Black and white photo around the early 1900s, carrying a birdcage.

“I Would Rather Have My Own Mind”: The Medicalization of Women’s Behavior in Ireland, 1914-1920

When he brought her to the asylum, twenty-four-year old Katie’s father was asked to describe what behaviors or actions had marked her “attack.” He noted, first, that she suffered from “some uterine trouble,” and secondly, that she was “addicted to reading Novels, esp. Modn. cheap ones. Fond of amusement and gay society.”1 It sounds like a line out of a mid-Victorian novel, where women were falsely incarcerated in asylums by men eager to steal their fortunes. But Katie was held in the asylum from 1918 until 1920, and her experience is one among many where women were described as “insane” as a result of attempts to assert their independence and agency in a troubling and changing world.

Broadly speaking, the field of psychology is one that was built on the exclusion of women from the profession, ensuring that the only experts who could speak were men.2 Moreover, it was a field that also stigmatized women by constructing them as inherently unstable, over-emotional, and intellectually and developmentally primitive. In case notes, the words, actions, and behavior of patients are translated through the eyes of the doctor, making it difficult to distinguish between interpretation and fact.

For women, especially, this systemic distrust of a patient’s testimony ends up containing the female patient within a male-centered medical discourse and the wider patriarchal social system that codified women’s behavior inside and outside the asylum. As a result, it was frighteningly easy to have a woman declared “insane.” “Normal,” after all, is a concept that is rooted in contemporary social and cultural expectations. Those who challenge those norms run the risk of being called “crazy.” During periods when “normality” is challenged, the persecution of difference and protest becomes increasingly obvious, particularly when looking through medical case notes.

A white man in a suit sits and looks at the camera.
Doctor Atkins, District Asylum, County Waterford, Ireland. (National Library of Ireland/Flickr Commons)

Within Irish society, the early twentieth century was just such a period, as traditional “normality” was disrupted by violence, women’s employment and political engagement outside the home, and the outbreak of war and revolution. Women filled critical roles before and during the 1916 Easter Rising, gathering and transmitting intelligence, and offering help as nurses and combatants.3

The subsequent independence movement relied on women’s intellectual, professional, and emotional support, and such work within female nationalist organizations offered women a chance to become politically active and, in some occasions, socially prominent. At the same time, the First World War had opened a number of economic advantages and comparative social freedom to women that many men found distressing and disruptive — particularly returning veterans and partisan fighters who felt their status in public threatened by the presence of women. For example, IRA Commissioner Kevin R. O’Sheil noted in a witness statement to the Irish Bureau of Military History that the most striking difference between life in pre-First World War Dublin and the post-war period was “the social and economic position of women.”4

A perusal of the case notes of Dublin’s lunatic asylums shows the way that male relatives attempted to control women who were trying to embrace the freedoms available to them, perhaps in an attempt to restore ‘normality’ to a world that was growing increasingly challenging to understand. Nora, for example, was admitted to the Richmond Asylum in 1916 by her brother because she was “moody. Did not care to go out. Declined walks” and suffered from hallucinations.5

A woman dressed in pants and smoking has her boot up on a chair while a man bends over a wash tub scrubbing clothes.
The new woman on wash day–satirical photograph ca 1897. (Strohmeyer & Wyman/Library of Congress)

According to the brother, Nora had been doing “a good deal of work, literary and organizing for Gaelic League, the United Irishwomen, and the Comogie Association [sic]. These have kept her much to herself, meditating and trying to work out schemes ‘for the betterment of Ireland’ as she would say.”6 Nora herself admitted that “she was nervous and overworked,” and attributed her symptoms to “over thinking”.7

However, she also noted that that work was “contrary to her brother’s wish,” and requested several times that the doctors “not to speak to her brother … Does not want him to interfere.”8 Though there is little evidence in the case notes to infer that her mental health improved as a result of her stay in the asylum, Nora’s constant requests to avoid her brother in the future makes one wonder whether it was really her work that was causing her so much mental distress.

The final note in her case file states that she “shows a reluctance to leave with her relatives and seems to think her brother would want her to do something she did not want to do. ‘I would rather have my own mind.’”9

Age does not seem to have protected women from the machinations of their family. Forty-four year old Bridget was incarcerated in 1917 by her two brothers, who alleged that she suffered from “delusions of exaltation,” because she had quit her job and insisted on living alone, and that she had threatened to jump through a window.10 Throughout the 23 month period that she was kept in the asylum, doctors tried and failed to discover any madness in her, noting that she was “quite lucid and answer intelligently. Expresses no delusions, nothing worrying her. Reported quiet. Eats and sleeps well.”11

A woman lies restrained in bed, apparently asleep.
Female patient with “sleep hysteria.” (Wellcome Library, London/Accession number L0040300)

When asked why she thought she had been brought to the asylum, Bridget answered that “it is a mystery to her why she was put here. She lived in lodgings and was her own keeper. Her brother was pressing her to go home with him. She would have gone through the window to escape his importunity.”12 She also noted that had she jumped through the window in question, “it was only a fall of four feet,” which neither of her brothers noted.13

Bridget worked diligently in the asylum laundry and remained lucid and responsive. However, she refused to explain why she had left her job as a housekeeper, or provide details about her quarrel with her brothers, and, as a result, she was kept in the asylum until her death from phthisis (a form of tuberculosis) in June 1919.

