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Fonctions du Cliché : du Banal à la Violence

Claudine Raynaud
Peter Vernon

Clichés of Femininity

Sybille Kershner

Texte intégral

  • 1 For a discussion of hysteria see for example the collection of essays edited by Charles Bernheimer (...)

1When we talk about clichés of femininity, Freud immediately comes to mind. His theories were the centre of attention in the feminist movement of the seventies and eighties. They were either developed further, or, more frequently, were heavily criticised. A lot of this criticism focused on Freud's early works concerning hysteria, the feminine malady per se at the beginning of this century. I do not intend to enter into this discussion now, but would rather take a step further back.1 In contrast to its own mystifications, psychoanalysis does not only possess a history, but also a pre-history of its own:

  • 2 All translations from German cited in the text are my own.

The assertion of Freud's modernity, claiming that psychoanalysis marks a radical break with all bourgeois 19th century scientific traditions and that it constitutes an entirely new and independent paradigm... neglects to which... high degree the science of the unconscious... is indeed a child of the 19th century. The psychoanalytic construction of legends started with Freud himself and was continued systematically by his pupils, notably by his biographer Ernest Jones. They have sketched the image of psychoanalysis being a "creatio ex nihilo", product of a lonesome genius who, completely on his own, against the currents of his time and facing the opposition of contemporaneous science, created a revolutionary psychology from scratch. (Lohmann, 1988, 81)2

2It may be worthwhile to go all the way back to the eighteenth century, a period during which definitions of the feminine were abundant. In Germany at least, this was one of the most productive periods of Geisteswissenschaften (the humanities), a term I am using avant la lettre, being well aware of the fact that a division of natural sciences on the one hand, and social sciences and the liberal arts on the other hand as respective independent entities was then just beginning to emerge. Firstly I shall sketch some predominant traits of contemporaneous psychology, and subsequently I shall concentrate on the role of hysteria.

3I. In the eighteenth century psychology was still very much intertwined with philosophy — and in particular Popularphilosopie — as well as literature, medicine and law. It was regarded as an integral part of Anthropologie, anthropology in this context being defined as the science of man / men / women, and only occasionally including cultural anthropology or ethnology. Ernst Platner, then an important representative of the emerging social sciences, in his Anthropologie für Aerzte und Weltweise (1772) defines the three main areas of anthropology as: firstly the analysis of "parts and functions of the machine alone" ("Theile und Geschàffte der Maschine allein"), i. e. anatomy and physiology; secondly that of "the forces and qualities of the soul, without taking into consideration the changes of the machine" ("die Kräfte und Eigenschaften der Seele... ohne... die daraus in der Maschine erfolgenden Veränderungen"), this being called psychology "or, which is just about the same, logic, aesthetics and a major part of moral philosophy" ("Psychologie, oder welches einerley ist, Logik, Aesthetik und ein groBer Theil der Moralphilosophie"); thirdly the examination of the relationship between body and mind, anthropology itself (Platner, 1772, III ff.).

4This relationship was explored elaborately, and at times with painstaking attention to detail. Adam Bernd's seemingly endless descriptions of his moodiness, constipation, dizziness, cold sweats, headaches or lack of appetite, spread out over 1200 pages of his autobiography entitled Eigene Lebens Beschreibung (1738-1745), or Albrecht von Haller's remarks of 1740 on his incessantly changing moods in his diary, Tagebuch seiner Beobachtungen iiber Schriftsteller und iiber sich selbst, enter well into this context:

  • 3 Works like Johann Georg Müller's Bekenntnisse merkwürdiger Manner von sich selbst of 1791 or Johann (...)

Within 24 hours my state of mind has altered ten times. Yesterday I was in good spirits, today halfway vain and worldly; then irritated and dull; now again calm and cheerful, and more open to Christian values having read some good books." (Haller, 1787, 241)3

5Observing oneself — the basis of what was to become psychology — seems to have been one of the more respectable preoccupations at the time. We find its results not only in autobiographies, but also in novels, diaries, letters and essays, very few of them written by women. These observations may reflect a certain loss of identity, manifesting at times if not a lack of faith, then at least some ill-defined feeling of spiritual need. Once they were canonized as literature and, even better, had obtained a respectable status due to their publication in semi-scientific journals, psychology as a social science was well on its way.

