The Madness of Women

By Tanushree Sarkar 

It is interesting, and alarming, when one comes to realize how psychology as a discipline has had a role in perpetuating a skewed image of female mental health, illness and sexuality.

From the 17th century to the present day, the number of women in psychiatric care has greatly exceeded the number of men. Some argue this domination of women in accounts of mental illness is a socio-political phenomenon. In that women have been labeled mad because mental illness has been defined and codified by male psychiatrists; and that changing social attitudes towards women have affected psychiatric diagnosis and treatment.

While Victorian psychiatry saw uncontrolled sexuality as the major, almost defining symptom of insanity in women, Darwinian psychiatry arose as a response to the “New Woman”, with her demands for education, work, and personal freedom.  Mental breakdown was seen as a consequence when women would defy their nature and attempt to compete with men instead of serving them, or sought alternatives or even additions to their maternal functions and thereby, linking the epidemic of nervous disorders-anorexia nervosa, hysteria, and neurasthenia to women’s ambition and proliferating ideas of female intellectual inferiority as a result of reproductive specialization.

These three disorders- anorexia nervosa, hysteria and neurasthenia embodied different aspects of what was considered right, or wrong with women.

For centuries, hysteria has been the quintessential female malady, deriving its name from Greek hysteron or womb. Between 1870 and World War I, it played a central role in psychiatry and in definitions of femininity and female sexuality. By the end of the century, “hysterical” had almost become synonymous or interchangeable with “feminine”, where it stood for all kinds of emotionality.  What is particularly disturbing is how, at the end of the 19th century, hysteria was most strongly identified with the feminist movement. Women who campaigned for access to the universities, the professions and the vote were labeled as mentally disturbed.  F.C Skey, observed that his hysterical patients were likely to be more independent and assertive than “normal” women, “exhibiting more than usual force and decision of character, of strong resolution, fearless of danger”.

Hysteria, thus, was the disorder of female rebellion.

Whether the disorder was anorexia, hysteria, or neurasthenia, the treatment of women by psychologists and mental health professionals was at best, biased and unfair.  It’s goal was to isolate the patient from her family support systems, unmask her deceitful stratagems, coerce her into surrendering her symptoms, and finally overcome what was considered her self- centeredness.

There were, however, dissenting voices.

Karen Horney and Margaret Mead, both sought to critique the entire discipline of Psychology as androcentric. Likewise, feminist psychology arose in the late 1960’s as a backlash against the traditional assumptions of male dominated theory, research and practice. This gave further impetus to feminist therapy, which focuses on making clients aware of their gender-role socialization process and to help them identify internalized gender-role messages and replace them with functional beliefs.

Within the Indian subcontinent, there have been efforts to transform the dialogue about women and their mental health. Women like Bhargavi Davar, who is the author of Mental Health of Indian Women – a Feminist Agenda and an activist with the Hyderabad based women’s group Anveshi and Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhary, founder of Sudinalay, which is a shelter for women with mental illness who have been abandoned by their families- such women, are actively involved in changing the ideas, the preconceptions and the circumstances of women and mental illness.


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