Victorian hegemonic femininity

ENG 327
7 May 2015
Victorian Madwomen, Deviant, yet Sympathetic
Victorian hegemonic femininity can be summed up in the terms of the Cult of True
Womanhood, a value system which dominated the middle class during the nineteenth century.
“True women” were the angels of the house who lived up to the values of piety, purity,
domesticity, and submissiveness. As Yildirim notes in his article “Angels of the House: Dickens’
Victorian Women”, for a woman to be regarded as a lady, she had to follow the norms of society
and place herself firmly in the context of family (117). A woman’s role, despite being restricted
to the private sphere, was thought to be incredibly important to the welfare of society as a whole
because they were the center of morality. For a woman to neglect her duties as a wife or mother
was not only unacceptable, but thought to seriously contribute to the moral decay of society. It is
this narrowness of Victorian feminine ideals that led to an increasing number of women who
lived outside of the ideal to be labelled insane. However, even though these madwomen were
viewed as deviant, they were also accepted with a great deal of sympathy because women were
viewed so weak and susceptible to mental illness.
The Medicalization of Female Behavior and Physiology
In general women were thought to be the most considered liable to become mentally unstable
because the effects of the female reproductive system. During the Victorian period,
“menstruation, childbirth and climacteric were all cited as causes of insanity” in female patients
in asylums (Hide 38). The ideal of delicacy in “true women” translated into “weakness” when
associated with psychiatric discourses. Biologically women “were not necessarily the weaker
sex”, but their bodies were less understood medically and they were more strictly constructed
socially (Pegg 212). If a woman had a family history of mental illness, she was thought to be
even more inclined to be mentally unstable. In additional to a proclivity towards mental illness,
women’s status as innately moral creatures was thought to make them more susceptible to
yielding to temptation and falling into a life of crime (Pegg 212). This idea lead to the concept of
the “fallen woman”, who because of circumstances and her own weakness, fell from grace into a
life of crime and immorality. As will be explained in detail later, there was remarkably little
judgement for women who succumbed to crime and mental illness because they were thought to
be so vulnerable and prone to do so.
The medicalization of female behavior and physiology in the Victorian period is epitomized in
the reemergence of female hysteria as a clinical diagnosis. The notion of hysteria was not new to
the Victorians, as it had its root in the Greek world and remained alive as a diagnosis in various
degrees from that time on. However, during this period hysteria quickly gained unprecedented
attention with the growth of psychiatry. Hysteria was known to occasionally afflict men, but
overall it remained a women’s disease because as one Dr. Sydenham wrote, women “have a more
delicate, less firm constitution, because they lead a softer life, and because they accustomed to
the luxuries of life and not to suffering” (Kahane 10). This broad, undefinable illness seemed to
include any behavior in a woman which pointed to emotionality or the desire to be an individual.
One particular doctor in the 1880’s, Dr. Edward C. Mann, wrote of hysterical patients that:
The patient…does not feel disposed to make the slightest effort to resist them, and yields
to her emotions, whatever they may be…She cares nothing for her duties and seemingly
takes pleasure in exaggerating all her slight discomforts and annoyances and…makes life
generally uncomfortable to those about her. (Shannonhouse xiii)
Such a definition points to the idea that the main criteria for being diagnosed hysterical was
simply not living up to the Cult of True Womanhood and ignoring the responsibilities put upon a
woman by society. Because of the feminine nature of the illness, treatments were aimed at
removing the parts of a woman which were most obviously female. Such treatments included
everything from the removal of the ovaries to the cauterization of the clitoris (Shannonhouse
It is important to recognize that hysteria was an illness borne from society rather than science.
In her book, Passions of the Voice: Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman,
Claire Kahane links hysteria with the emerging women’s movement. She writes that it was “no
mere coincidence that at the same time that the woman orator became an increasingly audible
and visible figure…female hysteria, with its characteristic symptoms of aphonia and paralysis
swept across Europe and America” (7). In this way the feminist and the hysteric served as mirror
images of each other as one claimed an active role in the public sphere and the other passively let
her body speak for her.
Women and Asylums
The Rise of the Asylums
As the century went on the size of asylum increased by nearly eight times–a number which
rose faster than the rate of increase in the population generally (Ray 231). At the time, this
increase was contributed to five main causes: better ways of gathering statistics, the Poor Law
authorities failing to send new cases to asylums early enough to cure them, better treatment of
the insane which increased their life expectancy, that in many instances insanity had previously
been unnoticed in the community, and finally that the increase in insanity was a real phenomenon
due to the stress of the new industrial society (Ray 232). Modern scholars generally agree with
these reasons, but also suspect that the existence of asylums made it possible for the community
to define more and more behavior as harmful, unacceptable, and in need of treatment. (Ray 232).
Scholars like Laurence J. Ray and Andrew Scull point to the causes of insanity cited in asylum
case-notes as evidence of this validity of this sixth reason in which asylums act more as moral
managers than truly medical facilities. Things such as intense study, prostitution, overwork,
underwork, intemperance, smoking, and religious extremism, sexual excess (in women) were all
cited as causes of mental illness and were all things frowned upon in Victorian society and in
need of correction (Ray 427).
