Questioning Hysteria: A Dubious History of Women and Mental Illness
The Babcock Building at the South Carolina State Hospital, a now-closed mental health facility in Columbia, SC
History shows that deeming a woman “mentally ill” is a dubious process. American attitudes towards mental health and the cultural expectations placed on women has often created a dangerous environment for their rights and well-being, and this is an issue that affects our society still today.
My mother and I began to look deeper into my family's history in regards to mental health when a female relative had a sudden nervous breakdown. What we uncovered led me to consider larger questions about women and the culture of mental health.
In total, four of my female relatives in recent generations were involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals by male family members. Although we do not have each woman's medical files, what we do know suggests a grim picture.
Around 1910, when my great-grandmother was less than ten years old, her father committed her mother involuntarily to a mental hospital. She recalled watching as her mother was taken away in a horse-drawn buggy to the South Carolina State Hospital for the Insane. It was the last that anyone in the family ever saw of her.
In the years that followed her mother’s commitment, my great-grandmother and her sisters were sent to live with various family members. One of the sisters claimed a male cousin sexually assaulted her during her time living in his house. She, too, was later committed to a mental institution.
This same great-grandmother had her ovaries removed in her early 30's after the birth of my grandfather. A few years later she suffered from bouts of nervousness and anxiety (we speculate that the lack of hormone-replacement therapy was partially to blame) and was committed temporarily to the same facility her mother had died in.
Having been labeled “incompetent” after her commitment, she did not regain her full legal rights until she was over 70. She had to ask her husband to give them back to her, which he did so that she could write out her will. My mother was flabbergasted to discover her own grandmother had been living without legal rights for as long as she had.
From the early 1800’s up until at least the 1950’s, it was a relatively easy task to have women involuntarily committed. This is attributed in part to the fact that women during this period lacked many legal rights in comparison with their husbands or other close male family members. The common belief that any mental or emotional difficulty that got in the way of a woman’s ability to be a functional wife, mother and caretaker of the home was enough to label her insane also played a powerful role.
Information on women admitted to the Mendota Mental Asylum in the late 1800’s listed causes such as overwork, religious excitement, suppressed menses and nymphomania as valid reasons to diagnose insanity. For example, a woman named Elizabeth Packard, who fought for her freedom in court after being involuntarily committed and went on to become an activist for better mental health care, was involuntarily committed to an Illinois hospital by her husband when she openly disagreed with his religious beliefs.
This form of oppression seems to be more than just a thing of the past. According to the Daily Mail, women are currently 20-40% more likely to report psychological disorders than men.This same article observes that the reason behind some of these reports of mental illness in women may be environmental rather than biological.
Professor Daniel Freeman of the University of Oxford explains why more women reportedly suffer from psychological distress than men: “Given that domestic work is undervalued, and considering that women tend to be paid less, find it harder to advance in a career, have to juggle multiple roles, and are bombarded with images of apparent female 'perfection', it would be surprising if there weren't some emotional and psychological cost.”
Does our society define women as mentally ill when living up to American cultural standards of womanhood becomes too taxing for them?
The numbers of women who were unnecessarily committed in decades past may never be discovered, but the evidence indicates some of the same pressures create a difficult and even dangerous situation for modern women. We must ask ourselves: are women actually pre-conditioned to be affected by psychiatric disorders than men, or is it our culture that continues to define women as crazy for being unable or unwilling to hold up to societal pressure?
It’s a question that begs to be answered, and one that may call many aspects of Western culture into question if we are to provide a balanced and beneficial environment for mental health in America.