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There is a dizzying rise in mental health problems amongst young women. This is a statement that I recently read by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, one I constantly hear used in order to prove that women are suffering due to the inequality within our society. Firstly, we don’t need any more proof – gender inequality within our society is a fact. Secondly, we certainly do not need it to be intrinsically linked to mental health problems to prove this fact.
Although I’m an avid reader of Penny’s blogs and agree with many of her arguments, this trend of connecting mental health problems exclusively to women is one that I find very worrying. The comments board of her blog disintegrated into a bizarre gender competition, each person brandishing their conflicting statistics to prove the suicide success rate of men vs women.
We must move beyond these simplistic gender wars; feminist discourse needs to recognise that patriarchal values – the adherence to traditional gender roles and sexuality – is damaging to both women and men. Discourse that refuses to acknowledge this tends to reinforce the very categorisation of gender and sexuality that it’s trying to overturn.
A history of madness & control
Historically madness has always been linked to women; hysteria, an out-dated term for a psychological disorder, originates from the Latin “hustera” meaning “womb” suggesting that the essential difference between a woman and a man, their reproductive anatomy, causes madness. Mental illness is presented as forming part of what it is to be a woman therefore ensuring that the threat of the label of madness is ever present.
Witch-hunts are often cited as evidence that throughout history patriarchal society has used demeaning categorisations to oppress women:
“[t]he witch has come to symbolize female oppression…both the witch and the mad woman have been portrayed as women who have dared to question, who attempt to rebel.” (Ussher, 39).
Physiologist Jane Ussher is recognised as a leading expert in women’s health, gender and sexuality. In her book Women’s Madness: Misogyny or Mental illness? she connects the witch and the mad woman, implying that the witch label of earlier centuries has been replaced by the label of madness in the twentieth-century: “the female malady replaced the curse of the witch” (Ussher, 61). This shows the way in which labels enable patriarchal society to force “rebellious” women to the periphery of society, thereby silencing them.
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Yet, Ussher’s discussion on witches overlooks the fact that historical accounts of witch-hunts are partial and biased. Also, in viewing witch-hunts exclusively in terms of patriarchy’s marginalization of rebellious women the oppression of men is ignored. Although Ussher briefly acknowledges that men were also labelled witches, she refuses to explore the possible reasons for this and thereby denies the fact that men also suffer due to patriarchy. By implying that witches are solely female, Ussher reinforces the very categorisation that patriarchal society used to oppress women.
She argues: “Psychology has developed as a singularly male enterprise…thus it is time to redress the balance…I shall focus on women, with no apology!” (Ussher, 10).
Ussher doesn’t recognise that by disregarding men’s mental disorders she creates the impression that madness, like her depiction of witches, is solely a female condition. In doing so, she fails to challenge patriarchy’s repressive categorisation of women. It is this that I object to – if we continue to categorise gender in this manner we will never overturn the patriarchal values that are so damaging within our society.
Instead Ussher uses reverse discourse, accepting that women are more likely to develop mental illnesses:
“Misogynistic practices…lead to madness itself because they create a culture of incarceration and oppression with which madness is the inevitable outcome for women” (Ussher, 20).
The connection between patriarchal oppression and women’s mental disorders is complex and it is far too simplistic to suggest that madness is an inevitable outcome for women suffering under patriarchal constraints or that only women are oppressed by patriarchy.
Since the 1970s there has been a growing recognition that men can also be oppressed by patriarchal values. Pauline Prior in Gender and Mental Health argues that the “health care structure [is] dominated by patriarchal values [that] define the problems of women as illness and those of men as deviance and therefore unrelated to health issues” (Prior, 47). This ensures that the traditional image of the “strong” man and “weak” woman is maintained.
Patriarchy oppresses individuals in a distinct manner in order to fortify patriarchal belief, in this instance the binary opposites that constitute masculinity and femininity. This means that often men are criminalized while women are labelled mad to ensure that patriarchy’s notion of gendered behaviour is not challenged: “whilst women are positioned within the psychiatric discourse, men are positioned within the criminal discourse” (Ussher, 10).
One of the difficulties in diagnosing mental disorders in men is due to the fact that strict notions of masculine identity ensure that “men’s own experience is left unconstruable because masculinity is based on repression” (Frosh, 73). Therefore, patriarchy’s insistence that individuals must conform to fixed notions of gender can be detrimental to the mental health of both men and women.
The criminal sexuality
The criminalization of male deviant behaviour is also evident in society’s attitude to homosexuality. The increased discourse on homosexuality, due to the increasingly prevalent and vocal sexologists in the 19th and 20th century, ensured that a “norm of sexual development was defined and all possible deviations were carefully described” (Foucault, 36). This desire to categorise sexuality can be seen as instigated by a post-war fear of population decline: “[it is] motivated by one basic concern: to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity…in short, to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative” (Foucault, 37).
The concern over homosexuality directly mirrors the fear of women’s changing role; after WW1 the government responded to the alarming population decline by actively encouraging women to return to their post-war domestic roles through a vigorous defence of conservative, family values – population growth is intrinsically linked to economic expansion and social stability.
This suggests that society viewed heterosexuality and traditional gender roles as intrinsic to social stability. Although Foucault questions whether this is the principal reason for the fear of homosexuality, it was a view seen expressed in society:
Sir Ernest Wild proclaimed that sex between women “saps the fundamental institutions of society, stops childbirth, produces neurasthenia and insanity and causes our race to decline.’’
This demonstrates society’s fear of population decline, whilst revealing that individuals’ challenge to patriarchy’s fixed notion of sexuality is construed differently depending on their gender; female homosexuality is linked to madness whereas male homosexuality is criminalized.
This is supported by the fact that it was not until 1967 that sex between men was made legal, yet sex between women was never regarded as criminal behaviour. Instead, it was considered an act of “degeneracy [and] loneliness [resulting in] suicide” (Ussher, Body Talk, 137). This once again ensures that patriarchy’s notion of gendered behaviour is not challenged.
The way our patriarchal society categorises sexuality became depressingly evident earlier this week in the statement William Hague made over his alleged relationship with his advisor Christopher Myers. Hague’s sexuality is of no interest to me, and has no consequence to this argument, yet his statement reveals that he is a victim of patriarchy and shows the traumatic lengths we will go to conform to these values. I find it devastating that any man would feel pressurised into giving intimate details of his and his wife’s miscarriages in order to prove they adhere to traditional family values and our socially-constructed ideas of sexual “norms”. This is a prime example of the damage that adherence to patriarchal values inflicts on both men and women.
Foucault, Michel. The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
Frosh, Stephen. ‘Screaming under the bridge: masculinity, rationality and psychotherapy.’ Body Talk: The Material and Discursive Regulation of Sexuality, Madness and Reproduction. Ed. Jane M. Ussher. London: Routledge, 1997. 70-85
Prior, Pauline M. Gender and Mental Health. Ed. Jo Campling. London: Macmillan Press, 1999.
Ussher, Jane. ‘Framing the sexual ‘Other’: the regulation of lesbian and gay sexuality.’ Body Talk: The Material and Discursive Regulation of Sexuality, Madness and Reproduction. Ed. Jane M. Ussher. London: Routeledge, 1997. 131-159
– Women’s Madness: Misogyny or Mental illness? London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.