The shocking history of female asylums

Did you know that for centuries “being female” was classed as a mental disorder? Dr Jessica Taylor shares the surprising history

Being female was literally classified as a mental disorder for centuries. Women had always been described by philosophers, scientists and physicians as defective, deformed, mutated versions of men.

This is where the “male as default” thinking comes from, which plagues science to this day. Women were described as problematic, with a range of mental and physical disorders that men couldn’t (or wouldn’t) decipher. By the eighteenth century, one of the most common psychiatric diagnoses used to control, imprison, and violate women was that of hysteria.

The word and concept of hysteria is thought to originate from the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who wrote that the uterus was a problematic organ. Hysteria was described as a female disease, caused by women’s wombs detaching from their usual position and floating around the body, causing havoc in the brain, heart and other organshence the term “wandering womb syndrome”.

Hysterical women were described as responding in disproportionately emotional ways to life and daily eventshence the modern term “hysterical”.

Hysteria was complete nonsense of course, but as “doctors” of that era had no scientific training and were steeped in racism and misogyny whilst holding significant local and national authority, no one sought to question the validity of an entire reproductive organ detaching itself and then moving around the female body, causing insanity and emotional unrest.

"Hysteria was described as a female disease, caused by women’s wombs detaching from their usual position and floating around the body, causing havoc in the brain, heart and other organs"

Until 1980, this was still considered to be a legitimate medical and psychiatric conditionlisted in the DSMwhich could be cured by medication, treatment and therapy (and pre-1970, women were told to use dildos, have sex with men, become pregnant or have womb extractions as a cure for their hysteria). An interesting mix of cures, you may notice, especially for the time period.

Whilst women were still being demonised for female masturbation, and female pleasure was nowhere on the patriarchy’s priority list, women were being diagnosed as insane and hysterical and then advised by doctors to use a dildo or to have sex with their husbands to relieve their illness.

This was not for female pleasure or fulfilment, though, especially as doctors in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries did not believe that women could experience sexual desire or sexual pleasure (unless they were a witch of course; in that case, they should be burned alive). 

Doctors invented vibrators and dildos as a medical treatment for hysterical and insane womenwhilst natural female masturbation was described as “self-abuse” and used to diagnose women with further psychiatric disorders.

At the same time, doctors would prescribe marriage to single women who were diagnosed as mentally ill, as women were seen to need the control and authority of a man to keep them in line. Once her life was on track as a submissive wife and mother, she would be well again.

In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, women were being committed to asylums for anything that men found remotely offensive, from novel reading to imaginary female troubles.

According to the historical records from the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane (1899), women were treated with a range of dangerous procedures for “insanity symptoms” such as studying, not having enough sex with their husbands, not smiling enough, being interested in politics, masturbating and overusing their limited female mental powers.

"In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, women were being committed to asylums for anything that men found remotely offensive, from novel reading to imaginary female trouble"

Women were the main recipients of almost all of the most dangerous and fatal psychiatric treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy, frontal lobotomies and insulin therapies. Right through to the end of the 1960s, women with a range of psychiatric diagnoses were prescribed forced womb extractions and forced sterilisations in psychiatric hospitals.

It is hard to ignore the centuries of misogyny which underpin psychiatry, and the ways in which any women who did not conform to the expected standards set by men were quickly positioned as mentally ill and in need of treatment or isolation from society.

In 2017, Helena Bonham Carter starred as Eleanor Riese in the film 55 Steps. It told the true story of Eleanor’s life and death at the hands of the psychiatric systems in the USA between 1970 and 1991.

When she was twenty-five years old, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and heavily medicated using forced injections which caused her serious physical symptoms and illnesses.

At the time, she had no right to refuse antipsychotic medication, sedatives or any other forced treatments. She was often restrained by several men, pinned to the floor, and injected with drugs that she had no knowledge of and had never consented to.

When challenged, doctors would say that patients in psychiatric hospitals were so delusional and disordered that they could not make informed decisions about their care, and therefore, their consent was not required. Eleanor was persistent though, and contacted human rights lawyers who were interested in taking on cases of the most vulnerable and oppressed people.

In 1989, and after a prolonged and controversial set of hearings and appeals, the courts ruled that people in psychiatric care should be given the right to refuse treatment, and should be given full information about the medication and treatment they are being given.

However, Eleanor already suffered significant bladder and kidney damage from prolonged lithium injections and other powerful antipsychotic drugs, and she died from a kidney infection in 1991, at the age of just forty-seven.

This is an extract from Sexy but Psycho: How the Patriarchy Uses Women’s Trauma Against Them by Dr Jessica Taylor, published in hardback on 10 March 2022

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