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The Female Malady? Madness and Gender

Patient diagnosed with melancholia, J. WIlliamson (1890) Jean Martin Charcot demonstrates hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere, by Pierre Broulliert (1887)

Numerous historians have engaged themselves with the question of whether psychiatry, particularly 19th-century psychiatry, discriminated against women, or at least singled women out as especially vulnerable to being categorised as mentally ill and confined in asylums. The apparent association between female biology and reproduction and mental disorder has been a particularly rich area of analysis, as has interest in hysteria which emerged as something of a professional obsession in the 19th century. Rather less has been produced on masculinity and mental breakdown though this is changing. This seminar engages critically with this literature and also raises the issue of female agency – did women form alliances with their doctors, did they use medical diagnoses and labels (such as hysteria) for their own purposes, and did they even shape the views of those treating them? Female adolescence and the onset of menstruation was regarded as a particularly vulnerable period, as was the childbearing epoch and menopause. We will home in on some of those 'critical periods' as well as exploring ideas about the impact of women's lives and social condition on their mental wellbeing. Showalter has been very influential - her work is a delight to read - but try to develop a critical approach to her approach and conclusions. We will focus on Theriot’s article 'Women's Voices', Digby 'Women's Biological Straitjacket', and the essays in Andrews and Digby, and for vulnerable men, Suzuki’s article and for gender in the late Victorian asylum, Hide's book. By now we are well embedded in the module, and there will be some flexibility in what we decide to cover to take account of the group's interests.

Sources on hysteria and other 'disorders' linked to life cycle will be precirculated/added to Teams or Moodle.

  1. What was the perceived relationship between women’s bodies and minds in the 19th century?
  2. What, if anything, was special about the plight and treatment of mad women in the 19th century?
  3. Was hysteria a specifically female disorder? Why was it labelled 'the daughter's disease'?
  4. How was men's vulnerability to insanity explained in the 19th century?
  5. How important was class compared with gender in shaping the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness?



** Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago, 1987). (Available in paperback) Multiple copies in library and available from c.£7 on Amazon


** Elaine Showalter, ‘Victorian Women and Insanity’, Victorian Studies, 23 (1979-80), 157-81, duplicated in Madhouses, Mad-Doctors, and Madmen, pp. 313-36. Victorian Studies is an e-journal


** Jonathan Andrews and Anne Digby (eds), Sex and Seclusion, Class and Custody: Perspectives on Gender and Class in the History of British and Irish Psychiatry (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2004). (An excellent collection of essays; several of the essays challenge Showalter’s findings and emphasis on ‘gender’, see e.g. the articles of Wright, Levine-Clark and Michael but don’t ignore the rest.) e-book and several copies in library


**Nancy M. Theriot, ‘Women’s Voices in Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourse: A Step toward Deconstructing Science’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 19 (1993), 1-31. e-journal

** Anne Digby, ‘Women’s Biological Straitjacket’, in Susan Mendes and Jane Rendall (eds), Sexuality and Subordination: Interdisciplinary Studies of Gender in the Nineteenth Century(London and New York: Routledge, 1989, pp. 192-20. chapter in e-book

Mad Margery c.1830-70



** Akhito Suzuki, ‘Lunacy and Labouring Men: Narratives of Male Vulnerability in Mid-Victorian London’, in Roberta Bivins and John V. Pickstone (eds), Medicine, Madness and Social History: Essays in Honour of Roy Porter (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan 2007), pp. 118-28. e-book


** Louise Hide, Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). e-book


** Joan Busfield, Men, Women and Madness: Understanding Gender and Mental Disorder (London: Macmillan, 1996). Multiple copies in library


** Lisa Appignanesi, Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present( London: Virago, 2008). Several copies in library


** Roy Porter, A Social History of Madness: Stories of the Insane (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987), ch. 6 ‘Mad Women’. Multiple copies in library


* Catharine Coleborne, Reading ‘Madness’: Gender and Difference in the Colonial Asylum System in Victoria, Australia, 1848-1888 (Perth: AP Network, 2007).


