Women Who Defied Gender Roles Were Once Imprisoned In Asylums

by JR Thorpe

Are you a woman who cares about following her dreams, not toeing the line? Do you speak your mind? Do you not feel particularly inclined to obey your husband or father in every little matter, agree with all of their ideas about religion or educating your kids, look meek, and behave "properly" at all times? Society always throws up a lot of roadblocks for women who want to break from oppressive gender norms — but women in the 19th century who spoke up and pushed back against sexist oppression faced a distinctly awful possibility: being locked away in mental institutions, which at the time were generally known as "asylums."

No, sadly, I'm not kidding; a unique and awful combination of misogynistic ideas about women's minds, concern about "moral contagion," and a lack of real knowledge about mental health led to thousands of women being imprisoned in asylums (with many famous ones among them, including Lincoln's widow, Mary Todd Lincoln) — for reasons that these days would barely raise an eyebrow.

The trend of locking women in asylums was so widespread that Nellie Bly, the pioneering journalist, made her name by getting herself committed to a women's asylum, and reporting on abuses and mistreatment from the inside in 1887. But the real horror isn't just the way many women in asylums were abused — it's how they ended up in there. To be thrown in an asylum for the crime of, say, protesting your husband's affair with your niece was a real thing that happened — and a thing that happened not all that long ago.

If you're deep into watching The Handmaid's Tale and terrified, worried about the future of women's rights, or simply curious about the ways past generations punished women who wanted more than their era saw fit to give them, read on and learn about what used to happen to women whose greatest crime was likely unconventionality.

Asylums Allowed Men To Control The Women In Their Lives Completely

Asylums have, throughout history, been a place where "deviant" women were sent to be "cured" of their ideas or behavior...or simply shut up out of the way. If this idea stretches your imagination, know that in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was perfectly legal in the UK and US for a husband to commit his wife to an asylum without giving her any chance to appeal the decision. It was, like most other areas of female life at the time, under complete male control. The Centre for the History of Medicine explains:

"Women were [...] admitted to private asylums on slender evidence, notably those who contravened expectations concerning their modesty, conduct, duties or behaviour or those who would not bend to their husbands’ will, even when husbands were themselves making extraordinary demands that could be deemed crazy."

Three examples from two different countries show the lack of regulation, particularly of private asylums — which was a pretty major asset for men who wanted to control their "problematic" spouses, sisters or daughters. In 1860, Connecticut housewife Elizabeth Packard was declared insane and placed in an asylum by her husband, Theophilus, because she frequently disagreed with him and had arguments about religious beliefs. She spent three years in the asylum before being freed and declared clearly sane, but had to fight long and hard to get her children back from the custody of her husband.

Tirza Shedd, meanwhile, was imprisoned in the Jacksonville asylum on her husband's wishes because she'd converted to Spiritualism.

And a hundred years earlier, in 1766, Hannah Mackenzie of London was put in an asylum by her husband because she refused, quite fairly, to put up with his locking her away, stealing her money, and having an affair with her niece. Hannah managed to bribe her way out, but other women weren't always so fortunate or lucky.

Committing Women Was Thought To Help Families "Preserve" Their "Honor"

The notion of "hysteria" — that uniquely female complaint that was supposed to be caused by wandering wombs and general female nervous system delicacy — was one of the great reasons that women were committed to asylums in the 19th century. And one of the most prominent of the hysteria diagnosticians was Jean-Martin Charcot, who managed the now-infamous La Salpêtrière asylum for the insane in France from 1870 onwards.

The idea of hysteria has been around for millennia, and was often thought to be down to improper sexual health (often staying a virgin "too long") or to the excellently-named condition of "uterine fury;" its symptoms as outlined by Charcot included nervousness, fits, anxiety and "unusual" behavior — symptoms that covered a lot of extremely average behavior.

Perversely, though they often disrupted or ruined the lives of the women involved, hysteria diagnoses and asylum stays were seen as a method to preserve family honor in the 19th century. As the London Psychiatric Hospital explains:

"For hysterical women and their families, the asylum offered a convenient and socially acceptable excuse for inappropriate, and potentially scandalous behaviour. Rather than being viewed as a bad and immoral woman, honour and reputation could be maintained by the diagnosis of a medical condition and commitment to an asylum."

