Women and the Anti-Psychiatry Movement

The anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s is marked by prominent names in the field – Laing, Cooper, Press – all of them male. Because of this, it is easy to conclude that perhaps women did not play a commendable role in the anti-psychiatry movement, perhaps they felt that it was not so applicable to them or that they did not have the means to voice their opinions. This is simply untrue. Although female voices are not nearly as explicit as male advocates, undeniably there were women who expressed strong feelings towards psychiatry. If the breadth of the search is expanded beyond the 1960s, it can be noted that there are women who have spoken out loud and clear in opposition to psychiatry from as early as the 1800s. Their voices have been buried with time. We must remember that anti- psychiatry feelings were not exclusive to the radical sixties, and by focusing on this period as the hub of opposition many interesting female characters are overlooked. Historians must cast their gaze further back in time.

Prior to the 1960s, particularly in the 1800s, there was a particular focus on how psychiatry could be used as a tool by a husband against his wife. This period saw women increasingly confined to the home, bound by the ‘angel of the house’ gender ideal. It was a time that revered the chivalrous husband and a fragile, submissive wife. Thus, it is hardly surprising that anti- psychiatry arguments of the 19th century orbit the household and the relationship between husband and wife.

Elizabeth Packard (1816-1897) is an inspirational figure against psychiatry even by modern standards. She broke the mould of gender ideals and raised awareness of how psychiatry could be carved into a tool of marital abuse. Elizabeth wrote about her personal experiences after being involuntarily sectioned by her Calvinist husband, Theophilus, after refuting his beliefs. She spent three years in the Jacksonville Insane Asylum, being released in 1863 only to be kept a prisoner in her own home, locked in the nursery. Being confined to a childlike state was grimly common for female victims of psychiatry.

After a legal battle with her husband, leading to her freedom but the loss of her children, Elizabeth used her experiences to form the ‘Anti-Insane Asylum Society’ which pressured the State of Illinois to pass a ‘Bill for the Protection of Personal Liberty’ in 1867 (Packard 1866). She also published a variety of materials outlining the abuses women in particular faced. Elizabeth was notably exceptional for her time in her defiance of gendered boundaries of acceptable female behaviour. However, she is a lighthouse that should be used to guide historians in search of other female voices like her own, expanding the horizon beyond the male-dominated 1960s.

This period saw women increasingly confined to the home, bound by the ‘angel of the house’ gender ideal.

Diverting into the world of fiction momentarily, pre-1960s literature provides recognition of the gendered abuses of psychiatry that Elizabeth Packard outlined. Esther Summerson in Charles Dickens’s 1853 novel, Bleak House, was threatened with involuntary hospitalisation by a male character. A strong female protagonist cowering from a minor male player because of a threat particular to her sex. Dickens himself can be likened to his literary example; his wife, Catherine, sending written appeals to her neighbours (discovered by Prof John Bowen) as she feared that her husband would have her institutionalised as her youthful beauty faded with age. A man exceptional in the arts yet a typical Victorian husband.

Another example that will bring back memories for A-level English students can be seen in the 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. The play ended with the excessively ‘manly’ Stanley Kowalski sending Blanche DuBois, his sister-in-law, to an asylum. The character of Blanche is commonly thought to be based off of Williams’s own sister, Rose, who became incapacitated after an involuntary lobotomy. Not only were women stripped of their ability to voice their opinions, but also to think at all. The ending of the play can be interpreted as a critique of psychiatry, voicing the experience of Williams’s sister in a criticism of the patriarchal control of the medical field. As Stanley liked to remind his audience, his domination was not only a social expectation, but also a legal one. This highlights the need to look at an array of sources to recognise the troubles and fears women faced regarding psychiatry.

Not only were women stripped of their ability to voice their opinions, but also to think at all.

It is important to not only look at words as indicators of anti-psychiatry feelings among women, but also actions. In a period where the voices of women were often suppressed, we must look at how their views were translated through their actions. In her influential book, On Our Own, Judi Chamberlin outlined a number of patient-controlled alternatives to the mental health system. One of these alternatives was Fountain House, which began at Rockland State Hospital in the late 1940s. Six patients formed a group that met in the hospital, offering each other support and engaging in activities together such as painting and reading. The self-help group, called ‘We Are Not Alone’ (WANA) bought a plot in New York in 1948 to expand their mission of creating an understanding and alternative community to the options psychiatry offered. Women were an active part of WANA from the start, Elizabeth Schermerhorn, a former volunteer at the hospital, being one of the six founding members of the group (Chamberlin, 1978) Women were also included as board members, Hetty Richard being personally responsible for signing leases for apartments in the community in 1958. Although women were the minority, they were still active components in helping to find alternatives to psychiatry even prior to the prominent men of the 1960s. This implores historians to expand their search for women who grappled with psychiatry beyond the boundaries of a single decade and limited sources.

Certainly, this article is too brief to make a convincing case for the 19th and early 20th centuries as being hubs for strong female voices discussing psychiatry. In fact, a strong case can be made for the 1970s as a particularly prominent decade instead. The 1970s provide an expansive literature of women’s voices explicitly denouncing psychiatry. Much like the male figures of the 1960s, the women of the 70s interacted with each other across the globe, sharpening their arguments with intellectual discussion to make convincing cases. We particularly see anti-psychiatry discussions become characterised by prominent individuals, for example, Judi Chamberlin, Joan Busfield, Bonnie Burstow, and Phyllis Chesler, to name but a few. However, the intention of this article was not to highlight a period where we can find a women’s anti- psychiatry movement, but rather to demonstrate the need to expand our search. Historians have been limited and led astray by the self-assured men who have claimed the spotlight. In order to truly discover women’s history, we must rewrite the timeframes of a patriarchal narrative.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.