Why Were so Many Women Diagnosed with Mental Illnesses in the 19th Century?

Why were so many women diagnosed with mental illnesses in the 19th century?

Women have always been seen as the less superior sex in society. Men have always had more opportunities to chase their dreams and do what they love. Meanwhile, women had to conform to being stay-at-home wives and care for their husbands. Since women were considered to be weak and fragile, it made it easier for doctors to diagnose many women with mental illnesses. For instance, in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman the narrator is diagnosed with a nervous condition. When in reality she is, in fact, dealing with postpartum depression. In the nineteenth century, doctors did not know anything about postpartum depression. Therefore, they would connect the condition with other conditions that have similar symptoms. More women were diagnosed with mental illnesses in the era of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in America based on the ideology that women were oppressed.

In the nineteenth century, the expectations that society held for women was very high and demanding. Women were meant to keep the house in perfect conditions, take care of the children and also raise them. But most importantly females had to tend to their husbands’ needs and wants. All of this pressure and stress could make anyone mad. Anytime a woman would act out and not follow her societal role people would refer to it as “madness.” Since women were considered to be weak and submissive it was easier to diagnose them with a mental illness. In the article “The Race of Hysteria: “Overcivilization” and the “Savage” Woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology” it states “the diagnostic category of hysteria was simply a way of keeping women in the home” (246). Diagnosing women with a disorder helps society come into terms as to why they are not following their role and are instead deviant. Not only that but it was a way of oppressing women and forcing them to follow their roles and duties. These illnesses kept women in their houses and left them no choice but to tend to it. Therefore, women were driven to these illnesses by society. Not only were the societal expectations extensive because society wanted women to be the perfect wives but they oppressed women.

Furthermore, being oppressed and not being able to do as one pleases can drive one insane. In the nineteenth century, women were controlled by their husbands and other male figures in their families. Many husbands restrained their wives from experiencing life. For example, in the play The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice Othello says My wayward husband hath a hundred times Wooed me to steal it” (Act 3 Scene 3). This demonstrates that men used to manipulate and control women into doing as they pleased. And women were too naive to realize what their husband’s true intentions were and just did what they were told just like Emilia in this play. The character, Iago, uses his power to manipulate everyone around him in order to destroy Othello’s life and marriage. If women decided to fight for their freedom and push for more rights, doctors would diagnose them with a mental or nervous condition. It was rare for women to actually defy societal norms. So, medically, doctors thought there was something mentally wrong. In addition, doctors did not need much proof to detect a mental illness, to begin with, so it was very easy to do. These nervous conditions restrained women from living life to the fullest.

Moreover, the majority of women in the nineteenth century were aspiring to give their husband children. Pregnancy was considered to be a duty for women; something they were supposed to experience and in the future raise their own children. But in the nineteenth century, it was dangerous to give birth to a baby because it was usually done at home. As a result, there were complications in the labor and barely any experts around to help. Not only that but there were no drugs available like morphine to reduce the pain in child labor. In the article “Women’s Voices in Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourse: A Step toward Deconstructing Science” it says “the local causes of women’s insanity were injured or dysfunctional reproductive organs” (5). Which means that women who could not bear a child would go mentally ill. The thought of not being able to fulfill their duty as a wife makes them turn to depression. The societal norm of wives needing to have children made those who could not bear children weak and vulnerable. And as a whole, these particular women felt useless which causes them to go mad and eventually be diagnosed with a mental illness.

Also, there are women who are able to have children and follow their role but then suffer from depression. This condition is called postpartum depression and any woman can get this condition after having a baby. This type of depression is not caused because the mother does not love the child but because of the hormonal changes that are occurring. According to the article “A Cry for Help: Postpartum Depression,” it says “A nineties woman often feels the stress of trying to live up to a “super mother” image. This increases her depression and decreases her self-esteem” (42). The reason why so many women were diagnosed with mental illnesses was that they were so worried about their reputation and role being tarnished that they let it take over their entire lives. Trying to be perfect in return for society’s approval became overbearing which soon led these women in society to insanity. Women in the nineteenth century sacrificed their freedom and mental state for society’s view on them as individuals.

Another factor that contributes to many women being diagnosed with mental illnesses is their sexuality. Women that were diagnosed with an illness or condition were seen as sexual beings by society. The people around these women thought they were insane and therefore sexual libertines. Stated in “The Female Animal: Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century America,” it says “Charles D. Meigs, a prominent Philadelphia gynecologist, stated with assurance in 1847 that a woman is a moral, a sexual, a germiferous, gestative and parturient creature” (335). Women were not only going insane because of all the pressure society puts on them to follow their roles but they were seen as these procreative animals. Throughout the nineteenth century, women were conveyed to be the perfect wives that tended to all the needs of everyone in the household. But as soon as particular women were dealing with a nervous condition or anything that resembled them not being in the right state of mind society would convey them differently.

Ultimately, the oppression of women in the nineteenth century caused them to be mentally ill. Feeling lesser than others and feeling trapped can drive anyone insane. More women than men were diagnosed with mental illnesses in the nineteenth century due to the fact that they had different roles. Men were given the free will to chase any career they wanted and were given authority and power. While women were stuck at home all the time doing chores and being overlooked by everyone living around them. The potential women had of thriving and working just as hard as men was neglected all throughout history. Society had the ideology that women were just meant to care for the house, kids, and their husbands. And this ideology ended up hurting and causing harm to a lot of women in the nineteenth century. Women should rise above these societal norms and aspire to be better than just a housewife. They should strive to accomplish great things and empower one another to reach their goals. Not only that but people should not let an illness or condition define the type of person they are. And much less let societal roles get in the way of one’s well being.

Works Cited

  • Briggs, Laura. “The Race of Hysteria: ‘Overcivilization’ and the ‘Savage’ Woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology.” American Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2, 2000, pp. 246–273. Print.
  • Cicchinelli, Brenda. “A Cry for Help: Postpartum Depression.” International Journal of Childbirth Education, vol. 10, no. 1, 1995, pp. 42–43-43. Print.
  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Literature: A Portable Anthology, edited by Janet E. Gardner, et.al., fourth edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, New York, 2017.64-77. Print.
  • Rosenberg, Carroll Smith, and Charles Rosenberg. “The Female Animal: Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century America.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 60, No. 2, 1973, pp. 332-356. Print.
  • Shakespeare, William/ Mowat, Barbara A. (EDT)/ Werstine, Paul (EDT). The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. N.p.: Pocket, 2017. Print.
  • Theriot, Nancy M. “Women’s Voices in Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourse: A Step toward Deconstructing Science.” Signs, vol. 19, no. 1, 1993, pp. 1–31. Print.


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