a name that perhaps seems tasteless to some, but one that, unfortunately, would be a reality for almost all of us if this was a hundred or so years ago. there’s probably not a woman alive today that would be spared persecution based upon the old rules for what constituted insanity. i’m sure most, if not all, of you have seen this viral post with a list of offences/ailments that would get you sent to the asylum back in the day. even the most pious among us are surely guilty of things like novel-reading, and ‘women trouble’ - whatever that means.
and while a LOT of items on the list are, let’s be honest, funny (pls don’t pretend you didn’t laugh at ‘kicked in head by horse’ or ‘deranged masturbation’), the central issue about why lists like this existed in the first place is one that is still a problem in our society today. yes, in the mid to late 1800s, women were getting locked up for any slight deviance from the era’s ideals of what a compliant and domesticated woman should be, and the primary course of treatment for women’s poor mental health these days is no longer ‘find a husband’, but it would be naive to assume that we’ve eradicated prejudice and oppression from the issue.
‘hysteria’ was the buzzword of early psychiatry. although the term had been around for a long time, it was only now being applied to medicine as a diagnosis. there was no further analysis of a woman’s problems - if she was suffering from hysteria, that was the matter settled. off to the asylum with her. branded a *disease*, hysteria was inclusive of - but not limited to - symptoms like anxiety, fainting, shortness of breath, insomnia, loss of appetite, increased sexual desire, decreased sexual desire (lol, see the problem?), fluid retention, bloating, and ‘general troublemaking’. some hilarious, but also totally not even slightly funny, theories about female hysteria include: it was caused by ‘female semen’ that - unless eradicated from the body by having sex with your husband (convenient!!!!) it would turn poisonous and you would turn insane; also that you were possessed by a demon; the ancient greeks thought your uterus could get up and wander through your body which caused blockages and, obvs, madness.
ok but here’s what’s less fun…hysteria was only removed from the american psychiatric associated in 1952. like….66 years ago. like…the usa had built & tested a hydrogen bomb but still thought that hysteria was a women-only disease that was caused by the uterus.
now, i don’t really have time here to get into the far-reaching consequences of this particular go-to diagnosis, nor any of the many many others that were chucked about at the time. but here are a few quick thoughts on the matter.
no woman was safe. when this particular list literally contains ‘time of life’ as a precursor to being institutionalised, living your most subservient, docile, submissive wife life still isn’t enough. and that’s assuming you have no desire whatsoever to be in any way independent or free-thinking. you couldn’t show an interest in politics (‘political excitement’), nor could you get too excited about anything for that matter (‘mental excitement’), nor could you play it safe and be a god-fearing woman (‘religious enthusiasm’). you couldn’t have any respiratory issues (‘asthma’), nor epilepsy, nor smallpox. you got shot? asylum. you put out a fire? asylum. you were deserted by your husband? asylum. women have been blamed for men being trash since day 1. all the proof that many asylums needed of your insanity was your husband’s word. no medical report, no doctor’s exam. if your husband said you were insane, you were insane. defs just total coincidence that he hooked up with the hot young maid an hour later.
and while we may have moved forward substantially in medicine at least, the concept of female hysteria is by no means gone. have you EVER heard a man described as hysterical? to this day? and, yet, how often do we witness women’s emotions brought onto platforms where they’re irrelevant? how often is the go-to response to a woman standing up for herself ‘awrite love you on your period?’? how often are we reduced to hormonal, irrational, psychotic creatures with no handle on our behaviour? the world is still gripped by a preoccupation with women as being, inherently, weaker and more fragile and less capable of keeping our heads when the situation calls for it. job roles mysteriously disappearing when maternity leave is involved. promotions being denied to women who appear to be of a child-bearing age ‘just in case'. losing out on a presidency to a sociopathic racist self-confessed rapist because he called you crazy and unstable. being told by a fellow mp - and, at that point, the prime minister - to ‘calm down, dear’ during a heated debate. need i go on?
the other issue is, of course, that - actually - the notion of ‘hysteria’ as an over-arching umbrella catchall term *does* still kinda exist in medicine today. it takes an average of 7.5 years to get a diagnosis for endometriosis. how many doctors have dismissed period pain, ovarian pain, any other kind of chronic pain, chronic fatigue, as impossible-to-diagnose symptoms? how many different doctors do we need to see before we’re afforded at least a referral to a specialist? how many doctors will prescribe you anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications in the same appointment as prescribing you hormonal birth control, without ever taking seriously the link between the two? how many will not even bother to address complaints of low sexual desire, even though the research has overwhelmingly shown the link between the pill and decreased testosterone? yeah, ok, maybe they’re not telling us that the cure for our ailments is to find a husband anymore, but our very real issues continue to go undiagnosed and undermined.
perhaps our mental - and physical - health issues are no longer actively weaponised against us, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. and it also doesn’t mean that they’re taken seriously either. as long as women continue to be made a victim of their circumstance, we still have a long way to go. that’s to say - just as when you throw a perfectly sane woman in an asylum, and she eventually goes mad - when you dismiss women, in 2018, for being too soft when you’ve hurt them, too angry when they’re defending themselves against you, a whore for sleeping with as many men as you’ve slept with women, or insane for deviating from the role that the patriarchy has deemed acceptable for them; you put them in the same position that we were in in the 1800s.
GRLCLB ASYLUM welcomes you with open arms. give me your novel-readers, your seductive, your masturbators; send me these, the menstrually-deranged, the domestically-troubled, to me - i lift my lamp beside the golden door!