Her-steria

The first day of the hearings to confirm Supreme Court hopeful, Justice Brett Kavanaugh was filled with incessant disruption. Women stood outside of the building cloaked in long, capillary red robes and white wimples like handmaidens from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian, though not feeling too far-fetched now, fiction. Inside the proceedings, protesters, largely women, brandished signs, shouted down congress people, and were forcibly removed, some arrested. The chaotic atmosphere prompted Republican Senator Benjamin Sasse to remark exasperatedly:

People are going to pretend that Americans have no historical memory and supposedly there haven’t been screaming protesters saying ‘women are going to die’ at every hearing for decades. So the fact that the hysteria has nothing to do with you [Kavanaugh] means that we should ask what’s the hysteria coming from. The hysteria around Supreme Court confirmation hearings is coming from the fact that we have a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Supreme Court in American life now.

Unsurprisingly, Sen. Sasse’s statement did not earn him any popularity points. Definitely a hard swipe left situation for good ole Ben. I watched his remarks get passed around, eviscerated, reanimated, and shredded again on social media and other sites by feminists, media and political critics, and regular, now perpetually enraged people for the better part of Tuesday afternoon. This was until Trump said or did something incomprehensibly asinine, jerking the news cycle over to a new track like a broken amusement park ride.

I felt angry, too. I found it offensive that Sasse might try his own clumsy hand at gaslighting by suggesting that women’s stalwart defense of their reproductive rights has “nothing” to do with a justice specifically tasked by conservatives to overturn Roe v. Wade. Nice try, pal. If you think we’re not onto what you’re doing, I’ve got a trunk full of rare Beanie Babies I’d like to sell you—tags still on, real cheap. And I thought I might be experiencing my second rage stroke of that very day when I saw the word “hysteria” sprinkled throughout his remarks. It’s a term meant to classically disparage women as irrational, overwrought, overly emotional beings who, when hysteria overtakes them (which, according to some people, is every day that ends in “day”), cannot be counted on to make a decent cup of coffee let alone make an important decision about their life and well-being. It’s is also connected to arcane and disproven diagnostic theories that lumped a range of emotional, physical, and psychological symptoms, typically exhibited by women, together under the generic label “hysteric.” Three guesses how much top-notch medical treatment women received for their mystifying “hysteria” that did not at all involve copious amounts of psychotropic drugs?

I was prepared to dye my fuzzy bathrobe red, staple some white paper together for a hat, and buy a ticket to D.C. when some part of my PhD work in Gender Studies issued a dusty cough in my brain and I remembered learning about how “hysteria” was the Greek word for uterus and that both Greeks and Egyptians believed that a woman’s womb affected her entire body. This is partly true, thanks PMS! But according to these ancient civilizations, people thought the womb “wandered” through the body, fucking up other organs. Basically, the uterus was a thug, a feminized Paulie Walnuts from the Sopranos making the rounds—leaning on the lungs, roughing up the liver, and giving the kidneys a proper shake down. The cure? Aromatherapy. Simply place pleasing scents under the genitals (not joking) and terrible odors under the nose and that womb will go careening toward those delightful smells of fresh baked cookies and lavender fields every damn time. If that doesn’t work, try getting her to sneeze really hard (again, not joking). These are the same folks who gave us democracy and the pyramids. So.

I see what Sen. Sasse was trying to do when he pulled up that word from the recesses of his mental files marked “idiotic and demeaning things about women I learned from terrible movies and shitty pop culture,” but what he actually did was underscore the power of women’s bodies. He copped to the very reason why women vehemently insinuated themselves in the Kavanaugh hearings, and recognized the root of so much sweaty fear on the part of, in most cases, men for centuries. Pussy power, for lack of a more sophisticated designation. It’s a real thing.

The women dressed as handmaids, the women in the room, the women outside the building and on the street—our embodied presence was already driving an agenda before Kavanaugh took his first sip of warm water to give his first non-answer.

The following day the room was temporarily barred to protesters. Women showed up anyway. I watched footage of a long line of women standing outside the building. Their hands were raised, palms out in the same gesture that Evangelicals use when they are testifying to the message of God. The camera panned down the line, focusing on the word “dissent” written in black sharpie on both of each woman’s palms. Their bodies literally bearing their objection to this attempted coup on our autonomy. In another instance, Senator Orrin Hatch, a leathery Republican from Utah crouched on the wrong side of history for more than four decades like a buzzard over desert carrion, called one of the protestors a “loud mouth” and demanded her removal. Mouths, uteruses, hands, arms, legs, faces, breasts, feet—our bodies have always been the sites of resistance and rebellion and this time is no different.

Kavanaugh is the canary in the coal mine of women’s reproductive rights. He is the harbinger of an attempt to further mitigate our bodies. That might look pretty tidy in the crisp ink of legal documents and disorienting language of precedents. Except that women are not paper. We matter—noun and verb. We might be censored, but we will never be silent. We will continue to use our bodies to disrupt the space, to subvert these attempts to leash any of our “wandering” parts, and to speak for us as one, mighty hysterical chorus.

 

 

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Sheila C. Moeschen I am a writer from Boston. Visit sheilamoeschen.com for more.

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