Harmful Psychology Theories about Women

illustration by Phil Kirkland


Throughout psychological history, there have been numerous harmful theories that have attributed women’s frustrations off as preposterous. When I say numerous, I can count several off the top of my head such as the Aversion Project of the 1970s and 1980s which involved forcing white lesbians and as well as gay soldiers to undergo sex change operations or forced to be given chemical castrations simply because the theory of homosexuals in the South African military was viewed as wrong).

Take for example, “female hysteria”. It lasted a very long time. Around the times of 420 B.C. to the mid-1900s. Many of the symptoms were sexual desire (oh the horror! A woman having sexual desire!), insomnia, anxiety, irritability, faintness, shortness of breath, muscle spasms, and a tendency to “cause trouble”. In very extreme cases of “female hysteria” women were subjected to enter an asylum or even undergo a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus). Turns out, “female hysteria” was attributed to sexual frustration, with women being unable to orgasm via sexual intercourse.  However, many doctors and psychologists didn’t just think this was ONE attribute. They were very inclined to believe that every type of “abnormal” behavior a woman had, that individual had hysteria.

There were many inhumane treatments for hysteria. Mercury was considered very effective in treatment for hysteria in the Victorian times. It was highly toxic- as it is now used in fire retardants. It made patients be in a state of nausea, making actions of violence less evident. Another treatment in the Victorian times would be cold baths and cold douching to the uterus. It was viewed if the patient’s’ blood were cold and the female reproductive parts were cold, the treatment were working. Cerebral congestion was treated by leeches to the temples and followed by a cold lotion to a shaven scalp. These showers and treatments would cause the patient to shiver violently, unsupportive limbs, and a slow pulse.

Women’s sexuality was a big focus on Victorian psychologists and doctors. Hypersexuality was considered a constant danger in women. Men used this to their advantaged in many ways. If a woman were not obedient enough to their husbands, their husbands would admit them to asylums claiming they had hysteria. The husbands would then file for divorce. Usually, the women that were admitted would live the rest of their lives in the asylums. These asylums were not a great place to be at all. There was numerous mistreatments, experiments, and anything you could think of- these asylums did to these women.

Throughout the history of psychology and even the medical fields, women have been mistreated immensely. Is it because men were fearful of women? Were they afraid of the sexual prowess the women could hold?

We have come a long way but there are still mistreatments of women in the psychology/medical field- especially in mental hospitals. Between the years of 2012 and 2014, Human Rights Watch visited several mental hospitals in India. They interviewed over 200 women. Many were forced to be institutionalized by their fathers or their husbands. In 2012, Deepali was institutionalized against her will simply because she had a fight with her husband, claiming she had bipolar disorder. Some women were just institutionalized simply because they had an intellectual disability- and they did not need to be in a mental hospital.

During the interviewing of these women, Human Rights Watch found that there was a critical shortage of accessibility and government services for women with mental disorders or intellectual disabilities. In these mental hospitals in India, there was mistreat of women. There was prolonged detention (one women was there for around 20 years!), violence, neglect, and involuntary treatment (many women were forced to take medications that made them almost paralysed, as they could not move). Many women underwent electroconvulsive therapy with consent as well.

Unfortunately, mental hospitals in India aren’t isolated incidents. Women in the world today are facing similar injustices and even though we have progressed in terms of gender equality, we still hope to achieve completely equal rights and opportunities.


Si is a college student yearning to do something great in the world, whether it’d be baking cookies while wearing purple lipstick, traveling to faraway places, or kicking ass with intersectional feminism. You can find her on Tumblr.

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