From Female Sexuality And Hysteria To Feminine Psychology

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Tania Woods [email protected]
From the mad heroines of classic Victorian literature to the portrayal of insanity in modern Western texts and Middle Eastern writing, women suffering from mental instability have been a captivating subject. Using today’s understanding of mental illness and psychological abnormality, do we find these women to be suffering from psychological conditions, or are they suffering from a “female malady”? Is it simply the nature of their femininity that results in the representation of female madness in literature?
The construct of women as “deviant” has a long history. It can be seen in the world’s major religions and spiritual traditions, which often view women as “uncontrollable”. In particular the last two centuries has seen a greater interconnectedness between the concept of femininity and the cultural construction of madness.
Female sexual experiences play an important role in their development of psychological disorders. Traditional psychological approaches often ignore the importance of these experiences. In literature we can see how the beliefs about female sexuality have often been related to psychological symptoms once broadly labeled as hysteria. The emergence of feminine psychology has progressed our understanding of the importance of gender in the diagnosis of conditions. By furthering our understanding of how women’s sexuality interplays with psychological conditions we may be able to better understand the links between sexuality and psychological disorders, including how they have evolved historically from the Victorian era to the modern day. It is important to understand the value of female sexual expression and consider the impact that sexual repression and abuse can have in the development of certain psychological symptoms.
In examining the representations of insanity in literary texts we can examine changing ideas about gender, social class and family structures, and the effect these factors have on what we consider to be “sane”.
History of Psychology
Traditionally the study and application of psychology has been male dominated and feminists have criticized early psychoanalytic theory,

particularly the work of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, as being overtly sexist. His suggestion that women are mutilated men who must learn to live with the deformity of not having a penis, has been especially criticized. The term, coined by Freud, “penis envy” has persisted throughout popular psychology, and has been used as an off-hand rebuttal of feminist ideas. Some feminist thinkers have gone as far as to say that mainstream psychology has “persistently misunderstood female experience in a systematic manner.” (Gilligan, 1982)
Hysteria as a female condition has a history reaching back more than two thousand years. In it’s colloquial usage hysteria refers to emotional excess.
hys-ter-i-a (noun) 1. Behavior exhibiting excessive or uncontrollable emotion, such as fear or panic. 2. A mental disorder characterized by emotional excitability and sometimes by
amnesia or a physical deficit, such as paralysis, or a sensory deficit, without an organic cause.
(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2009)
The term is an abstract noun coming from the Greek hysterikos, which means “of the womb”. It was originally defined as a neurotic condition specific to women. The exact cause of hysteria was not clearly defined, but it was thought to be the psychological manifestation of a disease of the womb. The idea of the ‘wandering womb’ had its beginnings in the teachings of Hippocrates. Ancient Greek medicine theorized that many female pathologies had their roots in a displaced womb. The idea, promoted by Hippocrates and later Plato, that women are more susceptible to irrationality and hysterical conditions, persisted into the Victorian era. Sigmund Freud’s theories regarding hysteria were directly influenced by these beliefs.
Freud’s study of Dora led him to theorize that hysterical symptoms stem either from psychological trauma or sexual problems. During psychotherapy Dora alleged that she had been the recipient of unwanted sexual advances from a family friend. Freud dismissed these allegations, suggesting that she imagined the advances. He was however concerned that the imagined events were traumatic enough for Dora to develop hysteria. Freud's case studies led him to develop his psychosexual stages of development theory. This controversial theory suggested that personality development occurred in stages and if any of these stages were not suitably completed it would result in psychological conditions, such as hysteria, becoming manifested

