Legitimizing Female Emotions

By Rebecca Capurso

In the days after my mom died, I found myself apologizing to people in my life. Sorry I don’t have it in me to answer the phone, sorry to be bothersome, sorry if I made you uncomfortable, sorry, sorry, sorry. Ultimately, I was afraid that my emotions—my grief, fear, and anger—were an imposition to others. No one actually gave me a reason to think that, but I apologized nonetheless. Sorry, just in case you think that my feelings are taking up too much space. What’s funny is that, in reality, I held most of my feelings inside, and kept them contained to “appropriate” levels when I was around others. And yet I felt guilty.

What if I had cried in public, walked down the supermarket aisles in tears? Heck, I didn’t even cry in front of my friends. I didn’t want to make a scene or come across as an emotional wreck in the eyes of strangers, friends, and family alike.

When we think about the gender that has the most to lose for showing emotion, we tend to think about “men.” Men have historically been chastised and threatened with a loss of status for openly showing feelings like sadness and fear, while women are considered to have a greater freedom of emotional expression without concern of social consequences. But any woman can tell you that that’s simply not true.

“Hysterics” throughout History

Throughout history in the Western world, female displays of emotion have been considered to be pointless and a hindrance to the “reasonable” society around them (exemplified by the majority of the reasons for why women couldn’t vote before 1918). The emotional reactions of women were once pathologized and called “hysteria”—stemming from the Greek word hyster, meaning uterus/womb. In the eyes of 19th century doctors, a woman’s “wandering womb” was thought to be responsible for any display of excessive feelings ranging from anxiety, to loss of sexual appetite, to too much sexual desire. Women who were not prim and proper were characterized as hysterical or crazy. As a result they were treated oddly enough with vibrators to tame their uterus and were often committed to mental hospitals. The psychological diagnosis remained in medical texts until 1952.

Women still have their emotional displays—or lack of emotion—criticized and nitpicked privately and publicly. Just take a look at the world of modern politics. Men have a history of questioning women’s ability to lead because of the belief that female emotions will get in the way. In 2016, the sexist criticism Hillary Clinton faced while running for the U.S. presidency showed just how prevalent this belief still is. Ironically, as the most qualified candidate, Clinton lost to a man who many people argue does let his emotions get in the way of effectively leading the country.

An even more recent example is the Judge Kavanaugh hearing. A stoic Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford shared the details of her assault by Kavanaugh when they were in high school to help determine if he was fit to be on the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh gave an angry, heated rebuttal that President Trump praised, calling it “powerful, honest, and riveting.”

His intense emotional display was not troublesome enough to keep him from being voted onto the Supreme Court as it surely would have been if he were a woman. The double standard seen here is an obvious example of society’s (very binary) thoughts on “masculine” vs. “feminine” emotions—anger is an emotion best suited for men to display. An angry woman in our culture is a “crazy” woman.

Pop-Culture and P.M.S.

Moving beyond the realm of politics, we have Serena Williams’ so-called “meltdown” at the US Open tennis match, and the comic that further criticized her angry reaction. The world had sudden amnesia as plenty of male tennis players have displayed anger in disagreement with an umpire without the backlash. Not to mention the “Hot Crazy Matrix” video that went viral, in which a man attempts to chart all women in terms of their ratio of “hotness” to “craziness.” Because, of course, you don’t want a woman in your life who’s “too crazy.”

Then there’s the ever-present question women are faced with: “Are you on your period?” Hearing this question enough can cause women to question their own feelings: “Am I actually sad, or am I just hormonal?” “Hysteria” might not show up in the medical texts anymore, but the idea is still alive and well in the minds of many, especially in Western cultures. In fact, the emotional symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome seem to hardly exist in non-Western cultures. This leads to the possibility that a woman’s emotionality around her period is not actually a “syndrome” but a way to dismiss and pathologize feelings such as frustration, irritability, discomfort, and fatigue.

Even in the face of violence, tragedy, and injustice, women are consistently pressured to tamp down those stray unacceptable emotions or risk receiving the title of “crazy bitch.” After something unthinkable, a woman’s feelings should be unequivocally legitimized by everyone in her life. This should be a given, and yet it’s still something we struggle with as a society. Simply scroll through #WhyIDidntReport, where sexual assault survivors shared the reasons for not coming forward, including the fact that their experiences were never taken seriously. So if that’s the case, how can we take it a step further and give women the right to freely express day-to-day emotions while expecting to be understood and accepted?

Rewriting the Rules of Emotions

One study further demonstrates how reluctant we are to legitimize women’s emotions. In it, participants looked at male and female faces expressing different emotions and offered explanations for why each person expressed the emotion. The results showed that participants were more likely to say that the men’s emotions were a reaction to a situational factor, whereas the women’s expressions were attributed to them simply being emotional—an internal factor.

Not agreeing politely or refusing to laugh it off shouldn’t make a woman a “cold-hearted bitch.” Being passionate shouldn’t make her “irrational.” Openly shedding tears shouldn’t make her “hysterical.”

It ultimately comes back to the pressures women have historically faced to not take up too much space and not be an imposition on others (read: men). Sit down, shut up, and don’t make a scene. And of course, anything other than smiling and nodding falls under the category of “making a scene.” Many of us have internalized these rules to such an extent that we feel guilty for not complying. This is why I apologized for my sadness when my mother died despite the fact that no one in my life asked me to be sorry.

This isn’t to say that men and other genders aren’t also being told how and what to feel. The truth is that we’re all pretty damn emotionally restricted, and this is a troubling state of affairs. One way we can begin to overcome this is to show open, honest displays of emotion, practice empathy wherever we go, and encourage everyone else in our lives—regardless of gender—to do the same. And women, don’t apologize for your feelings.