The Writing Madwoman – Challenges for 19th Century Women Writers

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0



“Like the minority writer, the female writer exists within an inescapable condition of identity which distances her from the mainstream of the culture and forces her either to stress her separation from the masculine literary tradition or to pursue her resemblance to it”.

Lynn Sukenick (In: Miller 1985, 356)

Could madness have been a means of ‘liberation’ for 19th century female writers? Goodman et al (1996, 110) raise this legitimate question while leaving open the question of whether or not the writer herself is considered mad or if she is writing about madness. No matter which approach one chooses, the question remains why women of this century should apply such drastic methods at all. Why would madness be considered a means of liberation for female writers?

In this paper I will explore the reasons why 19th

century women may more likely have become mad than men in the same time period. I will discuss the issue of mad female writers as well as the appearance of madness in their texts, and finally focus on strategies that female writers applied in order to be heard (or read) in a male dominated literary environment.


During the mid-19th century a kind of a fascination about lunacy appeared among English psychiatrists and physicians (SHOWALTER 2007, 24ff). Famous English psychiatrists were almost proud of the high number of mad people in England and their modern lunatic asylums. But the reasons why so many men and especially women were sent to those asylums are tragic when considered from today’s The Writing Madwoman - Challenges for 19th Century Women Writers perspective: “Moral insanity” was one of them, meaning a “deviance from socially accepted behavior” (SHOWALTER 2007, 29). Such behavior could have meant for women: the refusal to marry, the request to work in a male dominated career, masturbation or any other form of ‘non-feminine’ acts or longings. But who decided which behavior could be declared as ‘socially accepted’? In the male dominated society of 19th century England, men made those decisions.

Still we find that until the 1850s mad men outnumbered mad women by about 30 percent in England and Wales. But already by 1872 the situation had drastically changed: 31,822 out of 58,640 lunatics were women (SHOWALTER 2007, 52). What had caused this drastic change of numbers? A great impact on the increasing number of female madness was the idea by male doctors that the menstrual cycle in a woman’s life made her the victim of madness. The beginning of the menstruation during puberty, pregnancy, lactation and menopause were considered to be triggers for madness. Therefore it seemed to be a wonder that “any woman could hope for a lifetime of sanity” (SHOWALTER 2007, 56). Social circumstances played a role in this scenario as can be seen in the case of puberty insanity: with the beginning of their menstruation young girls were confronted with their “different and more limited existence” (SHOWALTER 2007, 57) in comparison to their brothers or other boys. Showalter (2007, 57) concludes:

Simply to manage the hygiene of menstruation (…) created a sense of anxiety and shame. (…) While their brothers went away to school, most middle-class girls were educated at home, their social life outside the home restricted to a few safe contacts with other girls (…). No wonder that, as one Victorian doctor observed, “puberty, which gives man the knowledge of The Writing Madwoman - Challenges for 19th Century Women Writers greater power, gives the woman the conviction of her dependence”.

Interestingly none of the practicing physicians or psychiatrists connected the emotional breakdowns or fits of rage by young women to the social circumstances and repressions. This is significant when considering that all these figures were men. Even though changes took place in cultural fashion, psychiatric theory, and public policy, none could transform the imbalance of gender and power which kept madness a female malady (SHOWALTER 2007, 19). Only when considering the few female voices that were recorded in these days do we find a different perspective on the triggers of female madness: “the lack of meaningful work, hope, or companionship” (SHOWALTER 2007, 61). Almost every woman who lived during the 19th century was literally and figuratively imprisoned: literally in her father’s or husband’s house and figuratively in male texts (GILBERT; GUBAR 2000, 83) and a male dominated society. The life of the author Florence Nightingale gives a lively reflection of what life might have looked like in those days:

Unable to defy her family’s wishes, and confined to the domestic routines of her home, Nightingale channeled all her immense energy , thwarted ambition, anger, and despair into a vast literary project (…) [describing] a society in which both mothers and daughters were confined in “the prison which is called a family”.

(Showalter 2007, 63)

Anxieties about space and the imagery of enclosures are often found in women’s writings of the 19th century. Gilbert and Gubar (2000, 85) believe such dramatizations of imprisonment and escape to be unique to the literary The Writing Madwoman - Challenges for 19th Century Women Writers tradition in this period. However the expectations about the correct forms of femininity and domesticity were made clear by the male patriarchy and writing or exercising any other kind of art was not acceptable. But does this mean that female writers were actually mad themselves? The following chapter shall address this question.

3. Madness and Female Writers

Was Florence Nightingale considered to be mad because of the “explicit angry feminism” (SHOWALTER 2007, 66) that she presented in her book ‘Cassandra’ or because of her act of writing in general? And why did she become mad? Was it because of her struggle in the domestic role at home that she was forced into or because of the fact that she had to modify, subdue and mute the messages of her book because they were “too revealing, too forceful, or too ‘crazy’” (SHOWALTER 2007, 66)? Why was it women authors in particular who became mad? Could they be considered an especially suppressed species?

Madness Of The Female Writer

Joanna Russ summarizes in her book “How to Suppress Women’s Writing” different forms of “informal prohibitions” (RUSS 1994, 6) employed by the patriarchal society which might have lead to madness among female writers. In her text we find such prohibitions as the “denial of agency” (Russ 1994, 20ff), meaning that a woman either could not have written a text by herself. Either a man did it for her, the book “wrote itself” (e.g. is a product of the male ideas surrounding the writing woman and she was just the means to bring it to paper) or the man inside the writing woman wrote it. If these prohibitions did not work one could also apply the “pollution of agency” (Russ 1994, 25) by saying that a woman might have written a certain text - maybe even a really outstanding piece - but she should not have.


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The Writing Madwoman – Challenges for 19th Century Women Writers
University of Education Heidelberg
Gender and Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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literature, gender, gender issues, female author, Literatur, Geschlechter, weibliche Autoren
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Jessica Schlepphege (Author), 2009, The Writing Madwoman – Challenges for 19th Century Women Writers , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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