Women and Gender Seminar: Adrienne Phelps Coco, University of Illinois at Chicago

Women and Gender Seminar
Friday, January 22, 2010

3:00 pm to 5:00 pm

“The Contested Body of Mollie Fancher: Lay Authority and the Hysteria Diagnosis
Adrienne Phelps Coco, University of Illinois at Chicago
Commentator: Kim Nielsen, University of Wisconsin–Green Bay

Through the biography of Mollie Fancher, a late nineteenth-century invalid from Brooklyn whose reported mystical abilities sparked international controversy, this paper will examine the authority of lay people in the pre-Freudian hysteria diagnosis. The diagnostic criterion of hysterical temperament—excessive displays of emotion, vulgarity, deceptiveness, selfishness, and an untrained mind—gave laypeople the opportunity to challenge medical knowledge because doctors did not have full authority over the judgment of character. Ordinary people could assert their own “expert” opinions on someone’s temperament based on their personal knowledge and reputation. As Mollie’s case demonstrates, the conflation of personal reputation with medical symptoms in the hysteria diagnosis created the possibility for people who did not manifest the hysterical temperament to resist being diagnosed with the disease and to assert their own interpretations of their bodies.