Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Committee Chair

Henke, Suzette Ann

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Allen, Annette

Committee Member

Allen, Annette

Committee Member

Theriot, Nancy

Committee Member

Hadley, Karen


Women--Mental health--England--History; Psychiatry--England--History


Since Elaine Showalter’s publication of The Female Malady in 1985, various scholars have addressed the association between women and mental illness in Victorian and Modern culture. However, little attention has been devoted to how this association impacted the lives of actual women. In this dissertation, I analyze how the gendered construction of mental illness affected the lives of individual women living in Victorian and Modern England and America. My study reveals that the cultural association between women and madness made women vulnerable to unwarranted institutionalization. Women who rebelled against social conventions were particularly at risk, and the public was aware of this risk. In addition to analyzing how the public responded to the threat of unnecessary incarceration, I also analyze how women responded to incarceration themselves. Moreover, I explore how some women who experienced mental illness responded to the treatment they received. I lay the foundation for the dissertation by exposing how the association between women and madness in Victorian and Modern England and America was both reflected in and perpetuated by theories and categories of mental illness and the visual art of the Pre-Raphaelites. I then illustrate how this gendered construction of madness hastened the institutionalization of rebellious women in America by examining nineteenth-century asylum narratives and the case of Mary Lincoln. British women were also vulnerable to institutionalization for the same reasons, as an inspection of the nineteenth-century lunacy panics and the literature that arose from those panics suggest. An analysis of The Women in White (1860) and Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) reveals that some people were alarmed by the institutionalization of women, while others interpreted it as a necessary means of social control. Finally, I consider how Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf, both of whom suffered from mental illness, responded to the treatment they received from doctors and the public. This study ultimately reveals that some women actively protested the diagnoses and treatments they received.