'Crazy' and 'Hysterical' Women: The History of Women's Mental Health

There's a long history of unhealthy discrimination in the field of women's mental health. In fact, for far too long, it revolved around abusive concepts and practices. We're going to address the causes and consequences of this phenomenon.
'Crazy' and 'Hysterical' Women: The History of Women's Mental Health
Angela C. Tobias

Written and verified by the psychologist Angela C. Tobias.

Last update: 16 March, 2023

For many years, psychology, like medicine and other health sciences, justified gender roles and negligent practices against the female sex. These ranged from an underestimation of emotional symptoms, overmedication in psychiatry, paternalistic treatment by professionals, negligent practices, and medical violence in women’s mental health treatments.

Like many other fields, the history of women’s mental health includes some horrifying stories. Knowing about these past practices is the only safe way of not repeating the same mistakes and limiting the unwanted consequences of those already made.

The men were intellectuals, the women were ‘crazy’

In the 70s, thanks to the first feminist waves and works such as Madness and Civilization, by Michel Foucault, the role of women in the sciences began to be questioned. Voices began to emerge that reflected the invisibility of research work carried out by women, both as authors and patients. They commented on how androcentrism was influencing the concept and psychological treatment of women.

The sexual dimorphism between men and women didn’t explain but was used to justify the asymmetric social organization and discrimination against women. However, scientists began to question the idea of the existence of a woman biologically willing to suffer from certain mental health problems.

Sadly, these groundbreaking early researchers had to pay a heavy price for challenging the norm. For instance, women who moved into the scientific field or parliament, as did the first suffragettes, were extremely controversial. In fact, these women who broke out of their domestic and caring roles were branded as crazy.

Man and woman measure strength
The role of women in activities considered for men broke the norm.

Women and psychiatry: a horror story

Medical experts used the argument of sexual dimorphism to justify the many abusive and even inhumane practices in the psychiatric and psychological treatment of women. They described the Victorian woman as prone to dizziness, weakness, and irritability, with a tendency to cause trouble.

This vision of them as weak beings who were prone to mental health problems gained followers from the fields of phrenology, behaviorism, and psychoanalysis. Far from questioning this argument, these professionals began to carry out practices with regard to the female reproductive system and nervous system.

Phrenology, psychoanalysis, and inhumane practices

With the rise of phrenology in the 19th century, dualist gender metaphors were reinforced. Consequently, the female stereotype was based on affection, sensitivity, sweetness, and self-sacrifice. On the other hand, the masculine role revolved around logic and intellectual capacity. Therefore, it justified that women who wanted admittance to any non-domestic environment were on the verge of madness.

Other pioneers of psychology, such as Freud and Watson, viewed women as mentally inferior people. They relegated them to the domestic sphere. Moreover, various mental health treatises linked the female reproductive system with the nervous system and mental health problems.

The so-called ‘wandering womb’ theory from the Ancient Greeks justified that women suffered mental health problems due to their sexual repression. Based on this argument, many psychological treatments focused on the prescription of marital intercourse, genital massages performed by psychiatrists, and the removal of sexual organs.

Hysteria and deviating from the norm

Most of the psychologized cases were of women, like Anna O or Dora, who took the step to talk about hysteria. They were young women, who were seen as dissatisfied and prone to creating problems. This is why women who exercised prototypically masculine roles were ‘pathologized’.

The masculine stereotype was based on rebellion, strength, and independence. Women, particularly those revolutionary suffragettes and pioneering researchers, were branded as hysterical for abandoning their emotional and submissive role.

These abusive concepts and practices may seem far removed from reality today. However, it wasn’t until 1952 that the American Psychiatric Association declared hysteria to be an obsolete term.

Gender equality
Women escaped the submissive role by breaking gender mandates.

New horizons: psychology with a gender perspective

Women have long been invisible in studies on mental health. In effect, they were transformed into passive research objects. Sandra Harding describes this in her book, Science and Feminism. Even today, recent investigations have continued to exclude women in clinical trials of psychotropic drugs.

At present, the assumption of gender roles persists. This means that imbalances also persist, especially when it comes to assuming responsibilities related to household chores. Indeed, women continue to suffer the weight of being seen as carers within the family. This creates a dissonance and, by extension, a feeling of lack of adaptation when it comes to their desire for independence in various areas.

These directives, together with the alarming data on gender violence, endangers the mental health of many women. Such conceptions don’t biologically explain vulnerability. In fact, they justify the threats to women’s mental health.

Today, psychology is proposing increasingly more gender perspectives. Undeniably, we require sustained changes in knowledge when it comes to concepts and procedures of evaluation, intervention, and monitoring of mental health. In fact, we’re all responsible for ending the history of terror in mental health against women, wherever it may occur.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.