Medicating Women’s Feelings? What Else Is New?

It's as sexist as it is timeless.


woman health

According to a piece in the New York Times that ran on Sunday, “at least one in four women in America now takes a psychiatric medication, compared with one in seven men.” While the number is certainly jarring (and cause for alarm), the idea of “medicating women’s feelings” as a way of managing them is hardly a new one, though it as sexist as it is timeless.

“Female hysteria” was once a medical diagnosis, specific to women’s mental health and temperament. The all-encompassing diagnosis was a one-size-fits-all approach to understanding and controlling the so-perceived messy minds of women, including emotional outbursts and sexuality. Given the “Good Old Boys Club” nature of ancient and modern medicine, it is hardly a surprise that sexist opinions were not only allowed to flourish, but guided most research, with dubious (and sometimes dangerous) remedies for treatment.

It’s no wonder that as we’ve come to embrace female sexual liberation in the aftermath of the women’s liberation in the form of first- and second-wave feminism, we are still quite unsure to do with the peskiness of a woman’s right to feel. The pushback on human expression is something experienced by both men and women, of course; male children are socialized that to know that “big boys don’t cry” from an early age.

Striving to have well-managed emotions and well-managed children, women are suffocated by the desire to prove that they are “okay.” That they can, in fact, “have it all,” without cracking. Locked into this idea that women are spoon-fed about “having it all” is the quiet notion that when a woman has it, she should be happy with it. And if she doesn’t have it, she should be ardent and brilliant in her strides toward it. And if she fails at either of these things, and if she emotes in any way that she’s been derailed by it, she’s wired wrong. (Read Liz Spikol’s essay about the different ways of dealing with those emotions.)

As women struggle to compete with male peers, one of the golden rules is to never cry at work. Tears, of course, are a sign of emotional sensitivity, weakness, and that a woman is “too emotional.”

“Women who cried at work felt intense shame, embarrassment and disappointment in themselves,” writes Jenna Goudreau in her Forbes column titled, “Crying At Work, A Woman’s Burden.” “Moreover, many felt the crying had been incredibly damaging to their success, saying they’d lost promotions and even board seats.”

But of course, men are encouraged (and often do) show their emotions at work, though it’s usually labeled as “passion,” or the very worst “anger,” which is almost universally accepted as a rational emotion (and often rewarded). By contrast, a woman who expresses her emotions faces direct consequences that impact her standing in her career — emotive women are often seen as a liability.

“But at what cost?” posits Julie Holland, a New York psychiatrist who authored “Medicating Women’s Feelings” for the Times. “I had a patient who called me from her office in tears, saying she needed to increase her antidepressant dosage because she couldn’t be seen crying at work. After dissecting why she was upset — her boss had betrayed and humiliated her in front of her staff — we decided that what was needed was calm confrontation, not more medication.”

Both social- and work-oriented cultures have to be honest and accepting of the fact that human beings — both men and women — feel things, not all of which are pleasant or even manageable in the moment. That’s just part of life.

Follow Maya K. Francis on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published with an incorrect byline.