This blog isn’t a rant against the institution of psychiatry. I have great respect for the profession. In spite of what Tom Cruise would have me (and the world) believe, I have an unwavering belief in the benefit of psychiatry. This blog details the sociopolitical history of women during the mid to late Victorian Era and the many developments that literally drove or forced women into “madhouses” (as they were then known). The most uninformed route psychiatry took in that era was to institutionalize women mainly for two reasons: (1) gender and (2) sexuality. Surprised?
One of the most notorious mental asylums of the Victorian Era was that of Bedlam in London, England. In fact, bedlam worked its way into Webster’s Dictionary primarily due to the conditions im the hospital and the treatment of its patients. Even today to stay that something is in a state of bedlam means mass hysteria or cluster fuck (that, however, may yet not be found in Webster). By the mid-1800s psychiatrists began to view their patients as, well, patients, and not animals. A mass reform began in psychiatric hospitals worldwide and finally cages were unlocked, chains were removed, decent food was served…..and that was just the hospital staff. Haha. It was also around this time that surgical and other types of experimentation on mentally ill patients became quite trendy. Women in particular were experimental subjects and they tended to be the most frequent patients in hospitals, as they were viewed generally as the “weaker” and more hysterical sex. The idea of the Wandering 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. One step forward and three steps back, so it would seem.
Some of the lovely inventions of the early 19th century include the Rotary Chair. The patient was forcibly strapped into the chair, it was rotated onto its side and spun rapidly around, creating a force that caused extreme discomfort and fright from pressure to the brain, nausea, and the sensation of suffocation”. The theory behind the chair was to reset the patient’s equilibrium and brain. At the very least, it must have reset the patient’s marbles. Roller coasters developed out of that invention. Another example is the Padded Wheel, something like a large treadmill, the kind you might use on a gerbil. This concept was not to help the patient to lose weight, however, it was further mental torment with the best of intentions, naturally. (You knew there was a reason you hated treadmills).
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. Nymphomania included much more than a simple sex drive, 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”. 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” . A 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, released an outburst of frustration due to repression and anger, 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 (good, old Freud). If the clitoris returned to its normal size, she would be released. 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. There were a number of oddball “cures” for Victorian sexuality (a terrible evil). Two extremely repulsive metal and fabric “underwear” in the picture above are anti-masturbation underwear for women and men. Guess which is which?
Have you ever heard the term lobotomy, or leukotomy or leucomoty? It consists of cutting or scraping away most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain. While the procedure has been controversial since its inception, it was a mainstream procedure for more than two decades, prescribed for psychiatric conditions. This occurred despite general recognition of frequent and serious side-effects. Nasty. Walter Freeman, was the first American neuropsychiatrist to perform a lobo (I’m too lazy to write the whole word – that isn’t a formal term) on American soil on 14 September 1936 in George Washington University Hospital. How that turned out, I cannot say so the news can’t be too good. By 1937 working with his colleague John Watts, Freeman and Watts created the “Freeman-Watts techa“, also known as the “Freeman-Watts standard prefrontal lobotomy.” Eesh. Before Freeman, who developed a nasty, controversial reputation after his many surgeries, there was already a questionable lobo history. The originator of the procedure, António Egas Moniz, shared a highly controversial Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine of 1949 for the “discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses“.
By 1951, almost 20,000 lobotomies had been performed in the United States. Behavioural changes following damage to the frontal lobes led to the concept of Witzelsucht , a neurological condition accompanied by hilarity and childishness. No, that doesn’t mean it was hilarious to look at these people. They meant, the patients went about giggling like fiends. Perhaps that’s worse. In fact, that takes us to a whole other grim view of psychiatry, and I do mean view. Before the mid-eighteen hundreds, belief was that those who suffered from mental illness suffered because they had a “disease of the soul“; it was all about evil and sinning (what isn’t)? and they were treated as animals. Patients in these early asylums were kept in cages, shackled by chains, given small amounts of often unclean food, had little or no clothing, wore no shoes, and slept in dirt. Into the late 1800s the public paid a penny for tours of “madhouses” and gawked at the patients, quite like a human zoo. They were allowed to throw things at the patients, if they weren’t entertaining enough. The first Tuesday of every month offered free tours for those who couldn’t afford the penny. Nothing says good treatment like human degradation.
Shutting women away into madhouses didn’t occur on a whim. A woman had to consistently demonstrate “disturbing” behaviours. There were numerous ways she could accomplish the diagnosis of “insanity”:
- an outburst of rage in public, usually due to repression
- severe depression
- an ongoing, stubborn insistence on adult education (gasp)
- equality in the family
- equality in society
- mental illness
- rejection that having children and obtaining a husband made for an ideal woman
Where would an outburst due to rage and repression stem from? I’m glad you asked. There were so many unfair sociopolitical oppressors in place against women it during the Victorian Era that it boggles the mind. Let’s begin with the expected standard of feminine beauty (here we go again). Although the history of anorexia is a long and complex one (it may have begun as early as ancient civilizations, along with other eating disorders), anorexia served to heighten social status in middle and upper class women. When a woman fasted in order to maintain a small waist (as if that whale bone corset that pulled her ribs in tight enough to partially constrict breathing weren’t enough), she was sapped of much of her physical energy. Sometimes she fainted for lack of oxygen. This was seen as fragility and a delicate nature – much desired in Victorian Era women. Of course, lower class women weren’t allowed such “luxury“, They had to eat in order to have the energy to work and provide for their families. This is probably the only time in history that being a poor woman was a triumph of sorts over a rich one.
