THE FEMALE MALADY: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 by Elaine Showalter

THE FEMALE MALADY: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980

Email this review


A gender analysis and feminist critique of madness in Britain from 1830 to the present, in which Showalter paints a convincing picture of how cultural attitudes about the proper role of the female shaped the diagnosis and treatment of insane women, often ensnaring them in a bind that offered no way out of the asylum. Showalter begins with Victorian England, exposing the roots of hysteria--that culture's most common ""female malady""--in the struggle by intelligent women to escape from a stultifying environment. However, their flight into madness was equally doomed: the Victorian asylum was nothing but a mirror of Victorian society; sewing, cleaning and doing the laundry were considered the primary forms of treatment. The therapeutic techniques described run the gamut from the absurd to the terrifying--from the rest cure, an attempt to force active women into a life of passivity, to electric shocks, more often administered to women because they were assumed to have less need for their brains, to a lobotomy given to an obstensibly sane woman because her doctor thought it offered her the best way of accommodating to a psychopathic husband who refused treatment. Throughout, Showalter highlights her narrative with portraits of the major figures in British psychiatry--from the naive, optimistic John Connolly to his dour son-in-law, Henry Maudsley, to the antipsychiatric antics of R.D. Laing--and offers illuminating glimpses of their prejudices and shortsightedness. Showalter's field is not psychology, however; while her thesis of hysteria as a form of protest has validity, this is much more difficult to accept when dealing with schizophrenia, given the nature of its symptoms and the evidence of chemical imbalances contributing to the disturbance. Her tendency to view mental illness primarily in a metaphorical light detracts from what is otherwise a useful compilation of historical information on women and madness.

Pub Date: Jan. 20th, 1985
Publisher: Pantheon