Gender and Class Ratios
Whatever the reason for the increase in the insane population, it is clear that female patients
and would-be patients also found their lives changing dramatically. Most notably, the expansion
of the asylum population was accompanied with a change in the sex ratios. While earlier in the
century, male patients outnumbered women by about 30%, the second half of the century
experienced a quick flip in those ratios until women greatly outnumbered men in asylums
(Showalter 315). This is likely because even though the life expectancy of the general population
for both males and female increased by about ten years during this time (Wright 618), in the
asylums females had a greater life expectancy (Showalter 316). Moreover, women tended to stay
long in asylums than men–6 year average stay for women compared to 3.7 year stay for men
(Showalter 316). The difference in the gender ratios was especially evident among the pauper
class. This was because of the tightening of the Poor Law regulations. Pauper women were more
likely to seek help from Poor Law officials and thus more likely to be placed in asylums if they
proved unruly or otherwise unable to take care of themselves (Hide 29). As the century
progressed, the number of pauper lunatics, especially female paupers, quadrupled to the point
that by 1890, paupers made up 91% of the population of mental patients (Showalter 316). It
makes sense if asylums truly did act as moral managers as Laurence J. Ray suggested that
paupers would make up the majority of the asylum population as they would have been the group
thought most outside the ideals of society and the most in need of managing.
Ward Life
Once women were actually in the asylums, their lives differed greatly from that of the male
patients. Women and men were greatly segregated to the point that some facilities even had
separate kitchens and mortuaries (Showalter 218). To insure the two sexes would not come in
contact with each other as they moved through the asylums, women were expected to rise an
hour earlier than the men (Hide 147). This was done primarily for the benefit of the women to
them from the men’s (and in many cases their own) uncontrollable sexuality. As Elaine
Showalter notes in her article “Victorian Women and Insanity”, “the sexes were separated but not
quite equal” (319). Women were forced to live within the very narrowest of Victorian gender
roles. Women spent their days indoors cleaning, doing laundry, and practicing their needlework.
They had much fewer opportunities than men for “outdoor activity, active recreation or even
movement within the building” which is perhaps why they were found to be “more troublesome,
more noisy, and more abusive in their language” since they did not have many opportunities to
work off their energy through physical activity like the men (Showalter 321, 320). Women also
received less food than men and were much more carefully watched than men (Showalter 319).
Sympathy for the Insane: The Rise of Psychiatry and Its Effect on Public Perceptions
One would perhaps think that with all of this unequal treatment of females with mental
illness, that the public perceptions of them would be harsh. However, this was not the case.
Because women were seen as naturally more prone to develop a mental illness, there was
actually a fair amount of sympathy towards them. After all, if all women were already seen as
being in the “borderland” of mental illness simply for being female, one could not blame a
woman who for whatever reason went further into the insanity.
Female Child Killers
Because of the influence of this sympathy for women with mental illness, women who killed
children were less villainized in the media than they generally are today. Samantha Pegg
discusses this phenomenon in her article “‘Madness is a Woman’: Constance Kent and Victorian
Constructions of Female Insanity” in which she looks at several cases of child killing by females.
Pegg specifically structures her argument around the case of Constance Kent who confessed to
the murder of her three year old half-brother at the age of 16. Kent offered no motive for the
murder and did not try to excuse her actions (Pegg 209). Even still, Kent received a great deal of
sympathy from the pressed when she confessed to the crime. Many defended her as being insane
and unable to control her actions because she was menstruating when the murder took place
(Pegg 210). In her case, we can clearly see how the perceptions of women as weak and unstable
due to their reproductive system affected the Victorians perception and understanding of women
who commit crimes or are labelled mentally ill. Unlike today where women who kill their
children due to postpartum depression or other mental disorders are subjected to incredible
amounts of hatred in the media, women who committed similar crimes during the Victorian
period were more of a subject of fascination that hate.
Changing Attitudes Towards Suicide
The medicalization of insanity also increased sympathy of those who committed suicide,
especially women. Before the medicalization of insanity, suicide was not only an intensely
religiously charged subject, but it was also a legal matter. In fact, suicide was considered “a
felony committed on one’s self” (Laragy 734). However, as suicide increasingly became
considered a medical matter, legislation was put into place which decriminalized suicide and
made it so that those who committed suicide could finally be buried in consecrated ground
(Laragy 734). Society slowly began to pity those that committed suicide rather than hate them.
This was especially true for women who committed suicide because once again they were
viewed as weaker and more vulnerable. Female suicide was thought to be part of a female
emotional problem called mania to which women were helpless to overcome (Miller 195).