* Catharine Coleborne, Madness in the Family: Insanity and Institutions in the Australasian Colonial World, 1860-1914 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). e-book

* Vieda Skultans, English Madness: Ideas on Insanity 1580-1890 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), ch. 6 ‘Feminity and Illness’, 77-97.
* Hilary Marland, ‘Disappointment and Desolation: Women, Doctors and Interpretations of Puerperal Insanity in the Nineteenth Century’, History of Psychiatry, 14 (2003), 303-20. e-journal
* Patricia E. Prestwich, ‘Female Alcoholism in Paris, 1870-1920: The Response of Psychiatrists and of Families’, History of Psychiatry, 14 (2003), 321-36. e-journal
Yannick Ripa, Women and Madness: The Incarceration of Women in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Polity, 1990).
Jane M. Ussher, Women’s Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness? (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991) or The Madness of Women: Myth or Experience? (London: Routledge, 2011). e-book
Elizabeth Lunbeck, The Psychiatric Persuasion: Knowledge, Gender, and Power in Modern America (Princeton University Press, 1994). e-book
Denise Russell, Women, Madness and Medicine (Cambridge: Polity, 1995).
Charlotte MacKenzie, ‘Women and Psychiatric Professionalization 1780- 1914’, in London Feminist History Collective (eds), The Sexual Dynamics of History (London: Pluto Press, 1983), pp. 107-19.
Wendy Mitchinson, The Nature of their Bodies: Women and their Doctors in Victorian Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1991), esp. chs 10 and 11 ‘Women and Mental Health’, ‘Insane Women: Their Symptoms and Treatment’, pp. 278-311, 312-55. e-book
Vieda Skultans, Madness and Morals: Ideas on Insanity in the Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), ch. VIII ‘Feminine Vulnerability’ (useful extracts on women and insanity).
Roy Porter, Helen Nicholson and Bridget Bennett (eds), Women, Madness and Spiritualism, 3 vols (London and New York: Routledge, 2003). (Good resource for essays, reference use in library only – includes material on Georgina Weldon and Louisa Lowe)
Nancy Tomes, ‘Historical Perspectives on Women and Mental Health’, in Rima D. Apple (ed.), Women, Health and Medicine in America (Rutgers University Press, 1990), pp. 143-71.
Nancy Tomes, ‘Feminist Histories of Psychiatry’, in Micale and Porter, Discovering, pp. 348-83 (includes useful footnotes to additional sources).
Roy Porter, ‘Love, Sex, and Madness in Eighteenth-Century England’, Social Research, 53 (1986), 211-42.e-journal
Ludmilla Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Brighton: Harvester, 1989), esp. ch. 7, but also refer to index. Multiple copies in library
Hilary Marland, Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain (Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004). e-book
Hilary Marland, ‘”Destined to a Perfect Recovery”: The Confinement of Puerperal Insanity in the Nineteenth Century’, in Insanity, Institutions and Society, pp. 137-56. e-book
Hilary Marland, ‘At Home with Puerperal Mania: The Domestic Treatment of the Insanity of Childbirth in the Nineteenth Century’, in Outside the Walls of the Asylum, pp. 45-65. e-book and several copies in library
Nancy Theriot, ‘Diagnosing Unnatural Motherhood: Nineteenth-Century Physicians and “Puerperal Insanity”’, American Studies, 26 (1990), 69-88, reprinted in Judith Walzer Leavitt (ed.), Women and Health in America, 2nd edn (University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), pp. 405-21. American Studies is e-journal
Vieda Skultans, English Madness: Ideas on Insanity 1580-1890 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), ch. 5 ‘Masturbational Insanity’, pp. 69-76.
** David G. Schuster, ‘Personalizing Illness and Modernity: S. Weir Mitchell, Literary Women, and Neurasthenia, 1870- 1914’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 79 (2005), 695-722. e-journal
** Janet Oppenheim, “Shattered Nerves”: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), esp. ch. 6 ‘Neurotic Women’. Chapter scanned (course extracts HI383) and on Talis Aspire
** Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter (eds), Cultures of Neurasthenia: From Beard to the First World War (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 2001), esp chapters by Tom Lutz, Mathew Thomson and Michael Neve). e-book
** Pat Jalland and John Hooper (eds), Women From Birth to Death: The Female Life Cycle in Britain 1830-1914 (Brighton: Harvester, 1986), Part 2.4 ‘Hysteria’. Several copies in library
** Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago, 1987), chs 6 and 7. (Available in paperback) Multiple copies in library
** C. Smith-Rosenberg, ‘The Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in 19th Century America’, Social Research, 39 (1979), 652-78 and reprinted in C. Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 197-216. Social Research is an e-journal
* Sander L. Gilman, Helen King, Roy Porter, G.S. Rousseau and Elaine Showalter, Hysteria Beyond Freud (University of California Press, 1993), esp. Part II. e-book
* Mark S. Micale, Approaching Hysteria: Disease and Its Interpretations (Princeton University Press, 1995). e-book
* Mark S. Micale, ‘Hysteria Male/Hysteria Female: Reflections on Comparative Gender Construction in Nineteenth-Century France and Britain’, in Marina Benjamin (ed.), Science and Sensibility: Gender and Scientific Enquiry, 1780-1945 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), pp. 200-39. Chapter scanned and available via Talis Aspire