later in life. It incorporated his penis envy theory and the Oedipus complex theory, whereby a boy competes with his father for his mother’s affections and views his father as a rival. Many of Freud’s theories are discredited today, but their ongoing influence can still be seen. Hysteria may no longer be a recognized condition today, but it symptoms can be seen in conditions like anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorders.
Feminine Psychology
The study of psychology has historically been approached from the male perspective. A new branch of feminine psychology grew out of the women’s movement of the 1960’s. These new theories counteracted the predominant thinking, research and practices that had become outdated in light of the feminist revolution. Feminist psychology takes in to account both sex as a biological difference and gender, as a set of socially determined norms and values. A key component of female centered psychology is that problems are viewed in a sociopolitical and cultural context. Women’s experiences are taken into account, and definitions of mental illness are adjusted to reflect distress that could, as a result of these contexts, be seen as normal.
The work of early psychoanalysts ignored the life events and experiences of women, preferring to cover many conditions with the blanket term neurosis. Psychologist Karen Horney considered neurosis to be a common condition in both males and females, but believed that it is only when we are overwhelmed by external conditions that the condition surfaces. Horney sought to assert that “womb envy”, in which males are envious of women's ability to create life was a counter theory to “penis envy”. These theories, while extreme, help to explain the struggle of women during the 19th century to gain a distinct psychological identity. (Horney, 1991)
In her influential feminist text The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, Shulamith Firestone suggests that Freud's “Penis Envy” theory was not completely redundant, if every time he used the term penis, it was replaced with the term power. Feminine psychology takes into account the cultural influences of women’s experiences and their historical position in society as the weaker sex. It also focuses on the balance required by women to partake in traditional roles such as motherhood together with modern roles, such as being economically independent or as career women.
Women as victims of abuse
When looking at psychological conditions that are predominantly suffered by women, it is important to take into account the sexual experiences of women. Eating disorders, depression and anxiety are all gender biased

conditions. The prevalence of these psychological issues in women is possibly, at least in part, a consequence of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Healthcare providers when providing counseling and psychotherapy. should address these connections. Throughout their many life stages, women are at a greater risk of violence and sexual abuse. According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of violence against women in their lifetime is 16% to 50% and at least one in five women suffer rape or attempted rape.
Depression, anxiety, psychological distress, sexual violence, domestic violence and escalating rates of substance use affect women to a greater extent than men across different countries and different settings. Pressures created by their multiple roles, gender discrimination and associated factors of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, overwork, domestic violence and sexual abuse, combine to account for women's poor mental health. There is a positive relationship between the frequency and severity of such social factors and the frequency and severity of mental health problems in women. Severe life events that cause a sense of loss, inferiority, humiliation or entrapment can predict depression.
(World Health Organization, 2012)
Female madness in Victorian literature
“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation. . . . They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs.”
(Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847)
In literature we can see the link between sexual abuse and psychological distress clearly expressed. Sexual repression is often seen as the embodiment of the Victorian Era. 19th century literature helps us to understand the experiences of women in this period and the censorship faced by those trying to explore such issues. Women were given one goal, marriage. Most women were unable to support themselves economically and those who were, but chose to remain unmarried were often ridiculed, labeled as ‘old maids and spinsters’. Being a wife, a mother and a lady were viewed as the pinnacle of success for a female. Moral purity and virginity were

valued highly in a prospective wife. This moral capital was used as currency when arranging partnerships, especially in the middle classes. The upper classes could afford to be more morally careless whilst the working class, who had very little chance of significantly raising their family’s status, did not need to adhere to such stringent moral rules. Middle class females however, had considerable pressure placed upon them. A successful marriage could advance their family’s social standing whilst ‘failure’ could result in destruction of the family’s reputation and economic downfall.
Victorian female authors also subscribed to traditional images of insanity. In Jayne Eyre, Charlotte Brontë defines madness with an animal image of the first Mrs Rochester on all fours, baying at the moon. This animalistic view of madness reflects the concept of insanity as a deviation from human rationality. In the 19th century women were often considered to be suffering from psychological problems simply by nature of their femininity. This view of intrinsic female insanity meant “women outnumbered men in Victorian asylums almost two to one” (Parry, 2010). In literature of that period, we see characters such as the violently insane Bertha Mason (Mrs Rochester) in Jane Eyre, the depressed and suicidal Emma in Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and the innocent turned demonic Mina and Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, define a stereotypical image of madness which still endures today.
In her text The Female Malady, Professor Elaine Showalter (1987) considers that the view of madness as a “female malady” emerged in Victorian England and shows the equation of femininity and insanity in the perceptions of that time. The idea of “moral insanity” extended the definition of insanity to include any deviation from accepted social behavior. For women this could include inappropriate behaviors such as being loud, uncouth or sexually promiscuous. The male dominated medical establishment helping perpetuate the Victorian era’s belief that females were more vulnerable to insanity than men.
When questioned about her representation of ‘Bertha in the Attic’, Brontë justified her representation of Mrs Rochester:
“There is a phase of insanity which may be called moral madness, in which all that is good or even human seems to disappear from the mind, and a fiend-nature replaces it. The sole aim and desire of the being thus possessed is to exasperate, to molest, to destroy, and preternatural ingenuity and energy are often exercised to that dreadful end. The aspect, in such cases, assimilates with the disposition—all seem demonized. It is true that profound pity ought to be the only sentiment elicited by the view of such degradation, and equally true is it that I have not

