Hillary Clinton and the Resurrection of Old-School Hysteria

There’s a long tradition in American life of using women’s health to discredit them—as conspiracy theorists have done with the Democratic nominee.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Right-wing conspiracy theorists and some in conservative media would like voters to believe that Hillary Clinton’s health is on the brink—that if she’s elected to the presidency, she’ll collapse in the Situation Room; cough her way through the State of the Union; have seizures on Air Force One; and forget her train of thought while on crucial phone calls with other world leaders. They were only given more fuel when the Democratic nominee was diagnosed with pneumonia earlier this month—with conspiracy theorists imagining elaborate schemes her team must be employing, like the use of body doubles, in its effort to win the White House.

In some sense, the ever-tangled web of allegations seems very 2016, a product of the something-is-going-on rumor-mongering favored by Republican nominee Donald Trump—who, not uncoincidentally, has also promoted this particular conspiracy. But this sort of talk isn’t exactly new in American history.

Laura Briggs, a historian who specializes in reproductive politics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, draws a straight line between the Clinton claims and hysteria, an amorphous, catchall medical diagnosis given to women—typically white women—in the 1800s and early 1900s. Hysteria “was never just a disease,” Briggs writes at the start of a paper published in 2000. Historians now view hysteria diagnoses as the way society reckoned with women’s changing roles: At a time when women in greater numbers were seeking employment, higher education, and a louder voice, their bodies were used to discredit them. Then as now—with the first female nominee of a major party in the United States—American society grappled with where women fit into the public sphere.

We spoke in early September. Days later, after Clinton disclosed she had contracted pneumonia, I followed up to ask what Briggs made of this latest twist. She told me she sees a misogynistic double standard at work in the media regarding Clinton’s health. “When Hillary Clinton was nodding while other people were speaking, conspiracy theorists said she had Parkinson's disease. When she got diagnosed with an [actual] illness, the pneumonia a few weeks ago, the Internet said she was dead,” Briggs told me. Other politicians haven’t seen as much coverage about their illnesses, she said: “I think it's safe to say that if the press was not already running stories about the conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health, the pneumonia would’ve been a non-event. The trap was already set; the pneumonia sprang it.”

Our original conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nora Kelly: Conspiracy theorists haven’t settled on exactly what’s wrong with Clinton. They’ve accused her of having a seizure disorder, a brain disorder or injury, mobility problems, coughing problems—the list goes on. So I guess my first question here is: What’s going on? Why is it her health, specifically, that’s being targeted?

Laura Briggs: The thing I expect from elections where women are politicians is the suggestion that if they’re menstruating, then they’ll go off the deep end and start World War III or something. And, of course, you can’t do that exactly with a postmenopausal woman.

So the thing that’s so striking about this random collection of symptoms is that they actually really are all hysteria symptoms. She coughs, she has fits, she falls down, she has memory lapses—it’s really extraordinary. It’s like they’re working off of some very 19th, early 20th century script. And what’s even more striking is how much they actually echo the 18th century stuff about witchcraft: Women possessed often had fits, fell down, didn’t remember what they had said later. It’s a way of discrediting women as women.

In other words, you expect in an election cycle that the candidates would be disagreeing with each other and attempting to discredit each other on issues like fitness to be commander in chief. But what Hillary is being attacked for has really only the most tangential relationship to her fitness to be president. What she’s really being called is a woman—and a hysterical woman. It’s completely content-free, right? There’s no actual evidence of anything, except these carefully edited little video clips where she coughs—shockingly, she coughs—in the middle of a speech. After 25 years in public life, you can find someone doing all sorts of personal things on camera somewhere.

Kelly: Donald Trump has said explicitly that she lacks the “physical and mental strength and stamina” to carry out the duties of the presidency. He accused Mika Brzezinski of having a “mental breakdown” on air after she criticized him on Morning Joe. These allegations about women seem so old-school—and so unabashedly old-school.

Briggs: And that’s Donald Trump’s unique charm. He seems to embody a kind of … a way of being racist, a way of being sexist, that has not been popular in American public life for a half-century.

When [Clinton] was running against Barack Obama, you would hear hecklers in crowds shout things like “Iron my shirts!” And this was offered by commentators or in the media as examples [of] “Hey, there still are these guys out there who see women this way.” And with the Trump campaign, we don’t need that. We have right out front this version of misogynist, toxic masculinity that seems to give permission to all sorts of people to say whatever they like about women as women.

