Monday, May 21, 2018

The "Cure" for Hysterical Women Behind Asylum Walls

Life Magazine advertisement from August 22, 1912.

The concept of the "weaker sex" in the 1800s made women more susceptible to charges of mental illness or emotional breakdown. Before the mid-1800s, women who suffered from depression or mental illness were believed to have an incurable disease of the soul. Many of these women were sent to institutions popularly known as the mad house, the insane asylum, or the nut house. Some were undoubtedly sent to local parish priests for exorcisms.

Because of existing gender stereotypes and a patriarchal society, women who disagreed with their husbands or families could be committed without formal legal proceedings or medical exigency. Institutional records indicate that women were labeled mentally ill and committed at a much higher rate than their male counterparts.

Biddy Hughes was Michigan's Eloise Asylum's first official mental patient. She was committed by her family in 1841 when she was in her mid-thirties. She was kept behind locked doors until her death fifty-eight years later.

Being a woman in the nineteenth century would make any woman hysterical--a collective term then used to describe all manner of women's mental health issues--ranging from menstruation-related issues, pregnancy-related issues, post-partum depression, chronic fatigue, and anxiety. The word hysteria derives from the Ancient Greek word for womb--thus womb disease.

Asylums were essentially warehouses for non compliant women. Once committed, these unfortunate women were subjected to a daily life of neglect and abuse. These indignities only drove troubled women deeper into mental illness regardless of why they were there. Insane asylums were not places for treatment or cure of the mentally ill.


Women had no voice to protest nor did they have any advocacy beyond the asylum gates. They lacked the solidarity to stand up for themselves or each other. Once admitted, it was next to impossible to be discharged. Bad treatment by attendants and terrible living conditions led to many asylum suicides from constant harassment, violence, loneliness, and despair.

In the Victorian age, the perfect wife did not demand time or rights for herself. She was supposed to be subservient to the needs of her family. Her husband in particular. Women with strong personalities and active minds could never conform to that role without sacrificing the core of their beings. Unsatisfied and vindictive husbands could have their wives committed for stepping outside the boundaries of her role as a wife.

Married women were sent to asylums for nymphomania, promiscuity, bearing an illegitimate child, or being the victim of rape. Women who practiced sex outside of marriage were accused of moral imbecility and could be committed for the public good. Many husbands used commitment as a convenient alternative to divorce.

By the mid-nineteenth century, doctors began regarding mental illness as a medical problem. With little formal training, they tested their quack theories on mentally ill patients. Perhaps the most egregious example of a gratuitous treatment was devised by male doctors who created a condition they called Hysterical Paroxysm.

Doctors would give female patients "pelvic massages" to release the women's pent-up libido and frustrations. It wasn't long before women were being treated for frustration and anxiety as outpatients in doctors' offices. After the electric vibrator was invented towards the end of the century, women could effect this treatment in the privacy of their own homes.

Doctors of this era believed women who tried to improve their station in life by asserting their independence, getting an education, or living outside the family unit without a husband were considered suspect. Women who were outspoken, volatile, or expressed discontent were labeled mad if they refused to fit the stereotypical mold of the passive housewife. Many women were driven to mental illness by the rigid strictures polite society imposed upon them.

Mental health researchers in the Victorian age devised three archetypes of the mad woman:
  1. The Ophelia (named after the heroine in Hamlet). These women were pliant and pleasant--code words for easy to control.
  2. The Crazy Jane. These patients represented psychotic women who were clearly disturbed and needed to be watched.
  3. The Lucia (named after Renaissance poisoner Lucretia Borgia). These patients were prone to violence and considered dangerous.
Imposing these labels on women was a way for men to garner further control over women and possess them more thoroughly. Doctors of the day warned against any activity that might change a woman's domestic status. Suffragettes and women's rights advocates were particularly troublesome for the status quo and challenged the system.

Meanwhile, Edith Lanchester was committed in 1895 by her brother for refusing to marry. She was diagnosed as insane by reason of "over-education" while her brother took full possession and ownership of their jointly inherited estate.

"When We Called the Insane Asylum Eloise" link:
https://fornology.blogspot.com/2018/05/when-we-called-insane-asylum-eloise.html