- Sex and Seclusion, Class and Custody: Perspectives on Gender and Class in the History of British and Irish Psychiatry
Eight of the eleven papers in this edited collection were originally presented in a seminar series at Oxford Brookes University supported by the Wellcome Trust. Three other papers—those by Melling, Michael, and Houston—were subsequently commissioned, in part to extend the volume's temporal and geographical coverage to include eighteenth-century Scotland and nineteenth-century Wales. The editors announce that their intention is to produce a volume that avoids an exclusively class- or gender-based approach to the history of psychiatry, and instead to display work that combines, compares, and contrasts these two approaches. By and large, the papers they have selected accomplish that objective, although they naturally vary in quality and scope.
Gender has been far the more popular area of scholarly research in the past two decades in the history of psychiatry, with class often addressed only in passing, if at all. Much of the impetus for this body of scholarship has derived from shifting emphases in the broader field of social history. Within the history of psychiatry, however, Elaine Showalter's bold claim that madness was the "female malady" did much to change what had previously been "a virtually woman-free zone" (p. 8), and to encourage scholars to pay attention to questions of gender. Showalter's work, to be sure, had a distinctly polemical edge and was largely deaf to considerations of social class. Almost immediately, her claim that female patients were confined [End Page 377] in Victorian bins out of all proportion to the sex ratio in the population at large came under fierce criticism, as did some of her broader claims about the "feminization" of madness. David Wright's contribution to this collection uses meticulous research into the records of the Buckinghamshire county asylum to document just how wide of the mark these early claims were: "the ratio of admissions, by gender, reflected the ratio of women and men in the community population" (p. 160); "gendered" diagnoses of mental disorder were largely absent; "women and men shared common types of delusions" (p. 153); and, more broadly, there is "no compelling evidence either to support the contention that new psychiatric classifications were used to herd women into psychiatric institutions, nor [sic] that the standard classifications of the time were used in gendered ways to differently classify women" (p. 165).
Very far afield from Victorian Buckinghamshire temporally, culturally, and geographically, Rab Houston's careful look at class, gender, and madness in eighteenth-century Scotland is equally uncompromising in its conclusions: "the cornerstone definition for eighteenth-century people was that insane behaviour was beyond the control of the sufferer" (p. 59); and in this setting, at least, "by almost all quantitative measures, males were more likely . . . to be classified as mentally disabled and to be institutionalised on that account" (p. 46).
Other contributors, while sometimes more gracious about Showalter's role as a pioneer, are no kinder to her central conclusions. That is not to say, however, that they dismiss the more subtle influence of gender. Instead, a series of chapters look at both male and female experiences, and emphasize that to the extent that gender mattered, it was often as refracted through the equally important lens of social class. Mark Jackson, for example, draws on his previously published research on the menace of the feeble-minded in Edwardian England to demonstrate compellingly how both factors were at work in the repressive responses of that age; and Lorraine Walsh exploits the records of the Dundee Royal Lunatic Asylum to stress the complexities of class and gender in determining the fate of patients in this particular asylum. (Walsh would do well to exercise more caution about generalizing her findings from a single Scottish asylum...