6Many of these "confessions" or "secret diaries" focussed on aspects of maladaptation or deviance, and from the very beginning the differences between men and women played a major role. The status of women was constantly being put into question, and already the immense flood of publications reflects the intensity and the depth of the problem. All through the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries we find works defining the position of women in society, some written in a poetic spirit, others giving down-to-earth hints and tips on the fulfilment of feminine duties; very few denouncing the oppression of the female gender, and a good number of publications about the dissolution of traditional values due to young girls devouring novels, neglecting their needle work and thereby contributing to the fall of European civilization, though how this is exactly supposed to happen we are not told.

7Things became more interesting once science was called upon to support the notions of female inferiority with irrefutable facts, when Moraltheologie was being replaced by Moralphysiologie, supposedly based on "objective" anatomical findings (see Honneger, 1991 and Moravia, 1980). In view of a multiplication of cognitive strategies, formal step-bystep deduction was no longer the only acceptable way of developing theory but gave room to inductive strategies based on empirical observation and systematic comparison. The rising importance of factual obervation was reflected in the creation of Erfahrungsseelenkunde/ empirical psychology, a term if not invented, then at least made popular by Goethe's friend Karl Philipp Moritz who between 1783 and 1793 edited a journal entitled Magazin zur Erfahrungsseelenkunde. Anthropology, by now quite fashionable, was stimulated by its desire to trace the visible, the body, back to its invisible causes, the mind and soul.

8Clearly, its roots lie in medical research. As early as 1746, the avid self-observer, Albrecht von Haller, had been posing the question of just how the heart, the motor of blood circulation as described by Harvey, functioned and what exactly caused its motion. Not being able to answer this question precisely, he nevertheless arrived at an interesting differentiation between muscular irritablity (stimulation leading to contraction) versus nervous sensitivity (stimulation leading to pain). Those doctors who accepted his theories very soon refuted the equal importance of both forces, accentuating the predominance of sensitivity, a force controlling the female body much more strongly than the male one. The female body, as Ernst Brandes states in Über die Weiber (Leipzig, 1787), is quite evidently constructed of weaker nervous and muscular tissue. He does not support his hypothesis by empirical facts, but by an equally valid reference to the Greeks, noting that they had already observed that "female corpses burned much more rapidly than male ones, that the female body contained fewer solid and more loose parts than the male" (Honegger, 1991, 54). This observation was frequently confirmed by others. Karl Friedrich Pockels, co-editor of Moritz'journal, reveals in his Briefe über die Weiber (1792):

The female nerves are more pliable, more tender, more irritable and weaker than ours. Even female giants generally suffer much more from nervous weakness, or nervous diseases... According to all thinking physiologists, it is in the entire female machinery of the body, in the softness and rapidity of sensual perception, in the thinner, more flexible fibres of its original organisation that something can be found which constitutes the observed difference in mental capacities in the two sexes. (Pockels, 1792, 26ff.)

9From there it was only a short step to the assumption that women, due to their biological constitution, were ready victims of mental illness. This conclusion was occasionally drawn before 1800, but did not become a widely held belief until about fifty years later, resulting in an impressive predominance of female patients in mental hospitals. As Showalter has proved, this holds true for England, and perhaps to a lesser degree for Germany as well (Showalter, 1987, 8).

10Pockels and his friends were quite clearly inspired by Pierre Roussel and Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, the French "cartographers of landscapes made from muscles and tissue" (Honegger, 1991, 135). Whereas other authors did occasionally take into consideration certain social conditions or the educational system to explain or justify the differences between the two sexes, Roussel, in his Système physique et moral de la femme (1775), holds them to be of little importance. It is again the lighter bones, the softer vessels, muscles and ligaments that contain in themselves the roots of the female status quo. In females, sensibility (Empfindlichkeit), paired with sensitivity, sentimentality and emotionality, are the predominant traits that make them attractive to men. Their access to the world of ideas is limited, however, and so is their physical strength and mobility. Whatever little there is is consumed by the recurring demands of menstruation or childbirth. Strength of character is not part of nature's gift to women, and on the contrary it is their lack of personality, their ready submission to existing rules and structures that keep society together. Roussel's colleague Cabanis supports him wholeheartedly; for him, psychology and physiology become entirely inseparable.