Bridget’s case shows how difficult it was for a woman to prove her recovery after she had been certified as insane. Doctors’ general refusal to trust the patient’s testimony meant that any deviation from “proper” behavior and deference could be construed as a new symptom of her madness, leading to a longer stay in the asylum. Updates on a patient’s case and welfare grow more and more sparse over time, and there are many occasions where no report was made on a patient for three or four months, making it even more difficult to understand how she was faring, personally, and psychologically, within the asylum.

Some women were successful in securing a prompt release — generally within eight months to a year. However, in cases where patients could not learn to act “cheerful,” or work quietly, the potential for release significantly diminished over time, especially if they did not have family advocating for them outside of the asylum. As one senior hospital medical officer noted, “life in the asylum” could cause patients “to become institutionalized and detached from reality,” their world having shrunk to the interior of the asylum.14 This process can be noted in the records by a patient’s emotional withdrawal, disinclination to converse with doctors, and inability, or unwillingness, to measure their time within the asylum.

At this point, doctors often noted that patients were “weak-minded,” further justifying their continued incarceration. The case notes of Katie, referenced above, who read cheap novels and enjoyed amusement, bears this out. Over the course of her stay in the asylum, she grew increasingly incoherent (according to doctors), and “troublesome.”15 When asked, she “says she is here about 24 yrs … Asked if she knows me, puts her head down on the table and laughs …. Babbles incoherently.”16 Though Katie was released from the asylum, doctors’ descriptions indicate that she left in a far worse physical and mental state than when she entered.

It is critically important to note that this situation, the medicalization of difference in women, was not one that was in any way limited to Ireland. The history of psychology and psychiatry is marked by the stigmatization of difference and clinical punishment for the violation of social norms.17 As a result, behavior that challenged social norms, moral scruples, or (white) male authority, could be construed as traits of an unhealthy mind. The significant social and political changes taking place in Ireland during this time, however, provide an excellent microcosm in which to study the ways that women’s independent behavior could be punished and pathologized, endangering not only their physical health, but the sanity that doctors and family were purporting to protect.

Notes

  1. Irish National Archives, Richmond Lunatic Asylum Case Notes. Because these case notes are still restricted, this patient’s name, and others quoted in this post, have been changed to protect the patient’s anonymity. Return to text.
  2. To this day, the number of women as journal editors and award recipients in the cognitive sciences remains woefully disproportionate to the number of women who have received doctoral degrees in the field. See Jyotsna Vaid and Lisa Geraci, “An Examination of Women’s Professional Visibility in Cognitive Psychology,” Feminism & Psychology, 26:3(2016), 292–319 Return to text.
  3. The Easter Rising was an insurrection led by Irish Nationalists who ostensibly attempt to overthrow British rule and establish an Irish Republic while the majority of the British Army was serving abroad. The actual Rebellion lasted from April 24-29, 1916, causing widespread destruction in and around Dublin, and causing injury and death to a large number of civilians, as well as soldiers. Return to text.
  4. BMH Witness Statement Ref #1770, Part II, Witness: Commissioner Kevin R. O’Sheil, 218 Return to text.
  5. Irish National Archives, Richmond Lunatic Asylum Case Notes. Return to text.
  6. Ibid. The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 to promote the Irish language. The Society of United Irishwomen, founded in 1911, educated housewives on home industries, efficient hygiene and housekeeping, healthy diets, and encouraged women to take an active role in public and intellectual life. Camogie is an Irish sport played by women that is almost identical to the game of hurling played by men. Return to text.
  7. Ibid. Return to text.
  8. Ibid. Return to text.
  9. Ibid. Return to text.
  10. Ibid. Return to text.
  11. Ibid. Return to text.
  12. Ibid. Return to text.
  13. Ibid. Return to text.
  14. London Metropolitan Archives, City of London Mental Hospital [Later Stone House Hospital]/Patient Records/Female Case Books, Letter inserted in record, dated 13th June 1980. Return to text.
  15. Irish National Archives, Richmond Lunatic Asylum Case Notes. Return to text.
  16. Ibid. Return to text.
  17. For more examples of this, I cannot recommend Jonathan Metzl’s The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010) more highly. Return to text.

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