Opinion: history shows us that when a public space opens up which centralises female experience and the collective voice that this does not always lead to long-term changes

"Women must belong to science, or they will belong to the church": that's what French statesman Jules Ferry declared in a speech in 1870. He was referring to the power of the Roman Catholic Church in France during the late 19th century, and the competing challenges to its teachings and philosophies proposed by scientific advancements of the time.

Both religious and medical teachings put forth claims regarding the root causes of female hysteria. In summary, if hysteria could be proven through scientific enquiry to have physiological determinants, then hysteria could no longer be attributed to supernatural or religious determinants, and thus, require religious management and intervention. For this brief time in history, as political, social, economic and psychological battle lines were drawn up and strengthened, women were endowed with increased visibility (though not control) as a pawn in this battle for ideological supremacy.  

There is probably no need here to point out the obvious dynamic this assumes: that women are objects, owned by patriarchal ideologies which govern their fathers, husbands, politicians, priests and doctors. The power battle was not about women necessarily. Rather, it concerned which patriarchal structure was more suitable for the control of women, and by extension, children, the family, and society.

Further research from the late 19th and 20th centuries suggested that women’s hysteria was often a form of PTSD

However, by confirming that hysteria is a physiological condition that can be treated according to medical knowledge, these scientists and scholars underestimated the consequences of this quest. Hysteria, indeed, is a physiological condition, now considered to be triggered by PTSD. Historically, however, hysteria was believed to be a disease connected with the uterus, from whence the name "hysteria" derived, emanating from the Greek translation.

According to 19th-century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, hysteria was the disease of heredity, typically "poor" heredity, such as children born out of wedlock, or parents prone to excesses, not living in good faith or from the working classes. Further research from the late 19th and 20th centuries, particularly that advanced by Sigmund Freud among others, suggested that women’s hysteria was often a form of PTSD.

This was as a result of sexual, physical and psychological abuse they suffer, largely from the domestic sphere, predominantly, at the hands of their fathers and husbands, and endemic throughout the bourgeoisie as well as the proletariat. Suddenly, the political will for scientific and medical advancement in the study of hysteria became less robust, and retreated, step by step, to the shadows of public discourse and power, wherein it largely remained until the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.

Leading US scholar and psychiatrist Judith Herman locates the starting point for this dynamic – of men listening to women - in the late 19th century, particularly in France where the activities of the large Parisian hospital, the Salpêtrière, attracted the attention of a host of young and ambitious scientists, scholars and medical professionals who sought an advanced breakthrough in the knowledge surrounding conditions of hysteria and trauma. The Salpêtrière, run by Charcot, catered to clientele including "the most wretched of the Parisian proletariat: beggars, prostitutes and the insane".

From RTÉ Archives, a 1986 Morning Ireland report about inequalities in the workplace featuring Sylvia Meehan, Chairperson of the Employment Equality Agency

Observing and categorising research findings would not be sufficient from Freud’s perspective; one must talk with these women. Herman maintains that such was the rivalry between Freud and Pierre Janet to make the breakthrough discovery that "for a brief decade, men of science listened to women with a devotion and respect unparalleled before or since. Daily meetings with hysterical patients, often lasting for hours, were not uncommon".

Both Freud and Janet reached similar conclusions through talking to these women. Their conclusion of hysteria stated that it was "a condition caused by psychological trauma. Unbearable emotional reactions to traumatic events produced an altered state of consciousness, which in turn induced the hysterical symptoms". Janet called this alteration in consciousness "dissociation", while Breuer and Freud called it "double consciousness". These findings were not well received and threatened the careers of those who continued to espouse them. Thus, they diminished with time.

What does this history have to do with Ireland in the 21st century? Plenty. Once more, due to a wide diversity of vested interests, a public space has opened up which centralises female experience: medical experience, professional life experience, and private life experience, with the boundaries demarcating these areas becoming increasingly porous and interconnected, not least due to social media and excesses in work-life balance. Religious and medical concerns and claims, alongside political, social, cultural and economic factors have inscribed the current debates in recent years with an urgency and fervour that cannot be contained, which may lead to a tipping point – to what kind of changes, one can only hope and dream.

Will this momentum translate into changes in policy, politics, law, discriminatory practices and general social and cultural value systems?

These fourth wave feminist energies are being harnessed by many individuals and groups nationally and globally. These include #MeToo, allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, the pay gap, Repeal the 8th, Women for Election, #WakingTheFeminists, Margaret Atwood literature and dramas and many more. Alongside research from organisations such as Women’s Aid, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, and the Rape Crisis Centre, these campaigns and revelations converge to tell of consistent increases in and the widespread prevalence of violence against women in everyday life. This convergence of voices has sparked a momentum that continues to gather pace and force, led by women, demanding women’s experience is listened to and believed.

But will this momentum translate into measurable changes in policy, politics, the law, systemic institutional structural discriminatory practices and general social and cultural value systems? As the saying goes, when one is accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression.

What will happen to the current research findings and outpourings of personal testimonies regarding women’s experience in 2018 and beyond? Ireland remains a patriarchal society, where institutional and ideological systems and networks are embedded with the rule of male privilege, which are intertwined with current practices of neoliberal capitalist economics. The visibility of token women, often placed strategically as puppets, and generalised lip service regarding equality has not altered this hugely in terms of the function and impact of the law, politics, and economics on the everyday lives of women and men.

Can this current momentum, and indeed solidarity, meet these major economic and cultural hierarchies with equal force to push through major change? Or will the pressure from dominant interests, as so often happens, engender strategies led by fear and pressure to silence this growing collective voice?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