11The major German study on comparative anatomy and physiology claimed to be the first thorough piece of research on this subject. Inspired by a work on Ueber die korperliche Verschiedenheit des Negers vom Europaer (1785) by Samuel Thomas Sömmering, Jakob Fidelis Ackermann attempted a detailed analysis of the material differences between the sexes. In Ueber die korperliche Verschiedenheit des Mannes vom Weibe auBer den Geschlechtsteilen (1778), he emphasizes the different bone structures, rejects previous findings stating that the female brain is lighter than the male (its weight, in proportion to the weight of the rest of the skeleton, is supposedly higher) and finds differences in every organ but the eye. Conclusion:

The female gender... does not occupy itself with such activities that require constant physical force and muscle. Furthermore, their bones and muscles are weaker, the beginning of their nerves thinner; and thus it does not surprise us that they are generally more apt for scientific analysis than men whose fate it is for the most part to do physical labor. (Ackermann, 1778, 147)

12This statement contradicts not only the vast majority of contemporaneous médecins-philosophes / Philosophische Ärzte, but also most self-proclaimed authorities on the subject all through the 1920s. Until well into the twentieth century it was held that because of their organic constitution women could not think independently. Should they do it regardless they would inevitably damage their reproductive organs, thus threatening society as a whole. New theories did not necessarily destroy these clichés: Darwinism, for example, stating that the bodily constitution of women was nature's response to the need of procreation of the species, only fuelled traditional discriminatory notions. It must have been comforting indeed to believe that both Nature and (evolutionary) History confirmed the female status quo. The female gender as a whole was regarded as inferior to the male — with all the consequences this entailed. Women's supposedly built-in vulnerability to mental derangement was used as a reason to keep them out of the professions, "to deny them political rights, and to keep them under male control in the family and the state" (Showalter, 1987, 73).

13II. The female genitals were for a long time at the center of every theory of gender. Until the discovery of the functions of the ovaries in the midnineteenth century, the uterus, in Greek hystera, in German Gebarmutter or (in the eighteenth century) simply Mutter, represented the essence of femininity: tota mulier in utero. Going back to the Corpus Hippocraticum, if not earlier, the notion of the wandering uterus was wide-spread throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Being a mixture, apparently, of an organ and an animal, it would wiggle its way up to the throat and clog it, resulting in suffocatio matricis or globus hystericus and causing mental anguish, excessive moodiness or hysteria.

14Whereas the uterus had been scrutinized for literally hundreds of years, around 1850 it was the ovaries that became the center of attention. The emphatic request made by Johann Christian Gottfried Jörg (Handbuch der Krankheiten des menschlichen Weibes/Handbook of the Diseases of the Human Female. Leipzig, 1809) did not remain unanswered for a long while:

Where can we find an organ in the body of an animal that shows its influence in such manifold ways and... that has been completely neglected by medical research? Let us hope that the creative powers of this organ... will never be overlooked again by physicians! (Honneger, 1991, 209)

15The creative powers apparently inherent in the ovaries were held to produce more harm than joy, however. As victims of their "periodicity", women easily succumbed to mental illnesses that had no equivalent in men, and even if it did not come to that, their lives were an endless chain of pain and suffering, from the onset of puberty, via menstruation and childbirth to the final crisis of menopause. More and more we can observe that gynaecologists began to take on the task of defining the role of women in society, thereby competing with psychologists and psychiatrists. The fact that the genitals were considered to be the organs determining the very essence of the female — for the male it is the brain, of course — supposedly gave to those who examined them an insight that went far beyond that of the common man.

16Even though around the beginning of the nineteenth century the source of the evil was occasionally located higher up and, via certain vapeurs, transferred to the higher regions of the brain, the vast majority of female mental disorders seem in one way or another to be still connected to the genitals.