Once in La Salpêtrière, women were often given extraordinary treatments for the cure of their "hysteria" — some just odd, and some incredibly painful. They'd be photographed in the midst of hysterical "fits" for Charcot's teaching classes, and treated with everything from amyl nitrate to compressing the ovaries (one "ovarian compressor" was applied to a patient for 36 hours with no results) and cauterization of the cervix.

Masturbating, Being Queer, Or Desiring Sex Were Viewed As Grounds For Commitment

"Hysteria" or making a man's life more difficult weren't the only things that could get you thrown into an asylum as a woman in the nineteenth century: you could also be committed for not behaving "like a woman." "Gender deviance", or behaving in a mannish or unwomanly manner, was often openly seen as a dangerous enough behavior for the woman in question to need time in a psychiatric institution. This was part of the motivation behind the chauvinistic imprisonment of disagreeable wives, who weren't fulfilling their "womanly" duty of being obedient; but it may also have been used to police female sexuality. One of the first lovers of the famous Anne Lister, the openly lesbian Regency heiress, was Eliza Raine — who was put into an asylum after Lister broke up with her, where she would spend the rest of her life.

Masturbation, or "self-abuse," was also seen as evidence of non-feminine or deviant behavior, and could get you locked up as it was believed to be one of the distinct signs of insanity. Unlike many of these other "symptoms," though, masturbation was viewed as a sign of mental collapse in all genders; men were just as likely as women to be deeply discouraged from doing it, as it was seen as a path to mental illnesses. Too much sexual desire was also a direct path to the asylum for women; in the 1850s, "nymphomania" was regarded as an ailment so dangerous that it should be treated by enemas, borax on the genitalia, and time in an institution if all else failed.

Postpartum Depression Was Not Treated With Sympathy

These days we're developing more awareness about postpartum depression —including how incredibly common it is — but in the 19th century, the condition then called "puerperal insanity" was a broad brush used to describe both women who were genuinely suffering from PPD as well as many women who were likely just traumatized by the era's brutal methods of childbirth and the high rates of maternal and child death.

By 1850, apparently, a full 10 percent of all women admitted to asylums in the UK were deemed to be suffering from the disorder, which was believed to manifest as everything from "raving madness" to slight depressive states, and was largely thought to be down to the weakness of female nerves when dealing with the intensity of childbirth and its horrors.

Sex Workers Could Be Committed & Forced To Work

Religious control wasn't just a convenient reason for husbands to put their wives into asylums; it was also an inherent part of the motivation behind several kinds of asylums established from the 18th century onwards. "Fallen women" were a societal disease who needed to be separated from the rest of society until they were "fixed", and asylums were just the place to do it. "Correcting" women who'd "gone down the wrong sort of path" (which usually meant sex work) was the main idea behind three different kinds of establishments: Magdalene asylums, benevolent societies, and "lock hospitals."

Madgalene asylums were established by the Catholic Church for "Mary Magdalenes," or sex workers, as well as other women who'd run afoul of sexual mores. They were placed in them for the sake of "penitence"and redemption. Life in Magdalene asylums was grueling: the women were given new names, forbidden from talking about their past or talking to their families, and had to work (usually doing laundry) in complete silence.

Other institutions had a share in the "reforming" idea, too: "lock hospitals," such as those in London, were where sex workers ended up if they were found to have an STD (the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s meant any sex worker with a venereal disease could be forcibly put in one for up to a year).

Benevolent societies did much the same thing, but without the venereal disease treatment — women there would be given huge amounts of religious instruction and then "retrained" to be seamstresses or servants.

It's easy (and reasonable) to look at all this history and feel overjoyed at having been born in the present era. But these stories are more than just reminders that we're lucky not to have been born 200 years ago — they're also reminders of how much people in the past were invested in their ideas of "how women should act," and how far they were willing to go to make those ideas a reality.