In this informative, timely and often harrowing study, Elaine Showalter demonstrates how cultural ideas about 'proper' feminine behaviour have shaped the definition and treatment of female insanity for 150 years, and given mental disorder in women specifically sexual connotations. Along with vivid portraits of the men who dominated psychiatry, and descriptions of the therapeutic practices that were used to bring women 'to their senses', she draws on diaries and narratives by inmates, and fiction from Mary Wollstonecraft to Doris Lessing, to supply a cultural perspective usually missing from studies of mental illness. Highly original and beautifully written, The Female Malady is a vital counter-interpretation of madness in women, showing how it is a consequence of, rather than a deviation from, the traditional female role.
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(198mm x 133mm x 22mm)
Virago Press Ltd
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Country of Publication:
US Kirkus 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. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Elaine Showalter
Elaine Showalter was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1941. From 1967 to 1984 she taught English and Women's Studies at Rutgers University, and she now chairs the department of English at Princeton University.