In contrast to the rather vague and uncertain concepts of insanity in general... theories of female insanity were specifically and confidentially linked to the biological crises of the female life-cycle... during which the mind would be weakened and the symptoms of insanity might emerge. (Showalter, 1987, 55)

17Even though hysteria was now proclaimed by Charcot, Briquet, Janet and some of their German counterparts to be a disease of the brain, and possibly an hereditary one, the treatment, to a certain degree, had to resort to old-fashioned ovarian therapy. By then, "moral management" had become the generally accepted treatment of most mental disorders, and restraint chairs, handcuffs, leg-locks, leather straps, screw-gags etc., were no longer fashionable. More modern methods of treatment thought to be adapted to the specific symptoms of female mental disorders consisted in faradism, forced feeding, arsenic, the introduction of ice into the vagina or the leeching of the labia and the cervix, for example.

18A disease as vague and protean as hysteria could not in any case be cured by the removal of chains alone. Its symptoms varied widely: as well as pseudo-epileptic fits, cramps, headaches and drowsiness, we find a loss of sensitivity, possibly leading to frigidity, the loss of sight, the sense of smell and of hearing, partial paralysis, irregular menstruation and weight loss. On the mental side the symptoms included: loss of memory, loss of the capacity to speak (Anna O., created the "talking cure" after losing her mother tongue), lack of willpower, pantomime, lying, "exaggeration of suffering... wilful imposture, simulation of all kinds of diseases" (Tuke, 1892, 620).

  • 4 Charcot was one of the first to systematically employ photography as a means of diagnosis as well a (...)

19These mental disorders often responded favourably to hypnosis, but at times only the ovarian compressor could help. Thanks to Charcot's elaborate use of photography — Hugh Welch Diamond, a physician in the female department at the Surrey Asylum, documented medical progress on the other side of the Channel — we have ample evidence of the various positions and facial expressions hysterical women employed in the full-fledged scenario of a crise hysterique.4 According to Charcot, who was then considered a renowned expert in this field, it consisted of three distinctively different phases: first of all, cramps and seizures, secondly the grands mouvements culminating in the dramatic arc de cercle, and thirdly the more subdued attitudes passionnelles, exhibiting in a classical theatrical style high degrees of pleasure, hallucination or complete insensitivity of the skin (just like medieval witches when they were pricked with needles).

  • 5 The "Weir Mitchell-Playfairsche Mastkur" (discussed in detail by Showalter) was popularized in Germ (...)

20Weir-Mitchell's rest cure, consisting mainly of restriction of movement and rich food, was in part taken up by Freud in the early stages of his kathartische Psychotherapie.5 The treatment of hysterical women formed the basis of his theories of neurosis which later evolved into the elaborate concept of psychoanalysis. It may be assumed that some of the roots of his derogatory attitude towards women are to be found in the social climate in which the treatment of Dora and Anna O., to name only his most famous patients, took place. For Freud, who did not systematize his ideas on femininity until the late 1920s/early 1930s (Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Differences between the Sexes [1925], Female Sexuality [1931], Femininity [1933]), a woman remains a castrated man. The vagina is an open wound, the clitoris a crippled penis, inevitably leading to penis envy etc., etc. Underlying it is the same notion of female inferiority so artfully developed in the eighteenth century. There is nothing particularly violent about these definitions, one might say. However, the fact that these prejudices and clichés have been fortified and sanctioned by the medical profession give them much more weight and authority, and it is not rare that any criticism of it is again categorized as a hysterical symptom. The ovarian compressor has been lifted, the power of male definitions has not.



Ackermann, Jakob Fidelis, 1778. Uber die korperliche Verschiedenheit des Mannes vom Weibe auBer den Geschlechtsteilen. Mainz: Wenzel.

Bernheimer, Charles and Claire Kahane, eds, 1985. In Dora's case. Freud-Hysteria-Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Braun, Chritina von, 1994. Nicht ich: Logik, Lüge, Libido. Frankfurt am Main: Neue Kritik.

