How Victorian Women Were Oppressed Through Psychiatry


From The Atlantic: In the mid- to late 1800s, psychiatric institutions were used to oppress women and reinforce patriarchal norms. The new Netflix show Alias Grace, based on the bestselling novel by Margaret Atwood, tells the true story of a woman who was declared criminally insane and sent to the Toronto Lunatic Asylum.

“According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, an author and expert in women’s history in the United States, psychiatrists during the Victorian era—or ‘alienists’ as they were often called in the 19th century—specifically used medicine to police women’s behavior. ‘They all had very definite ideas about how women ought to behave,’ she says. ‘There were general feelings of what caused abnormal behavior, and usually this was a refusal of traditional gender roles.’

Abbott’s case and many others are compelling for their intrigue—but they also point to a time period that leaned on the emerging field of psychiatry to maintain the male-dominated status quo. Did Abbott actually do it? Was she mad? Did she believe violence was her only recourse, with no other legitimate way to change her situation? Did she deserve to be locked up? We may never know.”

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  1. Don’t forget the episodes of grand hysteria that inaugurated Freud’s career. It isn’t around now, as the Victorian dress women’s dress code went down the toilet around the time of the First World War and into the Roaring Twenties, giving women the chance to get more skin exposure to the sun, which raised their Vitamin D levels, enabling them to utilize their dietary calcium. Presto, no more grand hysteria.

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  2. You’d better hope not. There’s no patented drug treatment, but that doesn’t mean our medicos won’t snatch up whatever addictive drugs they think will be therapeutic, while launching into choruses about how dangerous exposure to sunshine is.

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