The "Crazy Megyn" taunts registered to some as fourth-grade bullying. But questioning a woman's sanity is a 4,000-year-old form of abuse, used to repress women for behavior that men deemed objectionable.
Sigmund Freud perpetuated the notion in Western culture, declaring "hysteria" an exclusively feminine disease — and a justification for taking a woman's freedom. Symptoms matched the behavior of anyone who’s ever been upset: anger, sadness, anxiety.
The idea dates back to ancient Egypt, when “spontaneous uterus movement” was thought to induce hysteria, according to the United States Library of Medicine. People thought the cure was placing “acrid substances” near a sufferer’s vagina. Those who didn't respond to treatment were locked away.
Carolyn Zerbe Enns, a psychology professor at Cornell University, said women had to invent a branch of psychology — feminist psychology, which starts with the belief that women aren't inherently crazy — to combat these old myths, which were used to push daughters and wives into submission.
"The carryover of those cultural things,” she said, “affect women even today.”
Manifestations today are subtle and accepted as normal: Men call female partners “hysterical." Male bosses wonder if female employees possess the mental endurance to carry out difficult tasks. Male politicians dub the women journalists who challenge them "crazy."
Sometimes, Enns said, a man who acts this way believes he's protecting a woman's best interests.
“Donald Trump says, ‘Oh, I love women' — but, of course, they must fit into a certain category,” Enns said. “His hostility is aimed at women who are particularly competent and don’t fulfill his expectations for being a ‘good woman.’”
Men once had the right to lock “perfectly sane” wives in insane asylums, wrote Phyllis Chesler, co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology, in “Women and Madness.” Perhaps the women did not want to have sex. Perhaps they wanted to have too much sex. Perhaps they didn’t feel like making dinner. Perhaps they wanted to change the Sunday School curriculum.
Chesler pointed to the early case of Elizabeth Packard, who was committed to a Massachusetts asylum with “brain fever” in 1835 after disagreeing with her husband over religion. She was released three years later and began fighting for the rights of the other institutionalized women she met, who didn’t seem crazy to her.
Though the chances of unnecessary asylum commitment today are much lower, the assumption that women are crazier than men — even this man — remains prevalent in popular culture.
Consider the "Universal Hot vs. Crazy Matrix," a recent viral video featuring a 46-year-old man charting the appropriate levels of beauty and insanity in potential mates. “Crazy is measured from 4 to 10,” he said. “Because, of course, there’s not a woman who’s not at least a 4 crazy.”
In modern times, men call women “crazy” or say they’re “overreacting” to project superiority, said Harris O’Malley, a dating coach who blogs at The Good Man Project. The insult plays on the stereotype that men are “logical” and women are “emotional.”
“Small wonder that abusers love to use this c-word — it’s a way of delegitimizing a woman’s authority over her own life,” O’Malley wrote in a column. “When we talk about why we broke up with our exes, we say, ‘She got crazy,’ and our guy friends nod sagely, as if that explains everything. Except what we’re really saying is: ‘She was upset, and I didn’t want her to be.’”
In relationships, trying to convince your partner she’s crazy is known as “gaslighting,” an insidious form of emotional abuse, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. (The term came from the 1938 play "Gaslight," which featured a husband who attempts to drive his wife insane by dimming the lights and then denying the light had changed after his wife noticed.)
Nicole Hemmer, a Virginia historian and co-host of the Past Present Podcast, drew a parallel between the play and Trump’s recent treatment of political reporter Michelle Fields, who last week accused his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of grabbing her arm and pulling her toward the ground.
“If it’s hard to wrap your mind around the gaslighting of a nation, just watch the dynamics at work on a single person: Michelle Fields,” Hemmer wrote. “Lewandowski said Fields was crazy. ‘Totally delusional,’ he tweeted. Trump suggested she made the whole thing up.”
“This has to be, aside from my father’s death, the worst experience I’ve gone through,” Fields said.“The hate I’ve received, the email messages… I’m sure, Megyn, that you can sympathize.”