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.