manual effort and was quickly adopted by the medical community.

The vibrator was the fifth household appliance to hit the market, after the sewing machine, the fan, the kettle, and the toaster, and before the vacuum cleaner and the iron.

Vibration is life
One 1910 vibrator ad, titled “Vibration Is Life,” reads: “The secret of the ages has been discovered in Vibration. Great scientists tell us that we owe not only our health but even our life strength to this wonderful force. Vibration promotes life and vigour, strength and beauty…Vibrate Your Body and Make It Well. YOU Have No Right to Be Sick.”

Battery-powered vibrators were introduced as a household appliance as early as 1899, but doctors were still trying to convince patients it was worth $2-$3 a visit to be treated by gigantic “pelvic massage” machines.

“After a while, patients realized that if they could order one from Sears for $5, why should the go to the doctor for $2 to $3 a visit?” – Source: Daily Beast

The electric vibrator led to the development of a variety of other products, such as electric massagers and vibrating chairs. These products were used to treat a variety of medical conditions, including muscle pain, headaches, and arthritis. The electric vibrator eventually made its way into the home and was used as a tool to provide relaxation and pleasure.

The Electropathic Belt (also known as Electric BandElectric Chain, and Electro-Galvanic Band) became the most popular among them all. Although the electric belt was briefly promoted by doctors, it had become symbolic of quackery by the 1890s.

In order not to be a wandering animal, of course, the female womb has had to travel a long historical path to be understood by a medicine dominated by an androcentric point of view.

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