Women and Madness Critical Essays

Phyllis Chesler


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Women and Madness is organized around the central observation of the numerical gender imbalance in psychiatry: Most patients are women, but psychotherapy is in the control of men. Chesler documents both sides of this imbalance with statistics and considers why the field is so slanted in this particular direction. One possible explanation that she considers is the “help-seeking nature of the female role.” Women, who are socialized to value connectedness and interdependence, may simply be more comfortable initiating relationships where they ask for and receive help and advice than are men, who are socialized to value independence, autonomy, and competitive victory. This greater comfort with “help-seeking” may manifest as a greater frequency of doctor visits.

Similarly, the parallels between psychiatric institutions and the nuclear family may make it easier for women than for men to switch from one to the other. Chesler suggests that the typical mental hospital is, dynamically speaking, a “family,” with doctor-daddies, nurse-mommies, and female patients who return to the role of the “biologically owned child.” In this role, the female patient is expected to be childlike in obedience and trust of her “elders.” She is also expected to be childlike in another way: virginal in regard to her own needs but sexually exploitable by her therapist. The female mental patient’s hospital role is congruent with her outside role (daughter and/or wife) in a way that...

(The entire section is 609 words.)