In Part One of a two part article Jocelyn Crawley offers the reader a history and systemic analysis of the harms towards women. Part two will be published the following day.
When I first discovered how widespread acceptance of and/or compliance towards rape, pornography, pedophilia, prostitution, and sex trafficking are, I was enraged. I once viewed a documentary indicating that pimps systematically show little girls videos of women performing fellatio on men to “educate” them on how to provide this “service” to the males they are trafficked to. One thought I had while attempting to process what was transpiring was: this is crazy. In addition to drawing this conclusion, I was filled with unalloyed shock and deep ire. I then reconceptualized the prototypical way I interpreted reality (men and women coexist together in a state of relative peace marked by periodic hiccups, spats, “trouble in paradise,” etc.) and came to understand that patriarchy is the ruling religion of the planet with women being reduced to the subordinated class that men systematically subjugate and subject to a wide range of oppressions.
Part of patriarchy’s power is making its perverse rules and regulations for how reality should unfold appear normative and natural while categorizing anyone who challenges these perversions as insane. Insanity is defined as a state of consciousness confluent with mental illness, foolishness, or irrationality. According to patriarchal logic, any individual who attempts to question or quell its nefarious, necrotic systems and regimes is thinking and acting in an illogical manner. To express the same concept with new language to further elucidate this component of material reality under phallocracy: anyone who does not accept patriarchal logic is illogical or insane according to patriarchal logic. For this reason, it is not uncommon for women who challenge men who sexually harass or intimidate them into sex trafficking to be called insane. It is critically important for radical feminists to examine and explore this facet of the patriarchy in order to gain more knowledge about how phallocentrism works and what can and should be done to abrogate and annihilate it.
To fully understand the integral role that accusing women of being insane plays in normative patriarchal society, one should first consider the etymology of the word.
As noted in “Stop Telling Women They’re Crazy” by Amber Madison, the term hysteria entered cultural consciousness “when people didn’t want to pay attention to a woman” . When this happened, the woman was oftentimes taken to a medical facility and was subsequently diagnosed with hysteria. The phrase “hysteria” was an umbrella term meant to reference women who “caused trouble,” experienced irritability or nervousness, or didn’t reflect the level of interest in sexual activity deemed appropriate by men. The word hysteria is derived from the Greek term “hystera,” which means uterus. Thus the etymological history of the word informs us of the attempt to conflate the psychobiological experience of insanity with the material reality of being a biological female.
In recognizing the role that patriarchal societies play in attempting to establish confluence between insanity and the material reality of being a woman, it is important to note that individuals who take the time to carefully scrutinize patriarchy are cognizant of the male attempt to make mental instability a fundamentally female flaw. For example, Elaine Showalter has noted that the primary cultural stereotype of madness construed the condition as a female malady (Showalter, 1985, as cited in MacDonald, 1986). As noted by Julianna Little in her thesis “Frailty, thy name is woman: Depictions of Female Madness,”
“The most significant of cultural constructions that shape our view of madness is gender. Madness has been perceived for centuries metaphorically and symbolically as a feminine illness and continues to be gendered into the twenty-first century” (5).
In the twenty-first century, individuals who have wished to challenge the notion that the thoughts and emotions experienced by women are automatically and inevitably signs of insanity utilize the term “gaslighting” to refer to this insidious mindfuckery.
The history of men accusing women of being insane in response to accusations of sexual abuse is well-documented.
One significant case which should be a part of public consciousness is that of Alice Christiana Abbott. Abbott poisoned her stepfather in 1867 and, upon being questioned, stated that he had had an “improper connection” with her since she was thirteen. After informing others of this, the majority believed that “something was the matter with her head.” However, there was nothing wrong with her head. In fact, I argue that she operated according to a rightness of mind which recognized sexual assault as fundamentally wrong. Abbott’s stepfather threatened to have her put in reform school if she spoke of the abuse, and this was the assertion that prompted her to act. When her case took place in the Suffolk County Grand Jury, Abbott was committed to the Taunton Lunatic Asylum (Carlisle, “What Made Lizzie Borden Kill?”) That the sentence for challenging a man who sexually abuses a woman incorporates classifying her as insane indicates the patriarchy’s ongoing attempt to construe its malevolent, depraved rules and regulations (which include normalizing and in some cases valorizing the sexual abuse of women) as natural and appropriate.
(The historical reality of men accusing women of being insane and utilizing the assertion to severely limit their life choices and thereby sustain patriarchy is not limited to issues of sexual abuse. In fact, men have appropriated the accusation of female insanity against women who committed any acts which challenged their power. This fact becomes plain when one considers the case of Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard. Packard married Theophilus Packard and experienced ideological disparities with him pertaining to religious philosophy. Specifically, Packard began demonstrating interest in the spiritual ideologies of perfectionism and spiritualism (Hartog, 79).
Perfectionism is a thought system advocating the notion that individuals could become sin-free through will power and conversion. Packard also assented to the notion of spiritualism, with this religious movement promoting the idea that the souls or spirits of dead individuals continued to exist and were also capable of communicating with living people. Theophilus Packard maintained conservative religious views that stood in diametric opposition to the aforementioned ideologies, with his own perspective including the notion of innate human depravity. After Elizabeth Packard began openly questioning his ideas and exploring her own, their ideological dissonance led to his accusation that she was insane. The accusation was officially made in 1860 and Packard decided to have his wife committed. Elizabeth Packard learned of his decision on June 18, 1860. It’s important to note that the patriarchal nature of this scenario is not limited to the interactions and ideological disparities existing between Elizabeth Packard and Theophilus Packard as two individuals. In fact, state law revealed its own patriarchal proclivity for privileging male interpretations of reality for the purpose of disempowering and dehumanizing women. This is the case as when, in 1851, the state of Illinois opened its first hospital for those who were allegedly mentally ill, the legislature passed a law which enabled husbands to have their wives committed without their consent or a public hearing.)
To be continued . . .
Jocelyn Crawley is a radical feminist who resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Her intense antagonism towards all forms of social injustice-including white supremacy-grows with each passing day. Her primary goal for 2020 is to connect with other radicals for the purpose of building community and organizing against oppression.
Carlisle, Marcia R. “What Made Lizzie Borden Kill?” https://www.americanheritage.com/what-made-lizzie-borden-kill#2. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
Hendrik Hartog, Mrs. Packard on Dependency, 1 Yale J.L. & Human. (1989). Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol1/iss1/6.
Human Rights Watch. Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Rape Survivors.https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/05/19/booted/lack-recourse-wrongfully-discharged-us-military-rape-survivors#. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021
Macdonald, Michael. “Women and Madness in Tudor and Stuart England.” Social Research, vol. 53, no. 2, 1986, pp. 261–281. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40970416. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
Madison, Amber. “Stop Telling Women They’re Crazy.” https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2014/09/75146/stop-women-crazy-emotions-gender. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
Marcotte, Amanda. ““Price of calling women crazy: Military women who speak out about sexual assault are being branded with “personality disorder” and let go.” https://www.salon.com/2016/05/20/price_of_calling_women_crazy_military_women_who_speak_out_about_sexual_assault_are_being_branded_with_personality_disorder_and_let_go/. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Pantheon, 1985). quoted in Macdonald, Michael. “Women and Madness in Tudor and Stuart England.” Social Research, vol. 53, no. 2, 1986, pp. 261–281. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40970416. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
Wright, Jennifer. “Women Aren’t Crazy.” https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a14504503/women-arent-crazy/. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.