* Mark S. Micale, ‘Charcot and the Idea of Hysteria in the Male: Gender, Mental Science, and Mental Diagnosis in Late Nineteenth-Century France’, Medical History, 34 (1990), 363-411. e-journal


*Mark S. Micale (ed.), The Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology, and the Cultural Arts in Europe and America, 1880-1940 (Stanford University Press, 2004), esp chs 1-2.


* Jan Goldstein, ‘The Uses of Male Hysteria: Medical and Literary Discourse in Nineteenth-Century France’, Representations, 34 (1991), 134-65. e-journal

John Starrett Hughes, ‘The Madness of Separate Spheres: Insanity and Masculinity in Victorian Alabama’, in Mark C. Carnes and Clyde Griffen, Meanings for Manhood: Constructions of Masculinity in Victorian America (University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 53-66.
Martha Noel Evans, Fits and Starts: A Genealogy of Hysteria in Modern France (Cornell University Press, 1991).
Georges Didi-Huberman (trans. Alisa Hart), The Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).
Sigmund Freud and Joseph Brueler, Studies on Hysteria (1893, 1895, London: Penguin edn, 1991).
* Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (Columbia University Press, 1997). Multiple copies in library
* Helen King, Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), ch. 11 ‘Once Upon a Text: Hysteria from Hippocrates’, pp. 205-46. (Not our period, but makes useful links with it, a good read) e-book
Jeffrey M.N. Boss, ‘The Seventeenth-Century Transformation of the Hysteria Affection and Sydenham’s Baconian Medicine’, Psychological Medicine, 9 (1979), 221-34. e-journal
Katherine E. Williams, ‘Hysteria in Seventeenth-Century Case Records and Unpublished Manuscripts’, History of Psychiatry, 1 (1990), 383-401. e-journal
William F. Bynum, The Nervous Patient in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century England: The Psychiatric Origins of British Neurology’, in Anatomy of Madness 1, pp. 89-102.
Guenter B. Risse, ‘Hysteria at the Edinburgh Infirmary: The Construction and Treatment of a Disease, 1770- 1800’, Medical History, 32 (1988), 1-22. e-journal
Helen Small, Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996). e-book
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (Yale University Press, 1979). e-book and multiple copies in library
Philip W. Martin, Mad Women in Romantic Writing (Brighton/New York: Harvester/St.Martin’s Press, 1987).
Helen Small, ‘”In the Guise of Science”: Literature and the Rhetoric of 19th-Century English Psychiatry’, History of the Human Sciences, 7 (1994), 27-56. e-journal
Ekbert Faas, Retreat into the Mind: Victorian Poetry and the Rise of Psychiatry (Princeton University Press, 1988). e-book
Barbara Rigney, Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel (University of Wisconsin Press, 1978).
Thomas C. Caramagno, The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness (University of California Press, 1992).
Stephen Trombley, ‘All that Summer she was Mad’: Virginia Woolf and her Doctors (London: Junction Books, 1981).
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963, London: Faber & Faber, 1966).
Janet Frame, An Angel at my Table (London: The Women’s Press, 1984).