Chesler, Phyllis, 1976. Female Psychology: the Emerging Self. Chicago: Science Research Associates.

Cixous, Hélène, 1976. Portrait de Dora. Paris: Editions des Femmes.

Didi-Huberman, Georges, 1982. Invention de l'hystérie. Charcot et l'iconographie philographique de la Salpêtrière. Paris: Macula.

Haller, Albrecht von. Tagebuch seiner Beobachtungen über Schriftsteller und über sich selbst. Bern: Hallersche Buchhandlung 1787,2. Theil, 8. August 1740, 241.

Honneger, Claudia, 1991. Die Ordnung der Geschlechter. Die Wissenschaften vom Menschen und das Weib 1750-1850. Frankfurt, New York: Campus.

Lohmann, Hans-Martin, 1988. "Unter der Spitze des Eisbergs. Ursprünge und Ursprungsmythen der Psychoanalyse." Freibeuter, 81-87.

Moravia, Sergio, 1980. "The Enlightenment and the Sciences of Men." History of Science, 18, 247-288.

Platner, Ernst, 1772. Anthropologie für Aerzte und Weltweise. Leipzig: Breitkopf.

Pockels, Karl Friedrich, 1792. Briefe über die Weiber. Hannover: Ritscher.

Schlesier, Renata, 1990. Mythos und Weiblichkeit bei Freud. Frankfurt am Main: Hain.

Schnitzler, Arthur, 1991. Mediginische Schriften. Frankfurt: Fischer.

Shcaps, Regina, 1982. Hysterio und Weiblichkeit. Frankfurt, New York: Lang.

Showalter, Elaine, 1987. The Female Malady. Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980. London: Viking Penguin.

Tuke, Daniel Hack, 1892. A Dictionary of Psychological Medicine. London: Churchill. Vol. 1.

Veith, Ilsa, 1965. Hysteria. The History of a Disease. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Wagner, Nike, 1987. Geist und Geschlecht. Karl Kraus und die Erotik der Wiener Moderne. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Willis, Sharon, 1983. "A Fine Romance. Freud and Dora." Diacritics, 13, n° 1.


1 For a discussion of hysteria see for example the collection of essays edited by Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane (1985). Sharon Willis (1983). A broader perspective is addressed in Phyllis Chesler (1976). In France, the work of Hélène Cixous is particularly pertinent to this discussion. See for example Cixous, 1976. In Germany, Renate Schlesier (1990) has undertaken an in-depth analysis of Freud's notions of femininity, 1990. Christina von Braun's work (1994), is more provocative and less scientific. Regina Schaps, in her study (1982), is very much inspired by Ilza Veith, 1965.

2 All translations from German cited in the text are my own.

3 Works like Johann Georg Müller's Bekenntnisse merkwürdiger Manner von sich selbst of 1791 or Johann Georg Lavater's Geheimes Tagebuch. Von einem Beobachter Seiner Selbst, published anonymously in 1771, or Jacob Friedrich Abel's Sammlung und Erklärung merkwtirdiger Erscheinungen aus dem menschlichen Leben of 1784, bear witness to the manifold aspects of self-observation.

4 Charcot was one of the first to systematically employ photography as a means of diagnosis as well as documentary and supportive evidence, the implications of which have been analyzed in detail by Georges Didi-Huberman, 1982. In contrast to Charcot, Diamond used photography as a therapeutic tool as well, hoping that playing on female vanity would lead to a speedier recovery of the patient.

5 The "Weir Mitchell-Playfairsche Mastkur" (discussed in detail by Showalter) was popularized in Germany by Binswanger (Jena) and Burkhardt (Bonn) and heartily approved by A. Schnitzler, an expert in creating female literary figures afflicted by hysteria. Fräulein Else is the best example. Schnitzler, who started out as a physician before becoming a writer and who was considered by Freud as a kind of "double"' succeeded more than others in integrating medical and psychological concepts into his literary works. See Arthur Schnitzler, 1991. The impact of these theories on literature and the fine arts is discussed by Nike Wagner, 1987.


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© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1997

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