Women of the Asylum: The Unheard Voices of America's Madwomen

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Jeffrey Geller and Maxine Harris have amassed twenty-six first person accounts of women who were placed in mental institutions against their will, often by male family members for holding views or behaving in ways that deviated from the norms of their day. Taken as a whole, these pieces offer a fascinating and frightening portrait of life both behind and outside the asylum walls. Geller and Harris's accompanying history of both societal and psychiatric standards for women reveals that often even the prevailing conventions reinforced the perception that these women were "mad." Much has been written about the Victorian ideal of womanhood, the reform movements of the late nineteenth century, and the suffragettes of the early twentieth century, but still very little is known about those women who were pushed aside or hidden away. Women of the Asylum is the first book to give them the opportunity to speak for themselves.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A collaborative effort between psychiatrist Geller and Harris, a clinical psychologist, feminist, and author of Women and Madness (1972), this compilation of excerpts from 26 firsthand accounts written between 1840 and 1945 by women confined in asylums are a testament to human endurance. In the patriarchal society of 19th-and early 20th-century America, it was easy to get women out of the way by having them declared "insane." The women were confined against their will, betrayed, degraded and beaten, raped, starved, robbed, punished, force-fed, and treated as unpaid labor. These heroic accounts tell of their struggles to hold on to their sanity and dignity within a brutalizing system. The editors' introduction places the accounts within a historical context. In view of women's ongoing struggles with both the medical and psychiatric establishments, this is a timely and important book. Recommended for all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/94.]-Lesley Jorbin, Cleveland State Univ. Lib., Ohio
William Beatty
In four sections corresponding to consecutive chronological periods within their 105-year overall coverage, editors Geller and Harris present excerpts from 26 accounts of asylum stays of from six weeks to 28 years. They preface each section with an explanation of the role of women and the general state of psychiatry during the period covered. They note that throughout the time their book spans, the accepted causes of and treatments for psychiatric illnesses in women were different from the male equivalents. Indeed, although many women published accounts of their asylum stays before 1908, it took a man's account published that year, "A Mind That Found Itself", by Clifford Beers, to make a definite impression on the public. The 26 excerpts range from broad, altruistic views to detailed accounts of individual experiences. Some of the latter are appalling, for several of the women, obviously sane, were railroaded by husbands who had tired of them, by family or relatives who wanted their land or money, or by others with equally ulterior motives. Once freed, a few of the women devoted themselves to improving the lot of their imprisoned sisters.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385474221
  • Publisher: The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/1/1994
  • Pages: 384

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