Saturday, 2 March 2013

Mad, Bad and Sad...

I read a lot about "Women and Mind Doctors" in Victorian Europe while researching my novel, Unnatural.  I was alarmed to discover the extent to which the Victorian patriarchy, including many eminent mind doctors, used their power to manipulate and oppress the already subjugated women in their households.
On the side of reason the great John Stuart Mill argued that, " the supposed inferiority of women's intelligence was a result of the differences in their education and not something determined by nature," and that it was no wonder "high class" women were more susceptible to nervous complaints when they were brought up as "hothouse plants, physically inactive, yet unnaturally active where the emotions were concerned."

Henry Maudsley
On the side of blind prejudice were several men whose misogynistic views made them very popular with the Victorian public.  Henry Maudsley (1835-1918) contended that "Education is an excessive mental drain on a young woman's mind" and at puberty women's nerve centres became increasingly unstable so that any extra mental effort and competitiveness - the kind of activity that young men thrived on - could be damaging to a young woman.  The results?  Irregular or failed menstruation, headache, fatigue, insomnia, epilepsy, complete nervous breakdown and failure of the reproductive system.  In other words, educated women won't be able to have babies!!


The eminent Dr Maudsley who incredibly has his name attached to the biggest psychiatric training hospital in the UK used his prejudice and sexual fears to influence generations of men.  He wrote essays in which he described these women whose reproductive systems had failed (due of course to intellectual over-exertion).  He portrays them as unsexed sterile women with sagging breasts and loss of pelvic power who "having ceased to be a woman are not yet men ....yet they invoke the dressmaker's aid in order to" hoodwink men.  Maudsley believed that if equal education for women came about society would become a "sexless dystopia" destroying the family unit and inevitably Victorian civilization.  So if middle-class women attempted to better themselves it could only result in madness and the decline of the species.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) struggled against such deep-seated prejudice to become the first female doctor in Britain.  She married, had three children, was politically active and contradicted Maudsley's claims.  She said it was the lack of mental and physical stimulation after school life that caused nervous problems in women and that "thousands of young women, strong and blooming at eighteen, became gradually languid and feeble under the depressing influence of dullness."

Brilliant women like Alice James, the sister of William and Henry James spent years going from one doomed treatment to another, enduring "rest cures" that drove her mad with inner struggle.  You just have to read the famous short story by Charlotte Perkins Gillman, The Yellow Wallpaper in which the heroine is driven to insanity by the menacing rest cures utilized by Dr. Silas Weir-Mitchell.  His treatment included rest, seclusion, isolation, constant feeding to gain at least 50 pounds, massage, enforced bed rest, darkness, minimum movement and "staged menacing" from the doctor who is credited with removing his trousers and threatening to get into bed with a patient if she didn't do what he asked.  Others advocated "the cold bath, the douche and cold applications to the regions of the uterus [which] have all been employed with advantage."

I've only scratched the surface of the scab that blights the history of the male-dominated psychiatric profession.  If you want to find out more read Mad, Bad and Sad an amazing book by Lisa Appignanesi.
It's sobering to finally discover the origins of prejudice especially as many of these arguments still linger today!