Kelly: You brought up hysteria. Can you describe in a general way what exactly hysteria was, and why scholars now think it was used to marginalize women?

Briggs: Hysteria was a way of describing an array of things—from mental illness to physical complaints—that had an almost unlimited list of symptoms. They included sort of bodily symptoms like coughing and fainting, to pain associated with childbirth, ovaries ... The root of hysteria, hyster-, is Latin for “womb.” And people think of it as associated with femaleness and femininity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of the generalized way in which it seemed to describe all women all the time. In other words, almost anything you could think of, from a headache and a bad day to a near-death kind of illness, could be rolled into this very generic complex of hysteria symptoms. And, of course, [it was] strongly associated with childbirth and menstruation.

Women used to be under control when we all lived on farms. [In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amid] rapid industrialization and rapid urbanization, this complex of symptoms seemed to be associated with modernity and the loss of some imagined golden age in which all things were right and as they should be. And so gender in general and women and femininity in particular seemed to be one of the places where all kinds of vague social anxieties get attached. At least that’s how historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries have thought about these things.

And it’s interesting to think about that description of those 40 years from about 1880 to about 1920 in parallel to the current moment. We’re similarly at a moment where the consequences of the last 40 years of what critics call neoliberal globalization has really played out as growing social inequality between rich and poor, and large-scale shifts in who’s controlling wealth internationally. We’re seeing this moment where the effects of deindustrialization and the effects of globalization and growing inequality—they’re not so much new as they seem irreversible.

There’s always been this impulse over the last 40 years in American political life to say change was just around the corner. And I think that’s much less credible now. I think the changes in the economy especially after the 2008 economic crisis seem deep-rooted and unchangeable to people. I think that’s where the sense that this is a grim moment, where only the most sort of Neanderthal account of what it looks like to return to that lost golden age, is going to gain any traction. You have to be Donald Trump. You have to be boastful and full of hot air and bombast to persuade people—any people—that really you could make America great again.

Kelly: Hysteria is no longer a medical diagnosis, and one question I wanted to ask you is if we still see its ripple effects today. But it sounds like you’ve already answered that.

Briggs: That very specific way that [hysteria] served as a narrative about social change and femaleness, it seems to me, doesn’t have as continuous a thread through U.S. culture. Which is why the allegations about Hillary’s health at first seemed, to me, to be so completely from left field that I wasn’t even paying any attention to them: “This is just craziness. This will go away.” And on the contrary, not only hasn’t it gone away, it’s been reported in the mainstream press. As a crazy story Trump is telling, but nevertheless, the more you repeat it, the more traction is gets.

So it’s not just that it was a one-off in the Trump campaign’s or his allies’ effort to throw mud and see what will stick. It’s clearly having this snowball effect that’s developing more power over time. There’s something about this narrative of Hillary being what I would call a hysteric—Hillary having all these undefined mass of illness symptoms that make her unfit, vaguely—this seems to have stuck. This is making sense to people.

Kelly: As I was reading up on the conspiracy theories and how health has been used to marginalize women, I was reminded that it’s really an ancient thing. I was reading about wandering wombs, an ancient Greek idea that women’s uteruses moved about their bodies and affected them in myriad negative ways. I have to imagine that these Clinton conspiracy theorists don’t realize that they’re participants in this really long history.

Briggs: I’m just going to repeat William Faulkner’s line: “The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.” It doesn’t matter if they know what they’re activating in American culture. History is one of the most persistent and powerful things that animates what we do and it is most effective when we don’t know that that’s what we’re doing. The reason our culture has a particular shape, the reason certain things work as ways of making fun of someone or opposing them or hating them is because they have a history. There’s something very material about the way history is present in our everyday lives. And especially in our political culture.

Kelly: A recent New Yorker article on Clinton health conspiracies brought up a point you made earlier: that if Clinton were of menstruating age, she would be getting the Megyn Kelly treatment. And I can only imagine what she would hear if she were menopausal. But those are such obvious ways to target women. What Clinton is getting seems to be more subtle.

Briggs: I think it wasn’t instantly clear how to use Hillary Clinton’s embodied femaleness against her. Because exactly as you say, we’ve seen Donald Trump referring to Megyn Kelly menstruating and being hysterical, and it took longer to find an idiom in which to completely discredit an older woman—a postmenopausal woman—for being embodied as female, and yet they seem to have done it. Because as we can see, this is not going away. It has not died on the vine. It’s just gaining steam.