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Women's Mental Illness
A Response to Opression



Women throughout history have been considered the weaker sex. They are commonly believed to be more susceptible to emotional breakdowns and mental illness as they are deemed to be not as psychologically durable as men. Are women truly a weaker sex mentally, or do we perceive them this way because of patriarchal society and existing stereotypes? Are women fragile or are the breakdowns simply results of years of male domination? I intend to detail and describe women's mental illness during the Victorian era and in today?s society in order to explore these questions as I believe women's mental illness has, for the most part, been created by man.

Mental Illness During the Victorian Era

Mental Asylums Pre 1850

Belgian Cage

Before the mid-eighteen hundreds, common belief was that those who suffered from mental illness suffered because they had a "disease of the soul" (Goldberg, 24). Their madness supposedly stemmed from an evil within, and they thus were treated as animals. Patients in these early asylums were kept in cages, given small amounts of often unclean food, had little or no clothing, wore no shoes, and slept in dirt. Because the patients could often live many years in such conditions, the caretakers became more confident that these human beings were in actuality closer to animals and thus deserving of such abuse (Ussher, 65).

Mental Asylums Post 1850

During the mid-eighteen hundreds, a movement to reform the mental asylums began to permeate throughout society as popular belief began to change about the mentally ill. Those who suffered from madness were no longer suffering because God deemed them ill, but because of a disease of the brain, one that could be studied and eventually cured. Thus, reform began. Patients started being fed well, were given clothing and shoes, and were removed from their chains. Thus, this humanitarian treatment and change in the very perception of mental illness fuelled scientific development.

Early Doctors and Treatments

Rotary Chair

Many doctors rushed to the area of mental health during the mid-nineteenth century as opportunities for experimental treatments emerged. Because these doctors had no formal training in the area, many followed their own stipulations or beliefs about mental illness and tested their theories on patients in asylums. An example of a peculiar form of treatment was the Rotary Chair (pictured) "in which the patient was strapped, would be turned on its axis at very high velocity, thereby creating a centrifugal force that caused extreme discomfort and fright from intense pressure to the brain, nausea, and the sensation of suffocation" (Goldberg 84). The idea behind this treatment was to reset the patient's equilibrium and brain. Another example is the Padded wheel which acted as a treadmill ?in which the patient was imprisoned? (Goldberg 84). Such treatments were common and carried out across the countryside.

Attitudes Toward Women and Mental Illness

Women during this time were deemed to be highly susceptible to becoming mentally ill as they did not have the mental capacity of men, and this risk grew greatly if the woman attempted to better herself through education or too many activities. In fact, women were seen as most likely having a mental breakdown sometime during their life as "the maintenance of [female] sanity was seen as the preservation of brain stability in the face of overwhelming physical odds" (Ussher 74). Thus, women often suppressed their feelings, as to not appear mad and reassumed the passive, housewife role.

Hysteria and the Wondering Womb

Bed Rest

The idea of the Wondering Womb developed during this time, as madness was associated with menstruation, pregnancy, and the menopause. The womb itself was deemed to wander throughout the body, acting as an enormous sponge which sucked the life-energy or intellect from vulnerable women? (Ussher 74). Thus, women became synonymous with madness, as they were deemed to be emotional and unstable. If a woman of the Victorian era were subject to an outburst (due to discontentment or repression), she would be deemed mad. The word Hysteria became the general term for women with mental illness and cures included bed rest, seclusion, bland food, refrain from mental activities (such as reading), daily massage, and sensory depravation. Though these treatments do not seem too appalling, they were comparable to solitary confinement and would often drive a woman to further insanity.

Anorexia- The Fasting Girls

Anorexia, though prominent for many years prior, was officially recognized as a diseaase in 1873 (Ussher 77).FashionIt flourished during the nineteenth century as women wished to exemplify their femininity. In denying food, a woman could truly be passive and become a weightless accessory for her husband. The physical and spiritual ideal of anorexia also became a status symbol for many women. Working class women had to eat in order to have energy to work. Thus, only middle to upper class women could afford to be anorexic. Cures included being admitted to an asylum where women rested and were excessively fed.


Thrillers Club

The idea of nymphomania developed during the Victorian era. One-third of all patients in Victorian asylums suffered from this mental illness. It was described as an irresistible desire for sexual intercourse and a "female pathology of over-stimulated genitals" (Goldberg 80). Nymphomania included much more than a simple sexual drive, however, as it was also associated with a loss of sanity. It was described as an "illness of sexual energy levels gone awry, as well as the loss of control of the mind over the body" (Goldberg 86) and included women who allowed their bodies to become subject to uncontrollable movement as nymphomaniacs "threw themselves to the floor, laughed, danced, jumped, lashed out, smashed objects, tore their clothes, grabbed at any man who came before her" (Goldberg 89). It was also believed that those who suffered from this madness would, without treatment, eventually become a raving maniac, robbed over her mind (Goldberg 87). Gyno ExamA woman could be placed in an asylum for nymphomania if she was promiscuous, bore illegitimate children, was a victim of an assault or rape, was caught masturbating, or suffered from man-craziness, a term used during this time period to describe flirtatiousness. When a woman was brought to the asylum, she was subject to a pelvic exam where the doctor claimed she had an enlarged clitoris the size of a penis. Upon later inspection if the clitoris had returned to its normal size, she would be released and deemed cured. Cures for nymphomania included separation from men, bloodletting, induced vomiting, cold douches over the head, warm douches over the breasts, leeches, solitary confinement, strait-jackets, bland diet, and occasional clitorectomies.

