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Women and Depression Through the Ages. Part Two. Confinement.

Updated on October 5, 2022

Bedlam Hospital Asylum 1677. Originally Known As Bethlehem.

Originally known as Bethlehem built as a religious building in 1247.
Originally known as Bethlehem built as a religious building in 1247. | Source

Age Of Confinement.

Through out time, statistics have shown more women then men are diagnosed with, and treated for, depression, a mental illness. One in four women as opposed to one in ten men will be treated for depression at some point in there life. In order to understand why more women are depressed and in need of treatment in British society, we must first look at the history of women and what is perceived by some, as their depressing roles in society.

In the early Greek civilisations, women roles were seen as that of child bearing, and caring for that child. She was the property of her husband and her life was restricted by law. If she suffered melancholia, and early word for depression, she would be treated by the physician who believed melancholia to be the imbalance of the four bodily fluids, black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm.

Through the dark ages women became the scapegoats for all that was wrong with society. Changes in mental states in these times were thought to be due to being possessed by an evil spirit. Thousands were branded as witches, tortured and burnt at the stake. Records show that it was mainly women that were branded as witches.

By the end of the dark ages there was no recognition of the insane as a separate group, requiring a distinct form of treatment. Those experiencing mental illness, as we understand it today, were held responsible for their actions and would be dealt with accordingly. Those destitute as a result of their mental state came within the purview of the Poor Law, which could provide relief in exchange for labour. Those who could not work through disability or sickness were regarded as the, 'social useless'. The old, infirm, sick, beggars, the idle and the insane were believed to be suffering as a result of their relaxation of morals. They were perceived to have caused their own problems by being idle.

In time, those suffering from mental disorders were identified as being different to others being confined. 1744 marks the first time that a section of the insane were mentioned as a separate class within society for whom provisions should be made. All over Europe, the policy of confinement of the mad was adopted. Private and public madhouses were erected in order to confine what was described as the difficult, the different and the dangerous members of society. The opinion of the time was that the mad had lost their mind. Without reason, they had been reduced to the condition of a brute. Within the walls of the mad house they were treated no better than animals.

Historians show that more women than men were confined to these madhouses. Records from as early as the seventeenth century show that twice as many women as men were treated for mental disorder.

The eighteenth century saw a further shift in the perception of madness. Whereas lunatics had formerly been regarded as no more than unfeeling ferocious animals, that needed to be kept in check with harsh and cruel measures, which included, beatings, straight jackets, whips, locked cells and barred windows. They were now to be viewed as human being with a sickness and ought to be dealt with kindness and care. This change in attitude had come about as a result of investigations led by social reformers, of inhuman treatments inflicted on the insane within the workhouses and private madhouses. The result of the investigation led to, The Lunatic Act of 1845 and required all counties to provide asylum care for the insane. The concepts of madness or mental illness were now shifted to that of 'Moral Insanity', by Victorian psychiatry.

Treated Like An Animal.


Moral Insanity

'Moral insanity', redefined mental illness as, a deviance from socially accepted behaviour, rather than being the result of the loss of reason. Poverty, sickness, and insanity were believed to have been brought about by laziness and it was the responsibility of the 'moral institution' to punish, in order to correct the moral abeyance. The madhouse became the asylum and moral management replaced punitive treatments previously used.

Unhappy women were subjected to sexual surgery as a form of treatment as the Victorians attempted to manage and control mind and bodies of women. Women showing signs of depression could be sent to the asylum. Women depressed because they were unhappy in their marriage, or women asking for a divorce were subjected to surgery such as clitoridectomy, surgical removal of the clitoris, as a treatment to lift the depression. If a woman asked for a divorce, she was often viewed upon as being mad.

With no theoretical breakthrough that would suggest madness should be regarded as a medical problem, the male dominated medical profession established a monopoly of treatment of mental disorders of women within the asylum. Women's emotional problems were now blamed on their biology and the instability of the reproductive system. Theories of female madness were specifically linked to the biological crises of the female life-cycle. It was believed women, as a result of her biology could go insane at time. It was also believed that women who stood outside the domestic sphere could suffer psychiatric collapse. To prevent madness women were forced into roles of servitude within the confines of the home.

Further reading. E Showalter, The Female Malady

Link below for part three.


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