Off on a bit of a tangent here (as per usual), ever notice how women being bound in one form or another was the norm no matter what the culture or the era? In China, the Lotus slipper was the ideal of feminine beauty. It was such a tiny shoe that only a toddler could naturally wear it. Before the age of 5, a poor little girl was forcibly held while an old woman in her village brought over her foot bindings (strong fabric strips). She forced the girl’s toes down as close to her heels as she could get them and bound them down until they just about touched the heel. Then she wound the strips of fabric around her foot to keep it in this extremely unnatural position. The little girl was forced to get up and walk around in agony right after that procedure. As she grew her bindings were changed and tightened again. Eventually, many women’s’ feet were reduced to 4 inches in length. Of course this meant the grown woman couldn’t ever walk. She had to be carried about when she left the house. I suppose she crawled on all fours inside the house. Such dignity.
Anorexia as sexually desirable(thank lulu we don’t think that way today, right?) was only one insult for Victorian women. British women were not allowed to own anything, including themselves. Identity. Pah. Who needs it? English law defined the role of the wife as a ‘feme covert’, meaning her subordination to her husband. The husband and wife became one person under the law, as the property of the wife was surrendered to her husband, and her legal identity ceased to exist. Any property acquired by the wife during the marriage, unless specified that it was for her own use, went to her husband. Married women were unable to draft wills or dispose of any property without their husbands’ consent. Ever wonder where the term lock, stock and barrel originated? In my opinion, I would suggest that it was because women were owned lock, stock and barrel. That isn’t the real origin, of course. Just sayin’…
Let’s not forget one of the many reasons women were adjudged insane: they were not believed when they told doctors and family that they were victims of incest, rape and sexual abuse. Such a thing wasn’t discussed, never mind believed. A Victorian woman telling someone she was being sexually abused was signing up for the next train bound for Bedlam. Many, many women suffered in silence (and of course, still do). Some were famous. Victoria Woolf, the classic Victorian Era novelist and non-fiction writer, suffered from sexual abuse by her cousin for 8 years. Small wonder she committed suicide by filling her dress with rocks and jumping into a river.She indeed suffered from a mental illness – perhaps schizophrenia, since she admitted to hearing voices. She was also very frustrated that a woman wasn’t permitted entry into university. She was educated in literacy, music, and household duties but formal academia was denied to women. Heaven forbid a woman start studying and thinking. That could be trouble. Too many obstacles worked against her. Women did not have the mental capacity of men back then, you see, and the risk of insanity grew if women tried to better themselves through education or activities.
Victorian society on the whole refused to believe incest existed, and likewise, Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychotherapy, refused to believe his abused patients when they revealed their ugly secret. Instead, he prescribed these women cocaine (seriously), patted them on the head, and sent them home to get high, while penning his theory about the Electra and Oedipal Complexes. His theory that sexuality was the driving force behind all human activity and creativity originated from his distraught female patients and their sad disclosures. Naturally their trauma was of a sexual nature. Freud, the jerk, decided this was actually “penis envy” in disguise. I believe that’s known as transgender today. Freud. Pah.
Spinsters and lesbians were a threat to society as these women chose an alternative lifestyle. They went outside the social norms of women and made their own decisions. They were thought to be mentally ill, as doctors claimed being without continued male interaction (having sex) would cause irritability, anaemia, and tiredness. if only doctors knew it was continued male interaction that actually causes these maladies things would have been different. These women were controlled by the term “frigid“. Women did not want to be “frigid” and thus married to avoid being labelled, which also meant scandal. Those 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. It was assumed these women could be cured by repeated sexual interaction with men. Yes rape is known to work wonders for repressed women. Ask Virginia Woolf.
Back to women in psychiatric institutions. We find them wandering about like zombies after a lobotomy, hiding in a corner after being raped multiple times, emaciated and starving, filthy from sleeping on dirt, forced into ice baths, spun about on Frankenstein-like “psychiatric” inventions, and for a time, gawked at by the public for a small fee. Paints a pretty picture, doesn’t it? And they say CAMH in Toronto is scary.
Consider the many sociopolitical restraints (pun) against Victorian women:
- sexual abuse
- physical abuse
- arranged (forced) marriage
- lack or property ownership
- lack of personal finances
- lack of identity
- unwarranted, enforced institutionalization
- body shame
- eating disorders
- denial of a formal education
- denial of work outside the home
- social restrictions
- forced passivity
- husband having affairs with hired help
- husbands divorcing women and re-marrying younger women (this was scandalous at that time and the first wife was always to blame)
The list goes on and on. Women who fought against social restrictions were a threat to a patriarchal society. They were forced into asylums to keep others in line; sacrificed to show that those who spoke up would be punished. Thus, women remained silent. Anyone who wanted an education and lauded loudly enough for it walked a fine line. A woman who suffered from abuse and dared to speak out was a sitting duck. Body shame was a natural way of life then, as it is now for women (both due to natural shape and sexual abuse) yet all of these issues of course were blamed on women’s anatomy: if only their wombs didn’t wander about so much. It seems the more women have “come a long way, baby“, for some unfortunate women, the more they get pushed back into that grim dark place where they began.