sufficiently dwelt on that feeling: I have erred in making horror too predominant. Mrs. Rochester, indeed, lived a sinful life before she was insane, but sin is itself a species of insanity—the truly good behold and compassionate it as such”.
(Letter to W.S. Williams from Charlotte Brontë, Jan 2 1848)
By using the typical image of lunacy, the character is immediately recognizable as psychologically disturbed by her readers. Brontë reinforces the idea of sin and sexuality resulting in madness. This example of hysteria in Victorian literature helps our understanding of the history of linking female sexuality to psychological conditions.
Female sexuality in Victorian literature often goes hand in hand with psychological abnormality. Male fear of female sexuality is often seen in male authored books. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a clear example of this type of thinking. The novel’s two main female characters Mina and Lucy are provided as shining examples of purity and femininity. On one hand Dracula is a terrible monster, but he can also be seen as the threat of colonialism to the moral standards of Victorian society. Dracula’s threat is, that by turning these women in to vampires, he will release their sexuality and carnal desires. This sexuality, once fully embraced by the women, gives them power over the men in the story. This is portrayed in the novel as evil. The true terror in the novel is the awakening of the female sexuality, which is seen as the moral undoing of society. The lust for sex that is awakened occurs simultaneously with the women’s delirium and insanity. The now sexually awakened Lucy Westerna takes on animal characteristics:
“With a careless motion, she flung to the ground, … the child that up to now she had clutched strenuously to her breast, growling over it as a dog growls over a bone. The child gave a sharp cry, and lay there moaning”
(Stoker, 1897, Ch.16 Sept 29)
A Freudian analysis of Dracula would find that the hysterical symptoms suffered by the women, were caused by repressed sexual feelings that threaten to turn women into the opposite of their prim and proper selves. The text can almost be viewed as a patriarchal psychological case study, showing a dramatic interpretation of what can happen when female sexuality is allowed to surface.

Feminism’s awkward age
After the First World War the suffrage movement achieved great victories. The Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in the United States was ratified in 1920 and in the UK women were given partial voting privileges in 1918 and by 1928 had secured equal voting rights to men. While this was a clear victory for women, it marked what Professor Elaine Showalter has described as feminism’s “awkward age”. Suffragist Dr Anna Howard Shaw explained “I am sorry for you young women who have to carry on the work in the next ten years for suffrage was a symbol and you have lost your symbol” (in Showalter, 1979). The feminist movement did not experience a “second wave” until the 1960’s and 1970’s when it reemerged, but with less ideological cohesion.
During this “awkward age” changes in the representation of women in literature can be seen to have incorporated contemporary psychological ideas. Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca mirrors some of the plot elements of Brontë’s Jayne Eyre. It’s heroine is symbolically nameless as we see her compete with Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. Our heroine is perpetually tormented by not only the ghost of Rebecca but also by her living servant Mrs Danvers, who urges her to commit suicide.
Published in 1938 Rebecca is psychologically sophisticated. The narrator’s search for her own identity is a key theme throughout the novel, established early on by the choice to make her anonymous. The novel explores many psychological issues including the Oedipus complex, or rather its female counterpart the “Electra complex”. In order to be with the paternal figure in the novel, the nameless heroine has to overcome two maternal figures, firstly Mrs. Van Hopper who has employed her as a travel companion and become a surrogate mother of sorts. Second is the ghost of Rebecca, who proves more difficult.
Lady Chatterly’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, also helps us understand the changing view of sexuality during this period. Published in 1928 it caused a stir in literary England. Banned until 1960 for being radically pornographic it tells the story of Connie Reid, the novels protagonist. Raised as an upper middle class bohemian she has experienced sexual love affairs as a teenager. When she marries Clifford Chatterly, who shortly after the marriage becomes impotent, she begins to feel trapped in their marriage and feels isolated in the presence of the intellectuals who frequently visit them. After a short affair with a playwright, Connie is left longing for a meaningful and satisfying sexual interaction. She begins an affair with the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors, with whom she experiences a sexual awakening.