Spinsters and Lesbians

Spinsters and lesbians were considered a threat to society during the nineteenth century as these women chose an alternative lifestyle. They went outside the social norms of women as passive housewives, and instead made their own decisions. They were thought to be mentally ill, as doctors claimed being without continued male interaction would cause irritability, anaemia, tiredness, and fussing. These women were also controlled by the term "frigid" which was used to describe them. Women did not want to be "frigid" and thus married to avoid becoming labeled this manner (Ussher 81). Those who were admitted to the asylum for being a spinster or a lesbian were submitted to forced marriages by family members or even encouraged sexual encounters where patients were sexually abused or raped under the care of their doctors (Ussher 81). It was assumed these women could be cured by repeated sexual interaction with men.

In Retrospect- The Nineteenth Century

Mental illness during the Victorian era revolved around the empowerment of men. Hysteria fuelled from a fear of intellectual women. Women were denied tasks such as reading or social interaction due to a fear of becoming a hysteric. Women were further forced into the stereotypical passive housewife role. Anorexia was an attempt to fit the male standard of beauty. These women refused food in order to appear "feminine" and become a frail ornament for their husbands to show off. They also furthered the idea of the passive housewife, lacking personality or emotion. Nymphomania was a fear of aggressive women. Those who took a stand for their beliefs or exercised a sexual emotion were deemed insane as they rejected the feminine ideal. Such women were forced into asylums to keep others in line; they were sacrificed to show that those who spoke up would be punished. Thus, the rest of the women remained silent. And finally, spinsters and lesbians were a major threat to male domination. These women preferred life without sexual interaction with men. They rejected the social norms of woman as passive, emotionless accessories and instead embraced personal choice. They too were deemed insane and subject to male-induced public criticism to try and reform them as well as fuel the idea that this sort of behavior was not acceptable.

Mental Illness During the Twenty-first Century


In today?s society, 12.4 million women suffer from depression, as compared to 6.4 million men (NIMH), and yet most reasons given for depressions are lumped together, regardless of sex. Though depression is generalized as the response to a non-tangible loss (Chesler 82), female depression differs greatly from male depression. Women who suffer from depression are often focused on the meaning of their lives and the importance that they place in themselves. They become depressed about their role in their marriage or inability to find a worthwhile career. There is also emphasis on "low social status, legal, and economic discrimination of women, role expectations, which results in a state of learned helplessness" (Howell 183). Women fall victim to depression because they are unable to ?achieve mastery by direct action and self-assertation? (Howell 184). They thus suffer from role restriction and lack of fulfillment.


Suicide rates are steadily increasing in today?s society. While men commit suicide four times more than women, women attempt it three times as often (NIMH). Why are women trying to kill themselves? Suicide among women is most commonly associated with placement in life and is an act of resignation and hopelessness as the largest group of Americans who attempt suicide are housewives (Chesler 86). These women often feel alienated from society and believe their lives serve no significant purpose.


Schizophrenia is defined as a "sex role alienation or sex role rejection" (Chesler 87). Thus, women who suffer from Schizophrenia often embrace stereotypically male characteristics such as hostility, violence, restlessness, nervousness, and outspokenness. This illness thus centers on the rejection of the traditional female role as these women assume an aggressive stance in society.

Eating Disorders

The three main types of eating disorders in which women suffer are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Many of these women are subject to such illnesses because of the societal beauty standards inherent in American culture. In many instances, a woman?s worth is based on her beauty, and thus women commonly feel pressured to lose weight to become empowered (NIMH). These beauty standards also serve to allow women to become attractive to the opposite sex as well.

Analysis-21st Century

All of the common mental illnesses for women in today?s society center around women?s oppression. Female depression focuses on women who question their placement in life. They often feel as if they do not serve a specific purpose in society and are thus inferior to many men. Their learned passivity has thus caused them to be unfulfilled. Women who commit suicide are also unhappy with their placement in life. As most are housewives, one can assume their unhappiness also stems from lack of involvement in society. Again, their learned passivity caused them to be discontented. Schizophrenia is an attack on man-like women. These women who exhibit male dominated characteristics are supposedly mad as it goes against traditional gender roles. These women, who thus refused to be passive, are judged as ill because of it. Eating disorders are also a reflection of past repression as these women have learned to maintain status through beauty. These women feel as if their worth is placed solely on their physical appearance, as it has for many years, and they thus must maintain this beauty to achieve power.


Though women have suffered from many types of illnesses throughout the years, the common trends persist: women?s madness stems from man?s attempts to maintain power, and the mental illnesses of today are a result of years of oppression. Women are thus not naturally the weaker sex- man has made her so.

Works Cited

Bayes, Marjorie and Howell, Elizabeth. Women and Mental Health New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981.

Chesler, Phyllis. Women and Madness New York: Springer Publishing Co, Inc., 1983.

Goldberg, Ann. Sex, Religion, and the Making of Modern Madness New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Gove, W. R. The relationship between sex roles, marital status, and mental illness. Social Forces, 1972.

National Institute of Mental Health

Ussher, Jane M. Women?s Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness? Ameherst, Ma: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Photos Courtesy of The History of Medicine,, and

This page was written by Katie L. Frick, and is maintained by Melanie Ulrich.

This page was last updated Saturday, 18-May-2002 08:28:14 CDT