Women In 19th Century America

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Madness, insanity, lunacy, these words are more than clinical diagnoses. These words are in part, social constructions rooted in a specific place, at a specific point in time. In 19th century America, state insane asylums thrived. Not in terms of the environmental conditions of these institutions, but in terms of overcrowding and to the extent that individuals could be involuntarily committed. The purpose of this essay is not to expose the conditions of these institutions. Rather, the purpose is to understand how gender influenced the state institutionalization of women in 19th century America and how this influence generated a form of oppression.
Terms
In reframing the history of 19th century America, it is essential to define the term “insanity”
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“Ideal” women were expected to be gentle, refined, sensitive, loving, devoting, submissive, “nurturing, domestic, passive, affectionate and have intuitive morality… [While these ideal] social characteristics [seem arbitrary, they] were all assumed to have a deeply rooted biological basis. [According to science,] “the female nervous system was finer, more irritable [than the male nervous system] and is prone to overstimulation, resulting in exhaustion (Smith-Rosenberg, 1973, 334). Weaker intellectually and physically to the male counterpart, women in 19th century America were dependent on their fathers, brothers and husbands. While men were considered strong, assertive and independent, women were not “expected to achieve in any area considered important by men and thus highly valued by society” (Smith-Rosenberg, 1972, 656). The woman’s role was thus confined to the domestic sphere. The public sphere was no place for a woman. Consequently, during this period, women were constrained by their powerlessness. This powerlessness flows from the social norm of 19th century America. A social norm/divide constructed by white male patriarchy. This patriarchy “affected the conditions of the lives and actions [of women]” (Young, 2009, 56). Despite gender norms and the structure of society in the Victorian era, by “mid-nineteenth century, it was apparent that women – or at least some of them- were growing dissatisfied with traditional roles” (Smith-Rosenberg, 1973, 339). With the opening of state “insane” asylums, and in the midst of social change, the structure of society (in which men dominated) made women vulnerable to being labeled mentally
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