The currency of power is asserted by the male and then passed onto the female. The words used are factual, sex is described plainly, in a masculine way reminding the reader that the novel was written by a male. The sexuality of the women is not described as being sensual, but as being a means to obtain orgasm and release.
“A man was like a child with his appetites. A woman had to yield him what he wanted, or like a child he would probably turn nasty and flounce away and spoil what was a very pleasant connexion. But a woman could yield to a man without yielding her inner, free self. That the poets and talkers about sex did not seem to have taken sufficiently into account. A woman could take a man without really giving herself away. Certainly she could take him without giving herself into his power. Rather she could use this sex thing to have power over him”.
(D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover, 1928)
The male in the scenario is described as childlike which mirrors the infantile nature of the Freudian pleasure seeking that both the male and female are searching for. The image of the male as an infant is mirrored in the text with Clifford’s dependence on his nurse Mrs Bolton, after becoming crippled.
Lawrence describes the human sexual need in this paragraph as primitive and somewhat savage and empty. This relates to the book’s theme of industrialization and intellectual emptiness. He actively criticizes the intellectuals, poets and thinkers, for not being able to understand the vigor of life and meaning, in sensuality.
Gender and madness today
“After Doreen left, I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I shouldn't, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.”
(Plath, The Bell Jar, 1971, p.24)
The literature of depression predates the term. Some of our most successful literary forefathers were writing about a condition that had not yet been medically explored. Today their melancholic literature and poetry

would probably have gone hand in hand with a diagnosis of depression. The term ‘depression’ is relatively new. Sigmund Freud theorized that Melancholia was the result of objective loss, leading to subjective loss. Where the ego becomes compromised by feelings of guilt and shame, producing a state that is similar to mourning. It was Swiss psychiatrist Adolf Meyer who argued that the term depression should replace melancholia and that both social and biological factors needed to be considered (Greenberg, 2010).
Although depression affects both men and women, females are twice as likely to experience depression at some point in their lives. Worldwide the rate of depression is rising, with one in four females developing it at some point in their lifetime. It is important to try and understand the risk factors leading to greater prevalence of depressive disorders in females than males, along with the risk of morbidity resulting from such a condition.
Often depression is considered to be an extreme state of sadness although the medical community recognizes a difference between sadness and clinical depression, sometimes referred to as major depression.
According to the DSM-IV-TR (used by clinicians and psychiatrists to diagnose mental disorders), depression can be diagnosed when the patient has at least five of the following criteria:
1. Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated either by subjective report (e.g., feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful)
2. Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated either by subjective account or observation made by others)
3. Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day
4. Insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day
5. Psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down)
6. Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day

7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional) nearly every day (not merely self-reproach or guilt about being sick
8. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day (either by subjective account or as observed by others)
9. Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or specific plan for committing suicide

Psychological Association, 2000, p. 356)


Biological factors may help in part explain female depression. The rise of depression during puberty could be due to gonadal hormonal changes, but it is difficult to separate this from the social issues surrounding puberty. While genetic factors play a significant role in the liability to develop depression, studies have shown that they do not seem to directly contribute to the increased female risk (Piccinelli & Wilkinson, 2000). Some researchers have pointed to structural differences between male and female brains, specifically the gender differences between the neurotransmitter systems noradrenaline and serotonin. Despite research into these biological factors a clear answer is not apparent. Major depression and mood disorders are ‘likely a complex interaction of several factors’ both biological and social (Feldman, 2010, c.12).
Current psychological thought focuses on the importance of social influences on not only depression but also many other psychological conditions. The sexual experiences women may encounter in their lifetime are crucial for psychologists to understand. Behavioral perspectives suggest that depression is a symptom of an underlying problem. Stress reduces the positive reinforcers acting on a person, resulting in their further withdrawal. People may receive additional attention for their depressive actions resulting in further reinforcement. Cognitive explanations focus on the idea of learned helplessness and the feeling of lack of control over the circumstances in ones own life (Feldman, 2010, c.12).
Another factor to consider is that there may be a diagnostic bias in reporting of mood disorders. It has been suggested that women are more likely to report incidences of depression than men (Ontario Women's Health

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From Female Sexuality And Hysteria To Feminine Psychology