Form and Content
Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness is a feminist indictment of the male-dominated psycho-medical establishment. Chesler examines the gender-based power relations in psychology and psychiatry from many perspectives and uses many tools: statistical studies, transcripts of interviews, quotations from many sources, personal reminiscences, charts and graphs, illustrations, extensive (almost chatty) footnotes, tales from classical mythology, and free speculation. Throughout her investigation, she consistently finds that women have been oppressed by the power of male definitions of mental health and mental illness, of treatment and cure.
Chesler divides her book into two sections, “Madness” and “Women.” In the first section, she considers the role of “madness” in the lives of four famous female mental patients: Elizabeth Packard (1816-c.1890), Ellen West (c.1890-1926), Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948), and Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). In trying to live authentically—faithful to her own light in terms of religion, artistic creativity, or simple physical energy and adventurousness—each of these women ran afoul of gender-based societal expectations and consequently found herself in the power of men in the psychiatric industry. Once identified as “patients,” the women were then coached, coaxed, and coerced to mend their ways and return to the path of compliant wifedom. Chesler finds mental asylums, and most psychotherapy, to be...
(The entire section is 573 words.)