In the beginning, there was ‘hysteria’. From the medical magicians of ancient Egypt to the bearded philosophers of Classical Greece, men have pondered this condition for millennia. The tell-tale signs were extremely broad, including anxiety and erotic fantasies, but one thing was clear: it only happened to women.
Plato believed hysteria was caused by the mourning womb, which was sad when it wasn’t carrying a child. His contemporaries said it arose when the organ wandered around the body, becoming trapped in different body parts. The latter belief persisted well into the 19th Century, when the disorder was famously treated by bringing women to orgasm with early vibrators.
Even today, the notion that a woman’s biology can befuddle her brain is a staple of popular culture. If a woman is moody, she’s asked if it’s ‘that time of the month’. If she’s feeling sexual, she’s told she might be ovulating.
It turns out this isn’t unfounded – some women really do feel more anxious and irritable around their period, and it’s true that we’re more motivated by sex around the time an egg is released. (Of course, that isn’t to say that symptoms can always, or usually, can be explained this way; it’s important to remember that the tendency to attribute women’s complaints to conditions like ‘hysteria’ can have dangerous results.)