Moreover, women tended to kill themselves with much less violent means such as drowning or
poisoning which allowed people to focus on the much more emotional reasons behind their
actions rather than the violence and brutal details associated suicides done by cutting their own
throat which was a method more favored by men (Shephard 186). Gradually there also came an
understanding within the medical community that a person diagnosed with melancholia or as
suicidal, might never really been in danger of committing suicide. In fact, out of thousands of
patients diagnosed as suicidal, only a dozen or so successful or attempted suicides took place
(Jasson 725). So even though suicides were actually rather rare, at least in asylums, the increased
awareness of them at medical matter still greatly affected society’s perception of them.
Sensation Literature
Clearly madness and femininity interacted in interesting ways during the Victorian period and
informed each other. The growth of psychology as a field mixed with the cultural perception of
madness and femininity in such a way as to have a profound effect on the media of the time. One
example of this is the growth of the sensation novel which reciprocally influenced the
psychological discourse. According to Laura Otis, this is because, “Science was not perceived as
being written in a “foreign language”–a common complaint of twenty-first century readers.”
instead “science was in effect a variety of literature” (Stiles 669). The permeability between
science and literature can especially be seen in Victorian novels such as Lady Audley’s Secret.
Even though today scholars generally consider the conditions that push Lady Audley towards
“duplicity and violence” to be cultural rather than actual insanity, there is no doubt that at the
time, Lady Audley was thought to perfectly fit the clear model for the deviant, yet sympathetic
madwoman (Sparks 30). Victorian readers would have been horrified yet fascinated at learning
of Lady Audley’s bigamy and attempted murder which firmly place her outside of the norms of
society. And yet, we see towards the end of the novel that because Lady Audley is thought to
have a hereditary mental illness, that readers are encouraged to sympathize with her because she
was not in control of her actions. In the end, as Lynn Voskuil argues in her article “Act of
Madness: Lady Audley and the Meanings of Victorian Femininity”, Lady Audley does not just
represent the anxieties about the quickly crumbling class distinctions, but also the ambivalence
towards madwomen who were at once too authentic and too theatrical, too outside the ideal, yet
too sympathetic (Voskuil 625).
Works Cited
Hide, Louise. Gender and Class in English Asylums: 1890 – 1914. Basingstoke: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2014. Print.
Jansson, Åsa. “From Statistics to Diagnostics: Medical Certificates, Melancholia, and
‘Suicidal Propensities’ in Victorian Psychiatry.” Journal of Social History 46.3
(2013): 716-731. Religion and Philosophy Collection. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Kahane, Claire. Passions of the Voice: Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the
Speaking Woman, 1850-1915. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.
Laragy, Georgina. “‘A Peculiar Species of Felony’: Suicide, Medicine, and the Law in
Victorian Britain and Ireland.” Journal of Social History 46.3 (2013): 732-743.
Religion and Philosophy Collection. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Miller, Ian. “Representations of Suicide in Urban North-West England, 1870-1910: The
Formative Role of Respectability, Class, Gender and Morality.” Mortality 15.3
(2010): 191-204. CINAHL Plus with Full Text. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Pegg, Samantha. “‘Madness is a Woman’: Constance Kent and Victorian Constructions of
Female Insanity.” Liverpool Law Review: A Journal of Contemporary Legal and
Social Policy Issues. 30.3 (2009): 207-223. Print.
Ray, LJ. “Models of Madness in Victorian Asylum Practice.” Archives Européennes De
Sociologie. European Journal of Sociology. Europäisches Archiv Für Soziologie.
22.2 (1981): 229-64. Print.
Shannonhouse, Rebecca. Out of Her Mind: Women Writing on Madness. New York:
Modern Library, 2000. Print.
Shepherd, A, and D Wright. “Madness, Suicide and the Victorian Asylum: Attempted
Self-Murder in the Age of Non-Restraint.” Medical History. 46.2 (2002): 175-96.
Showalter, Elaine. “Victorian Women and Insanity.” Madhouses, Mad-doctors, and
Madmen: The Social History of Psychiatry in the Victorian Era. Ed. Andrew
Scull. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania, 1981. 313-31. Print.
Sparks, Tabitha. “To the Mad-House Born: The Ethics of Exteriority in Lady Audley’s
Secret.” New Perspectives on Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Ed. Jessica Cox.
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 19-35. Print.
Stiles, Anne. “Victorian Psychology and the Novel.” Literature Compass 5.3 (2008):
668-680. Print.
Voskuil, Lynn M. “Acts of Madness: Lady Audley and the Meanings of Victorian
Femininity.” Feminist Studies 27.3 (2001): 611. Sociological Collection. Web. 15
Apr. 2015.
Wright, David, Laurie Jacklin, and Tom Themeles. “Dying to Get Out of the Asylum:
Mortality and Madness in Four Mental Hospitals in Victorian Canada, C.
1841-1891.”Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87 (2013): 591-621. Print.
Yildirim, Aşkın Haluk. “Angels of the House: Dickens’ Victorian Women.” Dokuz Eylul
University Journal of Graduate School of Social Sciences 14.4 (2012): 113-125.
Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 May 2015.

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