My uterine identityDate Released: Tue, 12 July 2016 15:57 +0200
‘Hysterical’ is defined as a state of being overwrought, emotional, uncontrolled, uncontrollable, unrestrained, frantic, wild, and frenzied. I am currently (thankfully) not hysterical, however as my impending hysterectomy looms nearer, I may well become so! Facing the imminent removal of my uterus, I have been confronted with surprising reflections on my own and society’s prejudice and presuppositions regarding women and their reproductive organs. I have been asked if I am not concerned that I will feel like ‘less of a woman’ without it. As a consequence I have become selective and somewhat reluctant in my discussions on this procedure. My Gynae assures me I will still look the same (at least from the outside) after the operation. Why would I then be considered ‘less of a woman’ sans a uterus that has been pretty much out of order for the past five years and caused me a great deal of pain and ill health?
Of course it is because of the association between femininity and reproductive ability. Without my uterus I am barren. I cannot ever be pregnant again. I will not participate in the monthly ritual of menstruation. And this renders me less a woman, and slightly more androgynous. Where do these ideas come from? For at least 2000 years the term ‘hysteria’ was used to refer to a condition where the uterus was thought to cause emotional or behavioural disturbances in women. It was the first mental disorder attributed to women and Hippocrates hypothesized that the uterus could wander about the female body, causing all manner of havoc in the process. The theory was that the uterus would be prone to ‘infection’ due to the female body being cold and moist, in contrast to the male’s dry and warm body. Thus the uterus could ‘go bad’ if not exposed to the male body adequately. This led to widows, single women, virgins and sterile women being regarded as ill, anxious, and consequently ‘hysterical’. The cure of course is to partake in sexual activity and to use fumigation of the face and reproductive organs to ‘push’ the uterus back to its natural position in the body (sounds like fun!).
Throughout subsequent decades and centuries the uterus was blamed for physiological and psychological disorders in women. Politics, philosophy and religion continued to shape ideas surrounding womanhood and reproduction, and in 2007, Charmaine Saunders denounced the hysterectomy as a largely profit-driven and unnecessary procedure. She stated that the medical world regards the uterus as useless, potentially cancer-bearing and utterly disposable once it has succeeded in reproductive tasks. The removal of the uterus thus renders women stripped of the natural progression through reproductive loss and transition to menopause. In contrast I choose to regard my hysterectomy as an act of self-care and defiance of normative expectations. My voice has too often been silenced by societal disgust toward all things menstrual for me to be silenced now once more when I am consciously eliminating the very cause of my menstrual woes.
However, I am very aware of the impact that an unrelated medical mindset has on women and certainly acknowledge that Saunders’ statement is most likely often true. In fact, having had two cesarean sections is a direct causal risk factor for the uterine condition I struggle with today. In our reflecting on the merits of this organ, we need to be mindful not to exclude anyone who identifies herself as female in the absence of certain reproductive organs. Nor should we define motherhood or mothering potential on the basis of the presence of a functional uterus (as many adoptive parents, male and female, can validate). So what am I really having surgically removed? Biological essentialism may call this hysterectomy the removal of an exclusively female reproductive organ. From a social constructionist view I will continue to create and express my identity and gendered (or not) behaviour just the same as I always have. Of course without the sanitary products and contraceptives, but certainly with the same amount of hysteria as ever.
By Angie Vorster