The psychologist Dr. Charles S. Myers coined the term shell shock in an article for The Lancet in February 1915, after seeing a number of cases of mental distress in soldiers who experienced shells bursting near them at close range. Yet Myers quickly realized that many of the men exhibiting similar symptoms “had never been near an exploding shell, had not been under fire for months, or had never come under fire at all.” He admitted shell shock was “a singularly ill-chosen term,” and the British medical community quickly suggested "war neuroses" instead. But the public had already latched onto the memorable alliteration, and “shell shock" has remained in popular discourse ever since.
Though a misnomer, historians have argued that shell shock provided a convenient way for doctors to separate the mental traumas exhibited by soldiers from the "effeminate associations of ‘hysteria.'” For centuries, hysteria was thought of as a uniquely female condition, used to explain everything from fainting to sexual desire. Victorian women assumed they were so susceptible to the disease that they carried smelling salts around with them, believing pungent smells could help keep their emotions in check. But while hysteria might have been accepted as an explanation for a Victorian woman's nerves, it was considered an inadequate, emasculating explanation for a male soldiers' mental health. Not only did medicine separate the experiences of men and women; the experience of the soldier was understood as uniquely difficult and traumatic.
It makes sense then that there is little evidence showing women at the time being treated for "shell shock"—the male and female minds, and their respective suffering, were considered distinct. But as the historian Susan Grayzel notes, Huntley's infanticide case and her "air raid shock" diagnosis pose difficult questions. Were air raid shock and shell shock considered similar, or even equivalent, conditions? "Was she in any way akin to those on the battlefields who suffered from similar war or fear-induced mental anguish? ... Under these circumstances—and it is hard to know to what extent Elizabeth Huntley was unique ... the blurring of the line indicating who exactly was under fire seems fully accomplished." If a woman at home in London could experience comparable mental distress to those in France and elsewhere, then not only would men no longer be the only ones “under fire;” women’s minds could be seen as equivalent to men’s, and their suffering just as great.
The solution, it seems, was not to accept that reality: Instead, psychologists and doctors invented yet another new condition, called "civilian war neuroses.” The emphasis of “civilian” in the title is key, reinforcing a dichotomy between the home front and the war front. Medical authorities were willing to admit that those not directly in the line of fire—such as Huntley—were susceptible to the traumas of warfare, but were unwilling to completely equate the mental sufferings of soldiers and civilians.