We as human beings would like to think that our beliefs and actions are founded in reality and logic. While we have made mistakes as a species, we often see these as temporary blips in the grand scheme of history: sure, our psychological theories and treatment of women was sexist and not based on any real evidence, but we’re better now, right?
One need not look further than the 20th century to see an extremely obvious example of sexism in psychological treatment. The concept of “female hysteria,” a catch-all concept male psychologists used for centuries and across cultures to describe what they perceived as the “over-dramatized” symptoms and (to them) strange and unexplainable experiences women faced every day, holds its roots in 1900 BC Egypt. As Christina Vanvuren describes:
“Hippocrates was the first to coin the term “hysteria” and agreed with his predecessors that this so-called condition — attributable only to women — was due to a “wandering womb,” believed to be caused by sexual inactivity. Recommended cures were, naturally, that women should increase sexual activity within the bounds of marriage.”
It’s easy to look at these views on woman as archaic, but we can thank Freud for a great deal of the “modern” ideas of how hysteria was defined in a clinical sense, and the fact is that the term was not removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until the 1950s. In fact, a significant number of women in that period were prescribed tranquilizers to help them combat things like boredom, or, more disturbingly, trauma due to marital and sexual abuse. This resulted in addictions and other negative psychological side effects. As much as we’d like to think those beliefs were a comfortable distance away, there are still women alive today who were forced to confront this type of ignorant sexism from their own doctors.
And these problems aren’t gone just because the terminology might be. These issues are not just a result of misdiagnoses on the parts of ignorant doctors, but also the ways in which women are societally encouraged to behave with “dignity,” so as not to appear “shrill” or “unfeminine,” and to conceal from the world the aspects of their physical and emotional health that have been deemed taboo and improper to discuss, but are used to undermine their credibility at every possible chance. Without needing to go into specifics, I think we can all think of women who have been unfairly labeled, even in very public platforms, to catastrophic results. As a result of this expectation, woman are not always able to properly advocate for themselves in situations when a psychologist or doctor misdiagnoses them or prescribes them an incorrect medication.
To say things are better than they were before (which really isn’t saying that much) is not the same thing as saying they are where they need to be. We still have a long way to go if we’re going to be able to truly make psychological treatment even-minded and safe across the spectrum.
Nothing, perhaps, says just how loose and outdated the whole system really is than the fact that the DSM, which to many in the field has been near-gospel since its creation, has been fraught, especially recently, with controversy over its validity. Symptoms listed for the various mental disorders in the volume are considered by many to be subjective or even unscientific. While the field of psychology and psychological treatment is as scientifically sound (and important) as that of physical medicine, it’s worth remembering that not all that long ago, people were using leeches to cure illnesses. No matter how scientific a field may be, it can be fraught with preconceptions, biases, politics, and ignorance, and to face these head on is not to undermine the importance of these fields, but to embrace them. Just as we have taken leaps and strides in the psychological field over the last hundred years, so too must we press forward, knowing that we’re never “done” addressing the mistakes we have make, and always looking for the ways in which we can be better to those we treat, no matter their gender, sex, walk of life, or state of mental wellness.